A Purpose Unveiled
When Elisa arrived in Singapore for her performance, the memories that the place evoked were bitter-sweet. She had wonderful memories from her childhood visits to the bustling city but Singapore unfortunately also reminded her of Savithri’s sadness at her estrangement from her only son. Savithri had suffered deeply towards the end of her life. Still angry with Natarajan and his family for this, Elisa chose to keep such a tight schedule for her two-day visit that she would not have even thought about him and his family if not for a chance meeting with Raghuraman during one of her performances.
“Won’t you be visiting us?” he asked Elisa hesitantly. Her first impulse was to rudely say, “No, I have better things to do” but she stopped herself and mechanically responded instead, “Well, I really don’t think I will have the time. How is everyone at home?” “Everyone is fine. Dad is getting on, as you might have guessed,” he said throwing her a glance that suggested, “forgive and please visit him.” Refusing to acknowledge the look, Elisa stubbornly maintained an aloof demeanor. It wasn’t just the memory of the neglect that Savithri had suffered, that made Elisa dislike Natarajan. Rumors about his disparaging remarks about her divorce and life afterwards had also reached her ears through well-meaning relatives. “This is what happens when you come from a family that is dubious in character. What can you expect of the granddaughter of a woman who eloped with another man while being married to someone else?” Natarajan and his wife were supposed to have said, referring to Mary, who had been dead for almost five years.
Natarajan was obviously voicing what Rangan might have expressed many years ago and Prithvi was simply using the same to her advantage. Elisa had recoiled when she had heard this. She knew that there had been some mystery about her grandparents but it had made her flesh crawl to hear them talked about in such a derogatory way. They had been good people who had done their best to be of use to those around them. George had been well known for his charitable nature and Mary had always been involved in some sort of volunteer work. In fact, she had died from an infection that she had caught at a church camp for the destitute and the abandoned. Raghuraman looked at his cousin expectantly, hoping she would change her mind but Elisa changed the subject. “How have you been? And, how are your wife and child?” she asked him somewhat coolly. She had heard of his disappearance and then subsequent marriage to a girl from India. ”Your parents had no clue where you were and what you were up to for a whole year but they have accepted you and treat you like you’re the best thing that happened to them. And yet they speak censoriously of everyone else, without even knowing the truth,” she thought to herself contemptuously.
But try as she did, it was difficult to dislike Raghu. He was a very likable sort of fellow with his kind eyes and ready smile, although he did come across as somewhat irresolute. He was always conciliatory and never had a mean thing to say about anyone, very unlike his father. “They’re fine,” he said in a manner that seemed to suggest a certain distance. “They’re focused on their lives and moving along pretty well.” Elisa thought it was an odd thing to say about one’s own wife and child. She couldn’t help smiling broadly. “What do you mean they’re focused on their life and moving along. You are moving along with them, right?” she laughed cheerfully. “Hm…,” he responded with a half-smile before looking away. Somehow he appeared very alone and lost to Elisa at that moment. She reached out and touched his arm, her dark brown eyes smiling gently, “If it is not too late, maybe we can have some coffee or something somewhere,” she said. Raghu looked a little uncertain and she quickly said, “Like I said, if it is too late...” before he cut in emphatically, “No, it isn’t. Let’s go.” Coffee with Raghu stretched for a good three hours. Elisa looked around her in Orchard Road at 1 am in the morning, buzzing with people and traffic. “Doesn’t this place ever go to sleep?” she asked stirring her second cup of coffee. “Well, I guess not. But I don’t really know because I am hardly ever out this late,” smiled Raghu. Elisa looked at him curiously as he drank his black tea.
