A Family Visit for A Daughter-In-Law
It was about daybreak when Venkateshan, Mangalam, and Savithri set out for Chandrashekarapuram. The day was swiftly becoming hot and a little dry. The harvest season was almost over and the fields spread wide and golden, burnished by an unrelenting sun. Soon the farmers would be charring the fields and plowing the ash into the land to prepare it for planting again. There was much to look forward to in this season. Onam was just around the corner and there was a general festive feel in the air. After that came Bharani, a boisterous celebration of the Bhagavathi. Although the upper castes stayed away from this festival because they saw the singing of vulgar songs about the Kali as blasphemous, they could not stop a growing feeling of enthusiasm within themselves.
People walked with a little spring in their feet and even Seshadhari, who was given to bad temper and fiery outbursts with his workers and family members, was in a better mood. The harvest had been particularly good this year and a good harvest always made him feel better about life and people. Mangalam had suggested that it was Savithri’s entry into the home that had brought the good luck and Seshadhari did not disagree as he would have at other times. He began to see Savithri in a little better light and that was also part of the reason he had agreed to let her visit her mother. Perhaps the girl had brought some good luck into the family.
By the time Savithri arrived in Chandrashekarapuram, it was late at night but Meenakshi, Rangan, and Subbhu were up and waiting because Mangalam had sent word that they would be coming. Meenakshi was overjoyed to see her daughter but Savithri was shocked to see what was left of her mother. The distance and the amount of time that she had spent away from home made her see her as she really was, a remnant of a person. In all the time that she had stayed with her mother in her uncle’s home, she had never realized that her mother was sickly or that she was barely surviving. Her boney physique, sunken cheeks and eyes made Savithri realize that her mother was a very unwell woman struggling to stay alive. A sudden desperation and fear gripped Savithri at the sight of her mother and she fell into her arms weeping. Meenakshi hugged her daughter as tightly as she could with her weak, skinny arms.
The sight of her daughter would be enough to sustain her for a few more months. She had not thought that she would see Savithri again. Her esteem for her daughter’s in-laws rose in Meenakshi’s eyes as they had actually sent Savithri to see her family before her departure to Malaya. She never again doubted that she had done the right thing in marrying Savithri to a man much older than her. In fact, seconds before she died six or seven months after Savithri’s visit, the image of her daughter smiling and happy in a good marriage would bring a smile to her wasted face and pique the curiosity of her brother and son who were with her.
Savithri spent her days in Chandrashekarapuram mostly with her mother in the kitchen or in the back room where her brother, Rangan joined them. The wedding of her cousin Annam, one of Subbhu’s daughters, was a humble affair. The bridegroom, a small, thin young man, was the son of a small-time farmer from the village, which was just next to Chandrashekarapuram. He didn’t seem to have much education or personality and was very quiet for the most part, unlike his family that seemed to be very loud, domineering and demanding. They let it be known that they were the family of the bridegroom, and constantly made trivial demands that sent Seetha and Subbhu dashing around the house to fulfill. Annam the bride just sat like a statue, uninvolved in the marriage.
Seetha, on the other hand, was very excited and bustled about ensuring that things went on smoothly. Extremely happy that Savithri and members of her in-laws’ family were present, she was keen to show them off to her neighbors and her new in-laws. Savithri, after all, owed her good life to her and her goodwill. It did irk Seetha somewhat that her own daughters now looked really poor in comparison to Savithri who glowed with the wealth of her in-laws. It was quite clear to everyone present that Savithri had married very well and those who had pitied her during her marriage looked at her anew with respect and admiration. She was no longer Savithri whose mother was so poor that she only had two sets of faded clothes that she wore to school every day. Sometimes her clothes would be slightly damp because her mother would have washed them the day before and they would not be properly dry. The Savithri who stood before them now was quite clearly the daughter-in-law of a very wealthy family.
Seetha fussed over Savithri in a way nobody would have imagined. She would not let her do anything and clearly wanted her to be right in the front where everyone could see her. She went around telling all her neighbors and all the guests at the wedding that her “other daughter” had come home and that she was so thankful to Savithri’s in-laws for sending her. Otherwise, she said the wedding would have been incomplete. Annam who was the bride, looked on in a detached manner as her mother fussed over her cousin more than she fussed over her, the bride, and Ponna.
