Ranganathan took a deep breath of the salty cool morning air as the ship approached the port while shielding his eyes from the bright morning sun, in his attempt to see as far as he could. The faint smell of fish in the air that typically kept him feeling slightly nauseous seemed to calm him for a change. It seemed to settle the turmoil inside him. The physical fatigue that he felt from the long journey on the Rajullah, from the Port of Madras, was small in comparison to the unease that grew within him at the thought of an uncertain future in an unknown land. All that he knew of his immediate future, was what was written in a letter from his brother-in-law, Swamy. He was going to be a clerk in a rubber plantation somewhere. “The work is hard but the salary is not too bad. Since expenditure is low on the plantations, you can save most of it. If you work hard you could get promoted to the position of chief clerk,” said Swamy in his letter. Despite the uncertainty and nervousness that he felt about his destiny, Rangan couldn’t help feeling a quiver of excitement course through him as he thought about his brother-in-law’s letter and the hope that it brought.
As the ship drew closer to his destination, Rangan’s thoughts dwelled on his sister, whom he was so anxious to meet. Their mother would be with them in their laughter, their conversations and their memories and their dreams for the future. He wondered what Savithri looked like and if she was happy in her new life. He felt sure that she was. Swamy would not have asked him to come to Malaya since he would not have wanted Savithri’s family to know if she was unhappy. His thoughts then wandered to Swamy, who was clearly warm and generous. Why else would he be so concerned with his wife’s family? As these thoughts and reflections preoccupied Rangan, the ship slowly arrived at Port Swettenham. Unlike Savithri, who had made a few friends on the ship, and in fact had literally created a new family for herself on board the ship, Rangan had kept pretty much to himself.
Although both Savithri and Rangan shared their mother’s reticence, Savithri was naturally curious, and this curiosity drove her to meet new people. Rangan, on the other hand, was, by nature, reserved. In fact, there was always a certain sadness about him, which was perhaps an exclusive legacy left to him by his mother. Or, it could be that he had grown up, helplessly watching his mother struggle, and had therefore internalized a desperation that refused to leave him even when his circumstances were far superior to what they were when his mother lived. Whatever it was, Rangan was slow to make friends and happiness was not something he trusted. So his journey on the ship was quite lonely.
However, he did get acquainted with a certain Mr. Damodar Kamath who was traveling with his mother and daughter. This was the man who would eventually become his father-in-law. Mr. Kamath was originally from Kerala but had settled in Madras for many years prior to his move to Singapore. His fatherliness, his natural humor and his fluency in Malayalam drew Rangan to him. Rangan spoke Tamil and Malayalam really well but his English was halting. He was thankful that he had found someone outside his own family and village with whom he could speak in a language that he knew well. Mr. Kamath sensed Rangan’s need for companionship and made it a point to seek him out every time he came out on deck to get some fresh air.
His daughter Saraswati was a giggly fourteen-year-old, who found everything and anything funny, and Rangan found her refreshingly different from all the women he had ever known. He had never known a woman who laughed so much and so loudly. She was not an attractive girl by any measure but it would be her lightheartedness, so different from the women that he had known all his life, that would draw Rangan to Saraswati eventually, and encourage him to ask for her hand in marriage a few years later.
Mr. Kamath indulged his daughter, as she had lost her mother as a baby and Saraswati was cared for by her grandmother. He was a reasonably wealthy man who owned a lunch home in Malaya. “There are lots of young Indian men with no wives to cook for them. So my lunch home is always full house,” he laughed. “In fact when I go back now, I will open another one, not far from my present one.” Mr. Kamath lived in Singapore, which Rangan came to understand was a bigger town than the town in which his brother-in-law lived. He realized this when he showed Mr. Kamath, Swamy’s address. “You must come to Singapore young man. You will like it there. I can find you a job quite easily. But you need to learn how to speak English well,” said Mr. Kamath kindly.
Rangan listened respectfully, and said, “Certainly, sir. I will visit you,” while mentally shrinking from the thought of moving to some strange place that sounded really far away from where his sister and her husband lived. Nevertheless, Rangan listened to everything Kamath said because there was something about his voice that was comforting and encouraging, maybe even familiar. Mr. Kamath gave Rangan his address in Singapore while extracting a promise that Rangan would at least visit. The man really liked the wide-eyed and forlorn young man.
As the ship docked at Port Swettenham, passengers rushed around gathering their belongings in a hurry to get back on land and move on with their lives, while waving to the loved ones they thought they could see from the ship. Rangan anxiously searched the crowd for his sister amidst the pandemonium. He hardly remembered his brother-in-law although he vaguely remembered a man with graying hair. During Savithri’s wedding, he was busy helping his uncle to ensure that everything went off smoothly. He felt a wild mixture of emotions in his stomach, as he had no idea what his brother-in-law was like or even what to expect. More than anything, he was suddenly gripped by fear at the prospect of living among strangers in a totally new place and culture, since he had never known anyone outside of Chandrashekarapuram.
His eyes finally settled on a familiar face. She looked bigger and healthier. Rangan waved to catch her eye, and when Savithri caught sight of him, her face lit up with joy. She was accompanied by a man, and as soon as Rangan saw him, his heart and all the pleasant thoughts that he had nurtured about him, sank. He had forgotten how much older than her, his sister’s husband was. He smiled weakly at the man who returned his smile with a friendly nod. Thankfully the long journey provided a sufficient enough excuse for Rangan’s lukewarm greeting.
Soon, however, Rangan was forced to change his mind and realize that his reservations about Swamy being a suitable match for his sister were petty. The man was very likable and made Rangan feel at ease and at home immediately. More than that, Rangan realized that Savithri was genuinely contented and happy. She looked better than she ever had at home. This was enough to convince Rangan completely that despite the fact that Swamy was so much older, his mother had made a really good choice under the circumstances.
The siblings’ meeting was a strange blend of sadness and joy. Their sheer delight at seeing each other was a little subdued by a melancholia which seemed to be lurking at close quarters. As happy as they were to see each other again after so many months, their meeting also brought fresh memories of their mother and reminded them of her absence in their lives. Fortunately, Savithri’s need to know everything that was happening in Chandrashekarapuram and Rangan’s wonder at his new environment and the utter exhaustion that he felt both physically and mentally helped to keep their conversation light and mostly happy.
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