A Husband At Shore
As the ship slowly approached Penang, which was the first stop, there was a general sense of relief and jubilance. Many passengers disembarked, and among them were the Chettiar and his wife and Mary and George. She felt sorry enough about Mary’s departure but she felt almost empty when she saw Nagammal gathering up her things. She had grown so close to the woman that she felt like she was leaving family again. Refusing, however, to cry, she stood by silently as Nagammal gathered her things and made ready to disembark. “Don’t worry, Savithri, I will see you again,” said Nagammal sensing Savithri’s sadness. “Somewhere, somehow our lives will come together again. I just know that. You will see for yourself what I mean.” At that point, Savithri appreciated Nagammal’s words as mere words of comfort. She smiled wanly in response. Little did she know that the older woman was right and that they would meet again and share a bond that would last a lifetime.
It was another day before the ship finally docked at Port Swettenham, and Savithri got to see Swamy. She did not recognize him at all because she didn’t remember him. If he had not stepped forward she would never have thought that the man who stepped up to help her with her luggage was the man with whom she was to spend the rest of her life. He was obviously much older than her. He was not very tall, slightly stocky, and quite swarthy in complexion. The main thing that struck Savithri was that her husband looked a lot like his father. Strangely, this was perhaps the reason why she could eventually have kind thoughts about her father-in-law because her husband was a good man with a kind heart despite the fact that he resembled his father. She realized this very quickly, and so it was not difficult for her to grow to love the man in spite of his age and his physical appearance.
Swamy and Madhavan led the women out of the port, and into waiting horse carts that were to take them to the train station. In all that time between arriving at Port Swettenham and traveling to the train station, Swamy hardly said anything to Savithri other than to ask her how her journey had been. Savithri could not bring herself to say anything because she was still trying to reconcile her image of Swamy with the reality. She had not imagined him to look so much older than herself, and so she found it hard to relate to him. But she knew she had to respect him, and her nature and nurture helped her do this. Swamy earned Savithri’s initial respect simply by being her husband.
The train journey to Seremban from where they would have to take a car to Mantin Hills, which was where Swamy and Madhavan worked, was uneventful. The men talked to each other about the journey and then work. Omannakutty, Madhavan’s wife who had already been in Malaya for about three years, and was a little older than Savithri, kept up a conversation with her about life in the estates. As the train slowly chugged towards Seremban, Savithri soaked in the sights of what was to be her home for many years to come. The thick forests, the jewel green paddy fields that stretched out like huge carpets just like they did in Kerala, the strange looking people with oriental eyes, and the unfamiliar tongues that she heard around her made her suddenly yearn for her little village. It would take Malaya some years to convince Savithri that she could feel just as at home among its friendly people, its verdant lands and tropical forests.
Mantin Hills, where Savithri would live for a while, was largely a dense tropical jungle. It was a place that could send shivers down the spine of someone born and raised in Malaya, leave alone a girl of fifteen from a placid village in Kerala. People rarely stepped out of their homes after dark for fear of running into a tiger, and it was not uncommon to have the strong pungent odor of the big cat prowling in the dark wafting in through an open window. One had to be cautious when stepping out even in the daytime because there was always the danger of stepping on a cobra. It was quite common for estate workers to die from snake bites.
When the train finally arrived at the Seremban station, Swamy hired a car to take them from the train station to the estate in Mantin Hills. As dusk rapidly gathered, the big hired Fiat with its tarpaulin top slowly made its way up the hills, and into the estate where Swamy was a clerk. The Malay driver of the car kept up a steady stream of conversation in the local language with Madhavan and Swamy as the car slowly wound its way up the hills. He slowed down each time a large group of workers, mostly Indian, returning from their day in the estates, crossed the road. The workers would look into the car and grin and wave when they saw the men and stare curiously at the women. They dropped off Madhavan and his wife before proceeding to Swamy’s estate. When the car finally reached Swamy’s house it was almost completely dark. It was a large house that stood on stilts. There were no other houses right next to it although it was obvious that there were other homes not too far away as Savithri could see dots of light in the darkness. Savithri looked curiously at what was to be her home for the next two or three years and where she would begin her journey as a woman and wife.
Swamy unloaded her luggage and led the way up the stairs. It was obvious that he too was nervous because he was not used to having someone live with him leave alone a girl who was his wife, and who had come to live with him for always. When he had first told Madhavan how old she was, he had expected Madhavan to laugh at him. But Madhavan had merely nodded because it didn’t seem very odd to him since his own wife was fifteen years younger. “We can’t help it. We are away for so long that by the time we go back, the girls closer to our age are all married with grown children. Anyway, we are doing them a service in some ways. Omanna is also from a very poor family. She is better off here with me than she would have been in India.”
Swamy looked at Madhavan unconvinced. “I still feel she is very young. But you are right, her family is very poor. They would probably have not been able to marry her to anyone because her mother is a widow living with her brother”, he said. “But you know, Swamy, I did not tell Omanna how old I was. I also did not tell her that I was a conductor in the estate. I told her people that I was the manager and they believed me,” Madhavan laughingly interjected. Swamy smiled wryly at Nair. “You would do something like that, Madhava. And what did Omanna say when she came here and found out?” “Well, she did not know the difference for a long time. Now it does not make a difference to her because she has everything she wants. Her family still does not know.” Swamy smiled. Madhavan Nair was a nice fellow and extremely helpful but he was a survivor and sometimes he resorted to dubious methods to get what he wanted. Omana had everything she wanted even if it didn’t quite fit into Madhavan’s estate conductor’s salary.
Many years later, he would run into trouble with the law for collecting large sums of money from several people to build a temple somewhere in the north of Malaya. The temple never came to be because he had had no plans to have it built in the first place. Nair’s intention was to collect the funds and return to India and settle somewhere in Kerala as a rich man. Unfortunately for him, he was found out before he left for India, and would have faced a long jail sentence if not for the fact that Swamy jumped in to save his half-brother. Swamy cared about Nair. He helped him because Nair was his father’s son and as much as he disapproved of his father he did not want to have his half-brother jailed. Despite this run-in with the law, Nair still managed to make a tidy sum doing this and that, and eventually move back to Kerala to live a comfortable life in Swamy’s native village of Kodungallur.
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