Both the sisters had not expected to ever see their poor cousin who lived in the dusty room at the back of their house in a better situation than their own. Ponna looked at Annam’s bridegroom and felt a shiver run down her spine. He was not what she had expected for her sister and her mother had made them believe that they would marry well. But this man was with nothing like she had imagined and she was sure her sister would not have dreamed that the man she would marry would be a small, gaunt-looking man who did not have much education or much of a job. But given their age and their father’s inability to give a huge dowry, this was all the match that their mother could muster.
Seetha’s discontentment with the match that she could find for her daughter was in contrast to what Meenakshi felt about her own daughter’s match. Every time Meenakshi looked at Savithri, she felt a gentle sense of fulfillment. Rangan had very slowly begun to understand his mother’s point of view but it was still not and perhaps would never be something that he could wholeheartedly accept. He was happy that Savithri lived well and was married into a wealthy family but every time he thought of his white-haired brother-in-law, he still felt a stab in his heart. Rangan stole quick looks at his still child-like sister who was fast blossoming into a beautiful woman. He simply could not rid himself of the hollow feeling that one felt when looking at something really valuable that was tarnished or damaged in some way.
The days rolled by quickly and Savithri’s stay with her mother and brother came to an end. Somewhere within her, Meenakshi knew that she would not see her daughter again as she was also aware that her illness was tightening its grip around her every day. She was getting weaker every day and moving about was becoming almost impossible. She couldn’t work anymore and Seetha let her know almost on a daily basis that she was lucky she had a son-in-law who was paying for everything, or else she would have had to find another place to live for herself and her son.
Seetha no longer minced her words. Her frustration at her own lot and her inability to find suitable matches for her daughters made her angry all the time. She was painfully aware that neighbors and relatives sniggered at the husband that she had managed to find for her Annam. She was aware that the more outspoken relatives were saying things like, “What goes around comes around. She tormented that poor Meenakshi and her children so much and got Savithri married to an old man. Now, that sin has come back to haunt her in the form of a third rate son-in-law. She should know that someone is watching our actions all the time from above.” The person who suffered most was her husband whom she felt was not worthy of a smattering of respect since he could do nothing to improve matters. Meenakshi was often too weak and ill to listen to her loud lamentations but Rangan was painfully aware that they were not wanted, and that he had to find a way to take his mother away from his uncle’s house.
In all of this, Subbhu watched with despair as his sister slowly but surely slipped away from him. The feeling that he had let his parents down was excruciating as there was nothing that he could do to stem his sister’s illness from worsening. He had taken her to several doctors but he had taken her too late and they all said the same thing, “The illness did not really have a cure especially when it was treated at such an advanced stage.” This was what he told Rangan and Savithri when they asked him about their mother’s illness after her death. Many years later, Savithri would tell her son and niece that their grandmother had died of sadness caused by their grandfather’s death. And, perhaps this was not entirely untrue. Rangan would often find his mother speaking in a soft voice to his dead father as she lay with her eyes closed, feverish, and almost completely unable to move in the last few days of her life.
For Subbhu, what was worse was that Meenakshi’s pain seemed to be prolonged. He winced every time he heard his wife complaining to Kamala that her sister-in-law was taking her time to die despite the seeming severity of her illness, often within the earshot of the semi-conscious woman. “It’s amazing how people cling on to their lives even when they can’t walk around. One should not be so attached to the world and its pleasures,” she would say shaking her head self-righteously. “I want to go just like that,” she would say snapping her fingers. Her friend Kamala would agree smugly. Privately, Subbhu tearfully prayed that his sister’s suffering would come to an end even if in death.
Savithri stood weeping with her head resting on her mother’s wasted shoulders. She felt a fear that she could not explain but her youthful optimism did not allow her to accept that her mother’s end was near. Meenakshi could barely speak but she persisted in reassuring her daughter about herself and helping her pack. She had Rangan bring down an old box from one of the shelves. It contained some of her saris that were long forgotten because of her widowed state. She had him rummage around beneath these saris and he found what she wanted, the anklets that had once belonged to their grandmother Neela. The silver had lost its shine and some of the stones were missing but its exquisite beauty remained. Meenakshi had never really spoken about their grandmother but the children knew a little bit about her through their uncle and Seetha. Nobody actually talked about what happened to Neela but the children knew that there was some sort of a story about her. Meenakshi would never reveal everything to them when they asked her.