There seemed to be an unspoken sadness that lightly drifted in and out of his voice, his person and his eyes, like a feather that caressed you as it floated around gently. “Can I ask you something?” began Elisa slowly. Raghu matched her gaze steadily. “I know what you’re going to ask me. Where I was for a year before I came back, right?” he said calmly. Elisa did not reply. She simply continued to gaze at him, with an eyebrow raised. Raghu had always thought of Elisa as incredibly attractive both physically and as a person. Her honesty and resultant candor were almost brazen but quite refreshing. He admired and even envied her. He did not have her courage. Raghu looked away from her and stared into his cup of now cold and uninspiring tea. “I guess I needed to find myself,” he said quietly, slightly embarrassed that he sounded trite even to himself. A small smile lingered at the corner of Elisa’s lips. She thought back of their years as teenagers and was not surprised by his response. Raghu was a sensitive, nice person but he was nice to a fault at times. He rarely had an opinion on anything. He used his dislike for people who held strong views as an excuse for his own inability to have any views at all.
As a teenager, he had caused his father a great deal of worry with his escapades with dope and drink. Easily influenced by those around him, he had often got into trouble in school and with the law because of his friends, and of course, the indulgence that Prithvi had granted him. Savithri had expressed her sadness many a time to Lalitha and Dharmishton about her grandson, who seemed to show little promise. If not for Rangan’s intervention, her fears would have probably come true. “So, did you find the truth?” asked Elisa doing her best to keep a straight face. “Get off your high horse and stop judging me,” shot back Raghu, suddenly angry. “If I can be sympathetic about what must have happened in your life, why can’t you be a little empathetic at least? I always loved your courage, but I have also always hated the way you sit on a higher moral ground and decide what is right and wrong,” he continued quietly, the calm in his voice barely masking the irritation that flashed in his eyes.
Shamed by his outburst, Elisa apologized. “I am sorry, I was out of line. I guess I could not quite understand this thing about you wanting to find yourself. It isn’t something I could relate to,” she said, reddening. “You wouldn’t understand. You had both your parents doting on you. I lost my mother when I had not even begun to know her. My step-mother cared but there was always something false in the way she cared for me. She would give me everything I wanted but I always felt it was more with the intention of ruining me than making me happy. Which mother would give her son money to buy cigarettes when he was all of thirteen years old?” he asked looking at Elisa straight in the eye. Elisa was visibly shocked. She had heard only wonderful things about how Prithvi had taken care of Raghu. “She just had no clue about how to deal with a teenager who simply yearned for someone to be affectionate with him. She thought giving me everything I wanted, including money to destroy myself, was the best way. And, then I had an ogre for a father. He would whip me with a belt if I got bad grades. I could never talk to him about anything because he only yelled. And your much loved Savithri Patti was always running off to be with you and your family. Do you know how envious I was of you, to have her all to yourself all the time when she was actually my grandmother?” he continued, the mounting resentment reflected in the increasing volume of his voice.
Elisa stared at him, speechless. She had never imagined that so much contempt and anger was buried in Raghu, sitting before her as a grown man, whose nervous smiles and darting dark eyes reflected a vaguely nebulous personality. She could feel tears clouding her eyes. She wanted to somehow make up for the sadness that he felt. She felt responsible for taking away his grandmother. “Raghu, I never imagined that you would have felt so badly about Savithri Patti staying with us…” she began. “ Well, there is nothing you could have done. There is no way you could have known. Neither my father nor my mother ever saw the need to welcome her back into our home. I don’t blame her really for not staying with us, but she could have thought of me,” said Raghu, his conciliatory nature quickly masking his anger. “This is a good man,” thought Elisa to herself. “How could I have not known all these years?” “So what did you do… in India…right? Where did you go?” she asked, cautiously going back to her original question.
Raghu studied his fingernails silently for a moment before responding, “I was sort of wandering around just looking… met some interesting people, lived a life that I didn’t even imagine I could, and finally landed in an ashram in Pune,” he said looking up from his nails. “And …you were in this ashram the whole time you were gone?” persisted Elisa. Raghu merely nodded. “So did it help? Did you find what you were looking for?” asked Elisa, and quickly added, “seriously” when Raghu shot her a look that suggested that he thought she may be making fun of him. He laughed a dry, empty laugh and shook his head. “I don’t know if the truth is what I found but I did find a woman I won’t forget,” he said softly. Elisa looked at him curiously but said nothing. “She was a very special girl,” said Raghu staring into his cup. “Very different… just special. But I guess I was a disappointment to her,” he declared.
