Disturbed and Damned
George appeared not to say anything to stop Mary from visiting Savithri or getting close to her. He himself rarely accompanied Mary, partly because he was almost always busy at the church and partly because he was just uncomfortable. However, although he was unused to having relatives or socializing with them, in time he not only grew used to Savithri and Swamy, he even began to warm to them as close friends and relatives. In fact, as he began to get to know them better, he slowly discarded his distrust of strangers, a distrust that was born out of his isolation as a child growing up in the shadow of an abusive parent. Growing up, the only thing that had given him a sense of security was his attachment to the church.
George’s mother had come from a wealthy, landowning family and his father had been a long distant relative of the family. Orphaned at a young age, George’s father Kunjeppu had been brought up by the Pothen family, of which Eliamma, George’s mother was the youngest daughter. As indulged as she had been as the youngest daughter, her family had found it difficult to find a suitable match for her for marriage among their equals because of her polio-stricken leg.
Initially, Eliamma’s family did not even remotely think of Kunjeppu as a husband for Eliamma. He was just an orphaned relative living off their charity and working around the house or helping in the fields when necessary. He ate with the servants and lived in the servants’ quarters, and was given a set of new clothes on Christmas Eve every year. The family did not really know how he was related to them. All they knew was that one morning, Eliamma’s grandfather, Vakkachen came back from one of his trips to Kottayam, where the family had originated, with Kunjeppu in tow. He had simply announced that Kunjeppu’s parents had been relatives and that they had both died and therefore Kunjeppu would be living with them. Nobody questioned Eliamma’s grandfather or even thought of questioning him. He simply instructed and everyone followed.
And, this was how Eliamma’s marriage happened. The old man simply instructed Eliamma’s father to pick Kunjeppu as her husband. “He has no one and has lived off our kindness for so many years. It is now time for him to return our favor. Since he has no family of his own, he will have to stay with us and that would be good for Eliamma.” Eliamma’s parents were not exactly happy with settling for Kunjeppu as a husband for their daughter but since they did not have the courage to speak up against the old man, it was decided that Eliamma would be Kunjeppu’s bride.
Kunjeppu moved into the family house as soon as the wedding was announced. As overwhelming as he found his new found status and the respect that it brought from those who had ordered him about and yelled at him, he quickly got used to both. His in-laws whom he had hardly seen at close quarters suddenly treated him like a son. Eliamma was the only daughter who had remained at home since her three sisters were married. She had a brother Yaakob but he had chosen to become a priest and hence did not live at home. Vakkachen, who had been somewhat disappointed with Yaakob’s choice of vocation since it had robbed him of an heir to his wealth, took Kunjeppu under his wing.
For her part, Eliamma saw Kunjeppu as the man sent by God to save her from a life of humiliation as a girl whom no one wanted to marry. Thus from Eliamma, Kunjeppu received the adoration that was due to a savior. And since Kunjeppu was the husband of their much-indulged daughter, Eliamma’s parents too treated him with the same adulation. So from being an orphaned servant, Kunjeppu suddenly found himself to be the heir of a vast amount of wealth by some random twist of destiny that he could not fathom.
But the fact that he did not understand his good fortune, did not stop him from enjoying his newfound standing. Servants and workers who had spent many an evening chewing tobacco or drinking toddy in the fields with him, suddenly found that they had to speak to him deferentially. He made sure of that. He also quickly learned that only Vakkachen needed to be pleased for him to get what he wanted. As a result, he swiftly and slickly endeared himself to Eliamma’s grandfather. He did everything the old man wanted without question, however difficult or lowly the job. He stuck close to Vakkachen and slowly alienated him from all his family including Eliamma’s parents. Eliamma’s father Abraham found that he could not speak with his father-in-law without Kunjeppu’s presence. Even Eliamma’s mother, Jessy, who was Vakkachen’s daughter, could not get close to her father without Kunjeppu wanting to know what she wanted.
As perturbed as Eliamma’s parents were by his new superciliousness, they accepted Kunjeppu because he was Eliamma’s husband. Everyone in the house, relatives and workers alike, slowly but surely came to terms with the fact that if they wished to survive in the household of Vakkachen, they had to look up to Kunjeppu. The old man who refused to say anything about Kunjeppu’s growing arrogance to everyone, one morning, died all of a sudden, leaving the family floundering for direction.
The family was totally unprepared for Vakkachen’s demise, caused by a mysterious fall when he was out in the fields. He died before he could be brought home. Eliamma’s parents who had been dependent on Vakkachen, suffered acutely since they were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with Kunjeppu and his role in the family despite their gratitude towards him for marrying their daughter. Their only consolation was that their daughter was married to him and so their livelihood and stay in the house was safe.
