For the first time in several months, Bhaskaracharya smiled. It had been several weeks since he had slept. Having assumed the onerous task of reviving the astronomical observatory of Ujjain, under the royal decree of the Paramaras, he had worked endlessly.
A personal endeavour had forced him to take a month-long break from his designated task. Locked in his study room, Bhaskaracharya was absorbed in his world of formulae, calculations, and a multitude of devices. Sutra Yantra, the device he had dedicated himself to building, was finally ready.
It consisted of a huge vessel filled with water. Inside it was placed a pot – weighed with precision, and a well-calibrated hole at the bottom – for the water to trickle in. The neck of the pot was tied with a string to a bell hanging on the top. As the water filled in, it would sink the pot a little lower, pull the string, and cause the bell to ring. When the first bell rings, its movement would induce water seepage into the next pot and so on. Such five setups with varying sizes of pots and perforations were done and placed in an exact arrangement.
It was all done in accordance with the planetary positions and movements derived from his daughter Lilavati’s horoscope. After a methodical study, he had deduced the most auspicious moment for her marriage. If that moment were to be missed, her marriage would end in widowhood. Bhaskaracharya shuddered to think any further.
Lilavati – she was beautiful, sensitive, sharp, and the most intelligent of his offspring. She was only fifteen, but who could say! The questions she asked and the curiosity she displayed! She understood every formula, simple or complicated, with ease. One day she would even beat me. Ujjain’s mathematical society would be at her feet, but…. She was born a woman! She has more important worldly duties to discharge. For the umpteenth time, Bhaskaracharya cursed her luck on account of her gender. I will do everything possible for her happiness and change her destiny, even if I must confront fate.
Bhaskaracharya, the most remarkable mathematician of his time and an indisputable expert in astronomy. How could he not take control of his own life, and that of Lilavati? That fate was beyond the reach of every mathematical theory and experiment he failed to fathom at that moment. Neither was he aware that an unknown device – somewhere, in his proximity – could upset the elaborate calculations of the immense Sutra Yantra.
“Have you seen what father has come up with?” Lilavati asked with excitement. Her eyes shone like ocean pearls; her lustrous hair danced unbridled on her face.
“What is it?” asked Devayani, who was a couple of years older than Lilavati. An innocent face and a radiant smile made her look younger than her age.
Lilavati did not make many friends. But Devayani was her brother Lokasamudra’s muse with whom she got acquainted easily. Devayani visited her regularly. They attended music and dance classes together and soon became inseparable.
“Come, I’ll show you,” Lilavati dragged her by her arms and took her inside.
The Sutra Yantra that occupied half of the central hall was completely covered with a thin white cloth.
“Remember the secret I had told you – about my future as predicted by father?”
“Please don’t talk about it, Lila.” Devayani was troubled.
“Do not worry, my dear Devi. Father is a genius,” said Lilavati. “He has found a solution to the problem. Look at this huge magical Yantra! Vishwajit will be safe.” She blushed as she whispered his name.
Devayani smiled too.
“Do you think I should tell him about the ominous prediction and father’s plan?”
“My dear Lila, you know Vishwajit! He does not believe in Mathematics or Astronomy. So, neither the prediction nor the solution will interest him.”
Lilavati’s face clouded with disappointment. She quickly recovered and changed the topic.
“One of the days, I want to study this Yantra from up-close. But father will be enraged. I have strict orders not to touch it. But there is always a chance, isn’t there?”
Just then, Lokasamudra walked in. The moment he looked at Lila, his expression changed into that of disapproval. Fetching a tumbler to drink water, he said, “Why are you dawdling around here? Go, help mother.”
“Why? Are you scared I will excel in mathematics if I am kept away from kitchen chores?” Lila laughed. Lokasamudra prepared to retort but was held back by Devayani’s pleading looks asking him to restrain his impatience.
Lilavati continued to tease. “Brother dear, if I were a man, I would be the one to head the astronomical observatory under construction. It will come to you, as per tradition, only by virtue of being a man and not by merit.”
Lokasamudra gestured to throw the water tumbler at her, but she was swift as a deer. She giggled and ran outside.
Devi comforted him, saying, “She is only teasing you. Everyone knows that you deserve it, Loki.”
