An Island Of Hope
In Singapore, Rangan had fared a little better than Swamy during the war. He had already put aside quite a bit of money and so his family could afford to continue a lifestyle that was not too beneath the one that they had enjoyed. The only difference was that they had thrown their home open to several families that they were acquainted with for a nominal rent. These families had been displaced because of the war and so had to resort to renting rooms in the homes of luckier friends or acquaintances or friends of friends and relatives. All of the rooms in Rangan’s two houses were rented to different people, some of whom became lifelong friends even after they survived the war years and moved on to better lives.
Although he knew that they were safe, Rangan worried incessantly about his sister and her family. He wanted everyone together so that they could help each other. “Move here and I will help you start your business again, once all of this is over,” he wrote to his brother-in-law, who wanted to move but preferred to wait for a while before he actually made the move. “We will be together and that way we can get over this faster. It looks like the British are coming back. We will be okay soon.”
Swamy’s hesitation was due to fear, a bit of a strong ego and a sense of responsibility. He was afraid of starting afresh in a new place and a little bit reluctant to rely on Rangan, who was much younger and much more successful than he was. He had always been happy about Rangan’s success and wished him well as his brother-in-law. But Swamy was a proud man, satisfied with his own achievements. So having to start anew and worse, having to be dependent on his brother-in-law even for a short while until he could support himself and his family, was not something he relished.
One other thing that he worried about was his brother Venkateshan. “I just don’t feel confident leaving the women with him. What if he goes back to his old ways?” he thought to himself. He preferred to take his brother with him wherever he went, as he did not quite trust him with money and responsibility. Swamy’s main concern was his sister-in-law Mangalam and Jayalakshmi, the Chettiar’s daughter. He still felt a sense of obligation to the Chettiar. He wanted to ensure that he could watch over Jayalakshmi at least until she was old enough to take care of herself. So making the move was more difficult because he was not sure if he could succeed in starting again with all his different responsibilities. More than anything, he really felt the energy draining, slowly but surely.
He shared very little of these thoughts and emotions with his wife, preferring instead to just tell her that they should move quickly to where Rangan lived. “It is better for us all to be together just in case…” Savithri was puzzled by her husband’s sudden anxiety. It was clear to Savithri that her husband was shaken by his near-death experience but she was puzzled by the change in him. Swamy, who had always been sure of himself and composed in the face of challenges, was of late more cautious and always talking about how she had to be independent and be ready to fend for herself. “You need to learn how to take care of yourself. Don’t always depend on me,” he reproached when she asked him to open a bottle top that was screwed on too tightly or buy something on the way home or do something that he felt she had to learn to do for herself. When she looked at him hurt, he would smile in a placatory manner and say, “I didn’t mean any harm. I just want you to be able to take care of yourself.” Unlike Swamy, to whom the vast difference in their ages seemed to be magnified as the years went by, to Savithri it seemed like the disparity diminished as one year melted into the other. The thought of a life where Swamy did not exist was not something that even crossed her mind.
Hence, Swamy could not share his fears, his acute awareness of his advancing years and the reality that he would probably pass on long before his wife. He just worried about their future privately. He decided that he really wanted his wife to be close to her brother so that she would have someone to take care of her when he was no more. Finally, after much deliberation, sometime in late 1944, Swamy decided that they should make the move to Singapore, lock, stock, and barrel in a large, hissing, steam-powered Oldsmobile, with Venkateshan, Mangalam and Jayalakshmi in tow.
The decision was made easier by the fact that Venkateshan and Mangalam had decided that they wanted to move to Madras to ensure that Jayalakshmi got a proper education in music. Swamy decided to give Mangalam power of attorney in all financial matters pertaining to the well-being of Jayalakshmi, as soon as they reached Singapore. He could see that she was now not the Mangalam of old and that she would effectively stand up to her husband maybe even throw him out if her daughter’s future was at stake.