Elisa watched him silently, waiting for him to say more. “She knew me and trusted me…” he trailed off looking at the passers-by. “Did you just abandon her?’ asked Elisa finally. “Yup, that’s the only thing I could do. I didn’t have the courage to go back with her to the US,” he said. “So she was American?” asked Elisa. “Hm.., very much so,” replied Raghu with a little laugh. “She wanted to go back to California because she was disillusioned with what she saw and found in the ashram. I just couldn’t go with her and abandon my family altogether. So, I left her and came back here,” said Raghu simply. Elisa frowned slightly. The compassion that she had felt for him was gradually being displaced by mild irritation. He was weak and irresolute, she knew but she now thought of him as unfeeling as well. “I thought you said she was special. She could not have been that special for you to just leave her because you didn’t want to go back with her to California,” said Elisa, the irritation giving her voice a slightly steely edge. “Well, I was young then, afraid of my dad and your grandfather and totally not sure of what I was going to do with my life. You know how my dad and Tata are so particular about the caste thing, they didn’t even accept you. I just could not stand up to them. In any case, it wasn’t like I just walked out and never kept in touch. She knew where to find me, I made sure of that.” Elisa’s frown deepened. So the man expected this woman that he had abandoned, to come in search of him so that he would not be the one to make the decision. “And, did she?” asked Elisa, her contempt creeping through her voice. Raghu laughed a little before he said, “Well obviously not. I guess she decided she didn’t want me after all. It was just as well. Now I feel the differences would have been too great to bridge.” Elisa’s patience had dried up and that there was nothing more to say. She pulled at her bag that was lying on the chair next to him, making it clear that she wanted to leave. “But she was still very special,” said Raghuraman with the same dreamy look in his eyes, the look that was really beginning to get on Elisa’s nerves.
“I still carry a picture of her,” he continued pulling out his wallet. Elisa now looked visibly annoyed. “You dumped this woman and you carry her picture around for years. You’re really kind of odd,” she literally snapped rudely. She had begun to remember why they had lost touch growing up. She had found him unbelievably confused. “What so odd about that? I said she was special and that I really liked her,” replied Raghuraman sounding hurt and holding out a fading picture of a Caucasian woman Elisa looked sharply at Raghuraman and took the picture of a small, pretty, young, white woman with long dark hair. “Could not have been more than five feet,” thought Elisa to herself staring at the picture. As she continued to gaze at the picture, her irritation slowly disappeared because she began to recognize something about the face. The face was pretty girlish but there was something peculiarly familiar about it.
Elisa thoughtfully handed the picture to Raghuraman without saying anything. She thought she had seen the face somewhere but she couldn’t quite say. She mumbled something about having to return to Kuala Lumpur early the next day and took leave of Raghuraman, nodding vaguely when he asked to stay in touch. Her thoughts were completely elsewhere. Elisa could not stop thinking about the face in the photograph. It reminded her of someone she had seen in the past, but try as she did, she could not put her finger on it. Meena was waiting up for her when she returned to the hotel room, dying for news about Natarajan. Elisa gave her the gist of her conversation with Raghuraman but kept the bit about his Caucasian girlfriend to herself. She just did not feel like talking about it although it would not have mattered if she had told Meena. Since few people outside the family could understand Meena’s sounds and signs, she rarely spoke with anyone other than Elisa and Lalitha. The face haunted her almost all night. Then at about 3 in the morning, Elisa awoke all of a sudden. “Grace Raman,” she said loudly, startling Meena awake. Both of them sat up in the darkness and Meena immediately started fussing over Elisa, thinking she had had a nightmare.