“Her marriage would be good riddance,” he said in annoyance. “The sooner, the better. I hope this Yantra works as expected.”
“How is that girl doing?” The hooded figure seated on the platform asked. The raspy voice hissed and echoed through the large, poorly lit hall. It was an underground cellar of a temple. A stone platform was fixed at the centre around which a large gathering of hooded figures assembled one after the other; the babble of voices steadily increasing.
“Fabulous so far, Commander. She has been cracking all sorts of problems with ease.”
The hooded figure looked pleased.
“The other day, one of my spies heard her from up above a tree in their garden. She stumped her father with a mathematical problem, and he looked stupefied!”
The hooded figure smiled, which was an uncommon sight.
“How is her brother doing?”
“Not bad either. But no match to her, I hear.”
“Keep an eye on her.”
The figure moved on to address the others in the room who bowed in deference.
“Look, what I have found in the garden, Devi!” Lilavati screamed as soon as she saw Devayani at the door.
Devayani rushed forward to peer into Lilavati’s hands that held a strange rectangular object, seemingly made of shining metal, radiating light on its surface. It was so small that it could fit into one’s palm! Devayani was wonderstruck, for she had never seen anything like this before.
“What is this thing?” She exclaimed.
“Don’t be so scared, my darling,” Lilavati teased her with a mischievous grin, “I have played enough with it, and it is not dangerous.”
“Pray, what is it?”
“A magical object. Look, it has various designs arranged in an order and pressing each of them opens something, which I cannot comprehend,” giggled Lilavati. “And touching this button takes you back to designs.” Her amusement knew no bounds.
“Where did this come from?” inquired a nonplussed Devayani, but Lilavati was so enchanted by it that she did not respond.
Lilavati touched a red rectangular design with a white arrow symbol at the center. Nothing happened at first. She tapped on the object’s surface randomly. The people inside the object moved and talked! She dropped the object in a jiffy. This was a little too much, even for her naughty inquisitive self.
She gathered courage and once again picked up the magical object. People moving inside an object?! Could they hear her talking? Could they answer her?
She tried talking to them. No response.
Would they fall off the object? She shook it. Nothing happened.
The people wore different costumes, sang, and spoke in a different language. With apprehension, she got herself to touch the moving people. The moment she touched, they stopped. She touched again; they started again. The girls were flabbergasted.
“You better hand it over to your father, Lila,” Devayani pleaded.
“Don’t you see? It is a magical toy!” Suddenly, the people inside the object stopped again. Lilavati carefully retraced her previous actions and touched another design in the list. The next one played. She played some more. This was fun!
“They speak Sanskrit!” They shouted in a frenzy when they discovered something that came closest to their understanding. It was a children’s tale, filled with people singing and dancing; there was an animal too! The girls enjoyed it thoroughly, even though the accent, emotion, and intonation were distinct.
Lilavati set a few more people in motion.
“The story of Lilavati,” a male voice inside the object announced.
“Did you hear that? It’s my name!” At the mention of her namesake, Lila exclaimed, and both girls tittered.
What followed next, left them startled.
“Lilavati, the daughter of Bhaskaracharya, was destined to widowhood. To avoid this fate, Bhaskaracharya predicted an auspicious moment for her wedding. To announce the right time, he set up a complicated device called Sutra Yantra.
But her curiosity came in the way of his meticulous plan. As she went up to the device, a pearl from her necklace fell into the pot and upset its arrangement. The propitious moment passed, leaving Lilavati a widow soon after the wedding. Bhaskaracharya consoled his aggrieved daughter by teaching her more and more mathematics. The girl was a natural. Legend has it she wrote the treatise named Lilavati, the book that would inspire generations of mathematicians to carve a niche for themselves in the world of arithmetic for the next seven hundred years until the British changed the education system in India.”
Lilavati couldn’t believe what she heard! She immediately shut off the object. Was this a fortune-telling machine? Was this her future? Was the object reliable?
A strange premonition overtook her. Her body trembled with anxiety, almost making her feel dizzy. Devayani held her by her arms to soothe her nerves.