“I will write every week and you too do the same. We must remain as close as we have always been,” Savithri said to Mary, her aunt and dearest friend, who hugged her tightly with tears in her eyes just before she left Penang. The bond that she now shared with Savithri had more than made up for the years of estrangement that their respective families had suffered. The two rarely missed a week without seeing each other at least twice. So this separation was going to be difficult for both. Mary herself was moving to Kuala Lumpur as George had obtained employment in Victoria Institution, one of the biggest schools there. As Savithri sat back in her seat in the car and watched chunks of the beautiful, dreamy island slip by, a flood of nostalgia overwhelmed her. There were many cherished memories and unforgettable moments that she would hold close to her heart for as long as she lived, with her dear friend Nagammal as a shadow in all of them.
Almost twenty-five years had passed since the siblings had first arrived in Malaya. Rangan was in his early forties while Savithri was almost forty. Both were far removed from the thin, awkward village kids who were slightly nervous of people and terrified of people who raised their voices because it reminded them of their uncle’s wife, Seetha. For all intents and purposes, despite the hardships and inconveniences that the war had thrown their way, their lives were fairly comfortable. Rangan could even be considered wealthy. He owned houses, a thriving business, and was even in a position to help others financially. However, despite his achievements, for some reason that he himself could not fathom, there seemed to be a weight in his heart that he simply could not shake off, try as he did. And that sadness that he felt deep within would show in the way he held himself or smiled or sighed. He thought of his mother often, and often with lingering guilt that his success was of no use to her.
In some ways, he envied Savithri, who seemed to have blossomed into a woman who embraced life and all that it flung at her. Her enthusiasm for life strengthened her to receive both sadness and joy with a composure that simply escaped him. He wondered if she, more than him, was like their mother. She rarely laughed aloud but she rarely cried or showed much of any kind of emotion. She accepted everything and simply soldiered along like she was on some sort of mission to make it to the finish line, much like Meenakshi. She bore her mother’s death, the knowledge that she had given birth to a stillborn as her first child, her best friend Nagammal’s death all in the same manner: cried for few days and then internalized forever, a private affair, to be grieved for silently, within her tall, slender frame.
Rangan looked at his sister fondly and smiled faintly as she chatted with his wife. They had just arrived at his home after their long drive from Penang. He then glanced at his brother-in-law of whom he was extremely fond. He still could not help a pang that stabbed at his heart when he looked at them as a couple. The faint smile became a little wry as he forced the regret to the back of his mind and joined in the conversation. The sadness that persistently hung above him like a cloud that refused to disappear had a little to do with the sense of failure that he felt when he looked at his sister. A knowing observer would have seen traces of Subbhu, more than Meenakshi, in Rangan.
“Lalitha has grown into such a pretty girl,” said Savithri happily holding her niece’s hand tightly in her own. “I am sure you will have no problem finding a bridegroom for her,” she continued. “Please, Savi,” protested Rangan. “She is not going to marry for another eight years at least. It was bad enough for me that you had to marry so young,” he said half laughing and half serious. Swamy quickly glanced at his brother-in-law but said nothing. “Why what is wrong with my life?” demanded Savithri. “I am fine and I have everything I need and more,” she insisted. “Hm…married to a man who is old enough to be your father,” Rangan laughed. An awkward silence followed before Swamy quickly responded, while laughing and nodding genially, “What you say is true Ranga. Our children should not suffer what we had to.” Frowning ever so faintly, Savithri, who immediately recognized that her husband’s laugh was forced, glanced at her brother and said, smiling a tad tightly, “I have a husband who takes care of me very well and that is more than what many women have.” She was aware of her brother’s respect towards her husband. But she was also conscious of her brother’s new found confidence, born out of his financial success. The shy and somewhat timid Rangan, had become bolder and more outspoken as the years had gone by and so sometimes he was given to speaking his mind without much thought for diplomacy, even to the people about whom he cared.
“Enough you two. Stop arguing,” said Saras hurriedly ushering in Savithri and her family into their home. “Our guests have just arrived,” she scolded, nudging Rangan aside. Rangan watched his sister as she walked past him cheerfully. She did look well. Gone was the scrawny, young girl who had gone to her husband’s home in her aunt’s faded saree, which was slightly frayed at the edges. In her place, there was this youthful, tall, graceful woman, well-nourished and well dressed. Savithri had inherited her mother’s good looks, sharp features, and statuesque figure but since she was better-fed and led an easier life, she looked even better than Meenakshi.