Kunjeppu was almost gleeful in the way he accepted his new role as head of the family. No one could object as the old man had willed everything to Eliamma. Her sisters had no say because they had received huge dowries and her brother Yaakob had renounced everything when he became a priest. So what was left of the family wealth and property went to Eliamma who of course, thanks to her indubitable devotion to her husband, readily handed over everything to Kunjeppu without as much as a glance that could be construed as doubt. It was after this that the real Kunjeppu revealed himself. He did not overtly ill-treat Eliamma or her parents but they became merely people who had to be tolerated to keep tongues from wagging.
Eliamma, who was now pregnant with George, began to see very little of her once doting husband. But she began to hear more and more about his exploits both in business and with women, from workers, servants, friends, and relatives. Jessy and Abraham did not dare say a word against their son-in-law because they and their daughter were at his mercy. Eliamma, who simply bore the change in her husband and her situation with a smile as she continued to be grateful for the wedded life, happily looked forward to motherhood. She even convinced her parents that they too should be thankful that she could give them a grandchild. When George was born a day before Christmas, Kunjeppu was nowhere to be seen. The workers mentioned that he had gone to Kottayam on business. When he returned, he cast a contemptuous look at the child and merely said, “Jesus was kind after all. Your child is not lame like you.”
Eliamma’s troubles slowly began to escalate as George grew into adolescence. Kunjeppu, who initially verbally insulted her and her parents, began to physically abuse her. “You are lucky I married you with your lame leg. No man would even look at you,” he would yell at the drop of a hat. As is perhaps generally the case with people who come into money easily without having worked for it, Kunjeppu was lavish with his expenditure and extravagant in his tastes. He spent freely on merrymaking and living well especially now that the old man was gone and no one really questioned him.
However, since the wealth was not limitless and he did not do much to increase it, things gradually started to deteriorate. It came to a point when Kunjeppu was forced to sell off huge portions of land, both to support his lifestyle and to clear quickly accumulating debts. This was really when he started physically abusing Eliamma who was reluctant to sell land and assets that had been in the family for generations. Her parents joined her by expressing their weak but clear displeasure, and this incensed Kunjeppu.
In order to stop them from influencing Eliamma, he forbade her parents from living in the house with her. He made them live in the servants’ quarters at the back of the house and pretty much isolated Eliamma from anyone who might advise her or shield her from him. George, who was quickly growing up as a teenager, watched silently as his father squandered all the family wealth and abused his mother. He kept largely to himself and stayed out of his father’s way. His maternal grandparents, who loved him dearly, grew old and died without seeing an end to their daughter’s problems and that too, at a stage when all that was left of the family wealth was the family house in which Kunjeppu, Eliamma, and George still lived.
It was at this troubled time that George had first set eyes on the tall and attractive Balambal who lived in the agraharam, not too far from his home. “Who is she?” he had asked his friend who was walking home with him. “Don’t as much as take a glance in that direction,” warned his friend. “She is from the agraharam. They don’t even let us Nasranis into their homes,” his friend had teased, shoving him gently. George smiled shyly and looked away but not before stealing another glimpse of the tall and willowy figure. When he discovered through the village grapevine that she was going to be married, he did his best to forget he had ever seen her. George’s life was spent going to school, taking care of his mother who was becoming more and more of an invalid and visiting his uncle Yaakob in church. His uncle helped them a little financially and gave George the paternal support that he so lacked.
This was when George’s dedication to religion and the church took root. His alcoholic father, who had lost all his wealth and with that all the respect and fear that the villagers had for him, was steadily becoming more and more violent, not just with his mother but with anyone and everyone who crossed his path. One day his violent nature cost him his life, and George and his mother sold the house and moved into the small quarters provided by the church. George could barely conceal the relief that he felt about his father’s demise. “I feel like I can finally live,” he revealed without emotion to his uncle and mother, who both immediately showed their displeasure at his irreverent statement. But they could not help empathizing with George.
When Eliamma, George’s mother died, Yaakob, her brother, suggested to George that he take a position in Malaya to get away from all the sadness with which he had grown into adulthood. “I have a few friends who have gone to Malaya and they will help you find a job there. You can start afresh instead of remaining among all these memories. I want you to have the happiness my sister never had,” urged Yaakob. For some reason, which he could not understand, George was unenthusiastic about heeding his uncle’s advice. He liked his simple, spartan but uncomplicated life and saw no reason to change things. “Why can’t I just stay here, Ammama? I like it here,” he said. Besides, despite the chasm that yawned wide between them, he still liked being close to Balambal. As unattainable as she was, the plain truth was that he loved her. He had realized that the day he had set eyes upon her. It simply warmed him to think that she lived close to him and he could see her every day, walking to the temple.
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