She gave the anklets to her daughter. “I have nothing else to give you child, just these. They belonged to your grandmother. Keep them with you always,” she said, almost in a whisper. Savithri held the anklets in her hands and looked at them closely. “Was Neela Patti a good dancer,” she asked, her curiosity piqued. “I don’t know child. I have never seen her. But I have heard that she was very interested in the arts,” responded Meenakshi slowly. Savithri smiled a little thinking about her own interest in the arts and her lessons with Venkateshan in singing. “I think I am like her,” she said smiling. Meenakshi glanced at her daughter and closed her eyes. “You are luckier, child,” she said. She was getting very tired and had to lie down. She watched her daughter gather up her things and get ready to leave.
“I am leaving Amma,” whispered Savithri to her mother who was dozing. She didn’t want to cry as she didn’t want to distress her mother further. Meenakshi didn’t have the energy to say anything. She just held her daughter’s hand and stroked her head with her eyes still closed. Savithri felt tears streaming down her face as she hugged her mother. Rangan was accompanying his sister to her village and their uncle was also going with them. Mangalam and Venkateshan had very kindly invited them to come and stay in their home, and be with Savithri till she left for Malaya. Subbhu would accompany both of them to Savithri’s in-laws’ village and then return while Rangan would stay with his sister till she left.
Seetha burst into tears as Savithri was about to leave. Her distress seemed to be quite genuine. “You won’t forget this aunt will you, child?” she cried. Savithri hugged her aunt. “I will write as often as I can, Mami,” she said. “Ponna has to get married. If you find a good groom there in Malaya, take your sister with you,” continued her aunt. Ponna looked on sulking. “I won’t go to Malaya,” she grumbled. “Nobody is waiting to welcome you there with all the pomp and fuss reserved for a princess. Who even knows if you will ever marry? You are not exactly beautiful or even young,” snapped Seetha glaring at her daughter.
Ponna stared resentfully at the ground as her mother fussed over her cousin.
Most of her friends were married and some even had children. She was often teased by her friends for still being unmarried. Some even told her that she should marry Meenakshi’s son Rangan as her parents would not be able to find anyone else for her. Ponna shuddered at the thought of Rangan as he was her destitute aunt’s son and he would always remain that way. Surely she would find a better husband. Many years later, Ponna would write a tearful letter to Rangan thanking him for the financial help that he gave her on a monthly basis. If not for Rangan, her situation would have been very similar to that of Meenakshi, maybe even worse as she had no kindly brother to offer her shelter.
The day Savithri left Chandrashekarapuram was the last time she ever saw that village. After going to Malaya she returned to India to stay for a year but she did not go to Chandrashekarapuram, as by that time everyone who mattered to her had died or moved away. Her aunt Seetha had spent her final years with Annam’s husband, taking care of her daughter’s two children since Annam had died while giving birth to her second child. Annam’s husband had married again and his new wife had refused to raise Annam’s sons. So Seetha had been given a room behind the main house, to live with the two children till her death. Annam’s two teenaged children had then somehow managed to find their way to Singapore where they had contacted Rangan, who had helped them find jobs.
After Savithri’s return to her in-laws’ home, time simply flew, and all too soon the day for her departure to Malaya dawned. Rangan and his uncle would accompany Savithri, Mangalam, and Venkateshan to the port in Madras. Swamy had arranged for Savithri to travel with a trusted Malayalee friend and his wife. This was the same friend who had helped him find a job in Malaya when he had first arrived there. Savithri would be traveling with them on board the Rajullah, which was bound for Malaya, and it would take the ship about two to three weeks to reach Port Swettenham in Malaya where Swamy would be waiting for her. Savithri had four boxes full of clothes, utensils, food and other things that she would need to set up a home.
Savithri had stopped sleeping at night for about a week, and throughout the day she was extremely quiet. The fear of traveling on a ship alone to an unknown place and the fear of beginning a life with a stranger were all just unbearable. She had nightmares when she did try to get some sleep. But she also knew that there was little that she could do and in a strange way that helplessness gave her the strength to move towards her destiny. She went about packing and putting her things together with detachment like she was doing it for someone else. Although almost everyone had a going away gift for her, she was particularly touched by her father-in-law’s gift of money. “It is always good to have some money with you. You never know when you will need it. You are a married woman now, so you need to be responsible. Be careful with your belongings,” he had said not unkindly. “Ask my son to write to me some time. Remind him that his father is still alive,” he continued, making Savithri feel a bit of pity for him for the first time. All this while, the only thing she had felt when he was in the room was dread. Every time he entered the room she would pray that he would leave soon, and leave without noticing her. Now, she looked at the old man with the detachment that she felt for everything around her and he didn’t frighten her anymore. He was just an old man whom she would probably not see again.
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