The girls, Jayalakshmi, Venkateshan’s daughter and Lalitha, Rangan’s daughter ran off to share news about their lives while Ramakrishnan, Rangan’s son who had just returned from medical school in India for a vacation, watched Jayalakshmi curiously. The two would pursue their friendship in India, which would eventually end in marriage despite Rangan’s reservations about Jayalakshmi’s background. “She is not really from our community,” he would say to his sister. “Yes, but can you tell that she is not from our community?” Savithri would retort annoyed with her brother. “Mangalam has brought her up so well that she knows more about our customs and habits than your wife does. I really don’t understand what your complaint is. I thought you are the one who is always saying how we should change ourselves and adapt to our adopted country.” “Well, if I had a choice I would rather my son study a little bit more and work here and then marry one of the daughters of our relatives from India,” responded Rangan quietly to a Savithri, who was staring at her brother wide-eyed. They hardly had any relatives that they could keep in touch with India except for the occasional distant cousin or even more distant uncle who showed interest in them because of their improved financial situations.
But Rangan did not have a choice. His son, who had become a doctor, had his heart set on marrying Jayalakshmi. In fact much to Rangan’s chagrin, Ramakrishnan even chose to work and live in India, so that his wife could pursue her career as a musician. “Silly fellow!” exploded Rangan. “Everyone is trying to get out of that place and he decides to live there! What future does he have there? He has just married this girl and he is already dancing to all her tunes,” he raged. Saras looked at her husband nervously. She had never seen him so angry. “Does he know how hard I worked to educate him and give him a better life? Can he even imagine what my youth was like in that back room, sleeping amidst sacks of rice, with rats running all over me? Not even a window to breathe!”
Both Saras and their daughter, Lalitha, watched agitatedly as Rangan paced back and forth, ranting and raving about Ramakrishnan’s decision to stay on in India and practice there. He had married his wife in India without waiting for his parents’ presence or even consent. “He is so irresponsible that he has even forgotten that he has an older sister who is not married. What is his hurry to get married? I had such plans for him to set up his clinic and build his practice here! Irresponsible! Ungrateful! He will be ruined!” Rangan was wrong. Ramakrishnan built a flourishing practice in dermatology in Madras, while his wife pursued a successful musical career. The only problem was that Rangan was right about one or two things. Ramakrishnan did end up dancing to his wife’s tunes and he did distance himself from his own family quite a bit. Part of the reason for this was that Rangan, Saras and their daughter Lalitha, hardly ever visited India and the other reason was that Ramakrishnan was inclined to pleasing his wife in all matters.
Completely disillusioned with his son, Rangan focused on his daughter. He wanted to educate her as much as he could and even looked into sending her to England. Unfortunately, Lalitha too disappointed him in a way, which he considered even worse than what Ramakrishnan did. Rangan’s daughter, Lalitha was always happy to visit her aunt Savithri before Savithri’s move to Singapore. During those visits, unknown to her father, she had also visited Mary’s home a few times. Savithri had not thought much of it and had even chided Rangan about his stubbornness in not accepting Mary as their aunt. “She is really a wonderful woman. I wish you would change a little and be a little bit more accommodating. Who she married should not affect our relationship.”
“I see that your husband has influenced you quite a bit,” was Rangan’s response. “I can change some things about myself but I can’t change everything. It is not even the fact that she is married to a Christian that bothers me. It is the fact that she eloped with another man while being married to someone else that shocks me.” he would say contemptuously. Savithri would simply roll her eyes in exasperation. He had repeated the same statement several times from the time she had begun her friendship with Mary.
There was not a day that went by when she did not thank god for the brother that he had given her. But Rangan was given to being judgmental and unforgiving in his ideas about right and wrong. He was also inclined to being hypocritical when it suited him. He would go to any length to help someone of any race or religion and anyone who came into contact with him would be warmed by his willingness to give so much of himself. But when it came to simply accepting people’s irregularities and forgiving them for their follies, he just was not willing, sometimes to the point of being irrational. “I think he has acquired some of my aunt Seetha’s personality. He was the one who stayed with her longer,” she would giggle to Swamy.