Elisa quickly reassured Meena that she was okay and coaxed her into going back to sleep but she herself lay awake. “That was Grace Raman, Blue’s mom,” she said to herself, repeatedly in disbelief. “Now it makes sense. Raman is short for Raghuraman?” she asked herself, completely stunned. “And, Blue? Who is Blue? Is she Raghuraman’s daughter, my niece?” she whispered to herself in the dark. Meena stirred and Elisa fell silent. She thought of Blue and the strange, ambivalent bond she had shared with the girl. She thought about the time cops had come to school and had led Blue away in handcuffs for breaking into a terrible fight with a classmate and scratching her face till it bled. Elisa had broken down in tears when she had seen Blue getting into the car with the cops in handcuffs. After Blue had come back several weeks later on probation, the other kids had been shocked by the fact that she had remained silent when Elisa had given her a terrible dressing down. When the kids had teased her about it, Blue had maintained a stony silence. At the end of the day, Blue had come up to Elisa and had said to her, “I would not have taken that from anyone else,” almost like a warning. “Why did she take it?” thought Elisa to herself. “Did she sense something too?” Elisa didn’t get back to sleep that night and she did not return to Kuala Lumpur the next morning.
“I have to see Raghuraman again. I have to ask him if he had fathered a child. I have to know. I can’t let that child just languish on the streets if she is his daughter,” she told herself determinedly. She told Meena that she had to stay back another day because she had a meeting with someone at the Singapore Indian Fine Arts. She didn’t tell Meena that she was going to meet Raghuraman again. She gave Meena some money and asked her to go shopping in Little India, while she went to meet Raghuraman in his shop. She knew if she went early enough, she could avoid running into Natarajan who only came in later in the morning. “I have to speak with you today, soon, “she said, her sense of urgency clearly reflected in the demanding tone of her voice. Raghuraman looked at her puzzled by her tone and the seriousness of her expression. “Is something wrong? I can’t leave the shop. There is no one around…,” he tried to explain in vain. “I need to see you. Find a way to meet me at the Delifrance in the basement of Centerpoint at 10. I will wait for you,” she said. The warning note in her voice was difficult to ignore and Raghuraman, who had always been slightly nervous of Elisa’s intensity did not even try to argue. He was obviously miffed at being bullied at this age but he agreed. He nodded and said,” Okay, okay. I will be there. Why do you always behave like the world will come to an end if you don’t get your way?” he asked indignantly and quickly fell silent when she glared at him. “I will see you there then,” Elisa declared and left.
“Did you have a child with that woman?” Elisa hissed at an astonished Raghuraman as he was about to sit. He stopped in midair, staring at Elisa with his mouth slightly open. Elisa’s dark eyes were flashing and she looked like she would hit him if he tried to lie or hide the truth. A very silent but flushed Raghuraman sat down slowly and took a gulp of the piping hot coffee that he had placed on the table just seconds before she had fired her question at him. He continued to stare at the woman who sat opposite him, his mouth opening and closing very gently like a fish gasping for breath. His mind was a jumble of words that he felt he should speak but couldn’t quite string together into coherent sentences. Beads of sweat broke out on his brow and upper lip despite the air-conditioning. The confusion that he was feeling was making him slightly queasy. “Answer me! Did you father a child with that woman?” repeated Elisa tightly.
Finally, Raghuraman responded weakly, “What makes you ask me that?” “The fact that you are not saying no makes me think that you did and that you are trying to hide it,” whispered Elisa angrily. Raghuraman frowned, perplexed. “I didn’t admit to your accusation. So, how can you assume that I did what you are accusing me of?” he protested, desperation creeping into his voice. He was stammering a little and he usually did that when he felt cornered. “Come on, Raghu. I’ve known you all my life. I can tell that you are hiding the truth. Did you have a child with Grace?” Elisa persevered, her face a stony mask. Raghuraman sat back, completely astonished. “I did not tell you her name. How do you know her name? Nobody even knows of her existence, leave alone her name. How did you find out in one night?” he asked softly. “I have met this woman,” was Elisa’s quiet response.
She was looking at him directly in the eye, into his soul. There was no escape for him now. Raghuraman sat back in his chair and gazed at Elisa a little aloof like he was looking at his life and the path that he had taken from afar. He had come back home as soon as he had found out that Grace was pregnant and that she had intended to keep the child. He had not even told her that he was leaving. He had simply left the ashram in the middle of the night while she had slept, without as much as a note. She had been special, so special that he had even married her in a simple Vedic ceremony, but his family would not have accepted her. It was as simple as that. He had never intended to abandon his family. He had married Grace on an impulse. He still remembered that day when they had sworn to each other that they would forever remain together. They had been so young, he, barely into his twenties while she, just eighteen or nineteen. He had certainly not intended for her to get pregnant. He had not even intended to get so involved. He could not explain his actions. Surely youth is allowed some follies. “Maybe I did not love her as much as I thought,” he said throwing up hands, exasperated, tired and at a loss. “I am not going to explain myself, anymore. It all happened so long ago.” Elisa was exhausted. She was tired just watching Raghuraman trying to defend himself.