A week before the date of marriage, Bhaskaracharya counseled Vishwajit over a meal at their home. “Exactly when you hear the third bell ring, you must tie the mangalsutra, Vishwajit. Then the second knot at the fourth bell and the last one at the fifth and final bell. Keep in mind; this is the most important aspect of this wedding. We cannot afford to go wrong here.”
Lilavati noticed a smirk on Vishwajit’s face. She knew he was a firm, rational atheist. Will he follow these orders? Will the marriage take place at the time fixed by her father? Will the Sutra Yantra work well? She turned and looked at the enormous setting. Now her curiosity was swept away by fear.
A fear induced by the newly found object that had narrated the story of Lilavati! The word widowhood still echoed painfully in her ears.
Would she indeed be responsible for the death of this innocent man? She wondered ruefully, then fortified herself with sudden resolve. “There must be a reason why the object fell into my hands, and I am going to fulfill that destiny. Our future is always in our hands, and I will change it.”
She pressed the object, hoping to see more people talk. But nothing happened. It had turned blank mysteriously.
The day arrived when Lilavati sat before the fire with her hands placed in Vishwajit’s hands as the priest chanted divine hymns to bless the couple. He looked handsome, she thought and smiled to herself. The venue was bustling with many guests milling around in excitement. The Paramara kings were expected to arrive soon.
As the moment neared, Lilavati grew nervous with anticipation. Devayani kept her close company to comfort her. The first bell rang. The priests raised their chanting to a higher pitch. The second bell rang. Vishwajit was nudged to hold the mangalsutra in his hands.
Many seconds passed, but the third bell was not to be heard. Everyone waited with bated breath. Bhaskaracharya’s face twitched in anxiety. Lilavati was on the verge of having a panic attack when the bell rang, and Vishwajit tied his first knot. Soon after the fourth and fifth bells rang, and the ceremonies were concluded.
But, Lilavati knew her father was not as happy as expected. Something was bothering him.
Bhaskaracharya rushed to his study room, immediately after the guests left. He had a deep instinct that something had gone wrong. Did those bells ring right at the expected time? He pulled out his notes and calculated all over again. No, there was nothing wrong.
He hurried to examine the Yantra. He walked past each bell, examined each pot and each string that tied them together.
The third bell.
There was a pearl obstructing the hole of the third pot! A shiny tiny devil! It had slowed down the flow of water into it! He was now sure that they missed the auspicious moment.
As he held the pearl in his hand, he immediately identified it as Lilavati’s. He had gifted her the pearl necklace six months ago upon solving a complicated problem that had until then remained unsolved at the mathematical society of Ujjain. Now the reward of her excellence was instrumental in tearing down her life. Bhaskaracharya collapsed as he visualized his daughter’s future destroyed right in front of his eyes!
“It feels as if I killed this man!” She sobbed as she crumpled into the ground.
“Rise, my child, you are a warrior. You have fulfilled a destiny that was meant to be.” The hooded figure said in a comforting voice.
“But… she is a friend, and now a widow! Even as I planted the pearl, a part of me hoped everything was a lie – mathematics, astronomy, the prediction, and the cursed magical object. But NO! It is all true, and Lila is devastated, your highness.” Devayani continued to sob.
“Out of suffering comes greatness, my child. Do not forget that you are a part of the Yogini cult. That man Vishwajit, what with the amount of ignorance he displayed, he would have never seen her for what she is. Yours was a noble act – to tell us about the fortune spoken by the magical object. When the design was already laid out so neatly, we only had to make our small, easy move.”
The hooded figure rose and continued in a high-pitched voice that sounded like a prophecy.
“Our duty is towards the empowerment of women. Does anyone see our worth beyond our beauty and domesticity? We are endowed with intelligence. Every talented woman in Ujjain is under the watch of the Yogini cult. We will rewrite their future, even if it means a momentary heartbreak like this. Lilavati will go on to become the renowned mathematician of our times. And we take utmost pride in it. Now child, go end it with that brother of hers. He has served his purpose. You will find a better man in this land, who can respect women. If not, you might as well stay a spinster.”
This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.
Team: Left to Write
Prompt: A modern invention from the 21st century gets transported to the 12th century. What happens next? Explore.
This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.
Cover photo by Satria Aditya
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