So when Lalitha, Rangan’s daughter announced one morning, a little after she returned from India with a Master’s degree in Chemistry and a teaching diploma, that she wanted to marry Mary’s son Dharmishton, Rangan was livid. Desperate to find a reason for what he saw as his daughter’s waywardness, he squarely placed the blame on Savithri. “You are the cause of this,” he exploded. “You are to blame for what my daughter has done,” he yelled. Savithri and Swamy were aghast. In all the years that had passed, this was the first time that their relationship with Rangan and his family was put to the test. “I kept telling you that this friendship that you have maintained with that woman will only lead to sorrow and now look what has happened. My only daughter is about to marry the Christian son of a woman who ran away with another man despite being already married. I hope you are happy now, Savithri! You have effectively destroyed me,” he shouted. Savithri and Swamy were completely shaken not just by the turn of events, but by Rangan’s fury directed at them. He blamed them, particularly Savithri, for what he considered “the ruin of the family name.”
Savithri was quite stunned by Lalitha’s secret relationship with Dharmishton, and to be fair, so were Mary and George. Nobody had known that the two had been writing to each other from the time they had been in school. Savithri tried talking to Lalitha but to no avail. “No, I would rather not marry at all if I have to marry someone other than Dharmi. Afterall you have said yourself that Mary Aunty is your aunt. What is the harm in my marrying the same way she did?” Lalitha maintained stubbornly. “You don’t understand, child. Our circumstances are quite different and you should not do this to your father. He has worked very hard all his life. You should not do this to him. He is really broken,” pleaded Savithri. “I don’t want to hurt him but I would rather not marry at all if I can’t marry Dharmi,” repeated Lalitha emphatically.
Mary wrote to Savithri as soon as the relationship between her son and Rangan’s daughter came to light. “I understand what Rangan must be going through. My circumstances were different and I had no choice but to marry George but I know how difficult it would be for Rangan to accept my son as a son-in-law. I am sorry about all of this. But I can assure you of one thing, should Lalitha end up marrying our son, both George and I will treat her as the daughter we never had. You can be sure of that. Nothing would make me happier than to have my son marry Rangan’s daughter. It would heal all the old wounds inflicted on our families,” she wrote. Savithri was doubtful about this and wondered if the wounds would only begin to fester again. She also thought about Mary having no choice but to marry George. The old suspicion that George had forced Balambal to marry him and become Mary came back for a bit, but as far as she had observed, George was the gentlest man she had met, after Swamy.
Lalitha married Dharmishton in a secret ceremony, where neither one’s family was present. Rangan and his family, including Savithri and Swamy, did not know while Mary and George simply did not attend because of the awkwardness of the whole situation. “We would only make matters worse for everyone,” said Mary, and George had to agree with her. Rangan, of course, was so furious that he declared that Lalitha was not his daughter anymore and refused to speak with Savithri for almost two years. Those were the darkest years of both the siblings’ lives as they had never quarreled about anything. For Rangan, not talking to Savithri was torment, especially since he still took his role as her brother very seriously and was always protective and attentive. After Lalitha’s marriage, he spent many hours alone and the sadness that constantly but gently hung about him as an invisible companion, now enveloped him. He felt betrayed by his children and now by his beloved sister as well, and that was harder to bear. Saras watched as he worked like a demon, simply removing himself from life and its events. He barely even spoke with her.
Savithri reacted by simply refusing to accept her brother’s stony silence towards her. She visited as often as before and talked to Saras, who was caught between the siblings’ barbed and snide comments to each other. Typically, Rangan just walked out of the house when Savithri entered and that hurt her enough to want to say something, to which he would retort and then she would respond, equally sharp. Swamy did his best to dissuade Savithri from going to Rangan’s house but this was one area in which he knew he was powerless. “He is my brother and I will be the same towards him as I have always been,” Savithri declared. Try as he did to bring the siblings back together, he failed, at least while he lived. Ironically, it was his sudden and untimely death that brought the siblings back together.
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