“How do you know her, anyway? Where have you met her?” he asked. In his anxiety to defend himself, he had not bothered to ask this of Elisa immediately. Elisa eyed him tiredly and sighed, “In California,” she said looking away. There was a sigh of relief from Raghuraman. Elisa shot him a look from which he shrank. “I am sorry. I thought you had met her here or in KL or something. How did you meet her?” It was obvious that he had stopped feeling the heat and was more relaxed, almost nonchalant. “She is the mother of an ex-student of mine. The girl, your daughter, I think, Madison Blue, was my student,” said Elisa in an even tone. Raghuraman was silent, just for about three seconds before he asked, sounding almost exasperated, “How can you be sure she is my daughter?” “Her last name is Raman. She looks half-Indian and her mother, Grace, your ex-girlfriend, has told my colleague that Blue is half-Indian. And she is just about the right age, about seventeen or eighteen now. So unless you are suggesting that your ex-girlfriend was sleeping with other men in that ashram at the same time that she was sleeping with you, right under your nose, just to save yourself, common sense suggests that she is your daughter,” replied Elisa, all in one breath.
Raghuraman avoided Elisa’s glowering eyes. “Look, all this happened so long ago. Grace never came in search of me. She could have because I had given her my address here and …well…she knew how to get in touch with me. She didn’t. She must have felt better off without me. I have a family now. I am not crazy about my wife but she is my wife and I have no intentions of hurting her. Please, Elisa, leave it alone. You taught this girl…who is supposed to be my daughter, she was alright, right? So what‘s the problem now? I am all the way here. There is nothing I can do to help her or make her life better. Besides, she would not be able to relate to me,” said Raghuraman, his confidence increasing as his belief in his reason mounted. “I am leaving now. There is no one at the shop and Appa will look for me. Please, Elisa, leave it alone,” he continued, pushing his chair back and standing up resolutely. Elisa stared at the man in disbelief as he threw her one more pained look before walking away from their table. She continued to sit at the table in Delifrance for a full half an hour after Raghuraman had left, just stirring her cold cup of coffee. Although she had always been impatient with Raghu for his waffling manner and inability to take a stand, she had never really disliked him until now. She had never realized that under that irresoluteness, lay a deep-rooted self-centeredness and selfishness that drove him to always live the way he wanted to, regardless of whom he hurt.
He had walked away from the family when he had felt that he wanted to, without thinking about how his father, Savithri and Rangan would have worried themselves to near death wondering about his whereabouts. He had returned when he had felt he was ready, expecting his family to accept him right back without an explanation. Now she discovered that he had used a woman and then walked away from her and his child when he had felt that they did not fit into his plan for himself, completely disregarding the fact that the child he had helped bring into the world was somewhere living almost on the streets. Her thoughts turned to Blue. She tried to picture the girl with her slightly tanned complexion, her uniquely pretty face, her dark hair and her blue, brilliantly blue eyes.
Elisa felt she had to do something, something that suddenly gave her an overwhelming sense of purpose. She had to go back to the US immediately. Rushing back to the hotel she found that Meena had already returned and packed their things. She was waiting for Elisa, who had forgotten that she had mentioned in the morning that they would be definitely leaving in the afternoon. Elisa hurriedly explained that she had been held up at her meeting and hustled a slightly confused Meena out of their room. Meena could not understand what the hurry was since their train back to Kuala Lumpur was at 3 in the afternoon and it was only noon. It made Elisa feel like she had already started to save Blue from a lifetime on the streets by just arriving at the train station earlier than necessary. “We can eat something at the station,” was Elisa’s response to Meena’s questioning look.
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