Dusk to Dawn
Natchiappan Chettiar was generous with his gifts for Natarajan and Savithri because Nagammal appeared to be genuinely happy for a change. In fact, as soon as Natarajan was born he said to Swamy, “You should start your own business instead of working for someone all the time. Why don’t you buy my small grocery shop? I find it difficult to take care of it, as I have too many other interests. I will teach you how to manage it. It is a very small business, so you don’t have to worry too much. You don’t have to pay me in a hurry. You can settle your loan to me as you make money.” The Chettiar quickly assuaged Swamy’s hesitation and thus enabled Swamy, whose father had once sworn would be nothing more than someone else’s errand boy, to be the owner of a business, even if it was a very small one.
Savithri, who had taken to being privately disdainful of the Chettiar because of the nature of his relationship with Nagammal, was now grudgingly grateful and appreciative of the man. “What could he do? His wife did not come with him. He needs a home and company. So you can’t blame him,” she said to Swamy as she served him his dinner, refusing to return his amused look. “I have never blamed him, Savi. You have. I know what it is like to live in this place alone among strangers, so far away from everything that is familiar, family and friends. Oftentimes, wives, especially from wealthy families, don’t want to come out here because it is a hard life. You know what it was like in Mantin Hills, just a jungle. We have even seen a tiger there one night, you remember, don’t you? What could he do particularly since he has obviously decided to live here for a long time?”
“So are you saying that I agreed to come here because I was poor?” retorted Savithri slightly annoyed that he was speaking the truth, and reminding her of her own situation where her mother had no choice but to marry her off to someone much older, living all the way in Malaya. “No, I am just saying that our circumstances were different from theirs. But that does not make the Chettiar a bad man.” He smiled as Savithri went about her tasks silently, stubbornly refusing to be drawn into conversation with him after that.
Nagammal spent most of her mornings and afternoons with Savithri, helping her care for the child. It came to a point when she almost forgot about her own barrenness. “I am grateful to you and your wife for letting Nagu care for Natarajan. It is helping her to forget that we don’t have a child,” said Natchiappan sadly to Swami one day. “I was getting very concerned about her. She would rush to any fortune teller, any doctor, and any medicine man. I worry that someone may give her something that is dangerous for her health. She does not seem to care about anything else,” he continued shaking his head. “Just the other day I came home to find a strange half-naked man who looked like he was from one of the surrounding jungles doing some prayers in the house. Nagu said that the lady who washes our clothes had brought him. The man gave Nagu some seeds, which he wanted her to eat with her food every day. When I refused to let her swallow the seeds because we did not know what those seeds were, she ranted and raved, accusing me of trying to keep her childless so that I didn’t have to give her any part of my property. I really don’t know what to do with her,” mused Natchiappan.
Both Swamy and Savithri did their best to make Nagammal feel like she was a part of Natarajan’s life. Nagammal’s maturity helped Savithri care for Natarajan, while the child helped Nagammal forget her troubles. Their husbands were thankful in their own way for the voids that were filled in their spouses’ lives. Savithri did not miss a family as much as she used to because she had grown so close to Nagammal. The child brought the four of them together permanently, as a family and social circle, and life was quite peaceful on placid Penang Island until about four months after Natarajan was born and a letter from India arrived.
Savithri was in touch with happenings in India through the long, richly detailed letters that Mangalam wrote. Some details especially, with regard to the harvest festival or the shadow plays in the temple in the village in India, were heartwarming and brought back pleasant memories of Savithri’s days in Kodunggallur. But several other details were depressing. “Your brother-in law is not singing as much as he used to. How can he, when he is drinking all the time? Hari is doing most of the work since our father-in-law is too old for many things now. Things have changed so much now. You won’t be afraid of him now. You can hardly hear him.” Savithri smiled to herself as she read this as she could almost hear Mangalam laughing when she said this.
It was seven years since she had left her in-laws’ place and India. She now knew that she would not have been afraid of Seshadhari anymore even if he had been the same as he was when she first went into his household. She was a woman now and had the confidence of one. Besides, she was secure with the knowledge that she had a husband who would always be on her side and stand up for her at all times. This knowledge in itself was enough for her to even feel a faint compassion for her father-in-law whom she had feared and even resented a little because of his loud and boorish manner. When she shared the letters with Swamy, he expressed concern about his older brother and his father but merely shook his head with resignation. “What can we do from here?” he asked shrugging, before turning back to his newspaper.
The letter that Swamy received four months after Natarajan was born, informed him that his father had been dead for six months. “Your presence here is necessary and urgently required. Please come back immediately. Too many things are happening too quickly,” read the letter from Venkateshan. At first, Swamy decided against going since he had just started the business. But Savithri talked him into agreeing because she felt Venkateshan’s urgency. “It may be something important and you should help them if they need your help. Don’t worry about me. This would be a good time for me to visit Rangan and Saras. They have not seen Natarajan and I am sure they will welcome us.” Swamy reluctantly agreed to go and so took his wife and child to Singapore, left them there and then left for India from Singapore. He was going to be away for about three or four months and in his absence, the Chettiar would manage his business.
Rangan was overjoyed to see his sister and nephew, and his wife shared his excitement. Rangan enjoyed indulging his sister just like in the old days while Saraswati looked on good-naturedly. It was obvious to Savithri that Saraswati was too guileless and childlike to have a mean thought about anyone. Savithri could not help the resentment that she felt towards her aunt Seetha when she thought of the scathing letter that the latter had written soon after Rangan’s wedding. Rangan had chosen to inform Subbhu and Seetha about his marriage after the wedding because he was afraid that they would object to Saraswati, who was not from the Keralite Brahmin community.
They had both written to Savithri, each expressing their sentiments in the way that was telling of their nature. Subbhu was as usual uncertain and worried but kind. “Rangan mentioned in his letter that his father-in-law owns restaurants and is a businessman. I am glad that at least my sister’s dream of seeing her children well-settled is coming true. You are okay and now he will be too. But I am a little concerned that he has stepped out of the community to marry. No one in our family has ever done that. Will the girl be able to adapt to our customs and food habits? As long as Rangan is happy, I am happy but your mother was an orthodox woman and therefore, I am not sure she would have been very happy with Rangan’s choice of bride.” When Savithri wrote back extolling Saraswati’s nature with the superlatives that she was given to using, Subbhu immediately wrote back completely satisfied. “Your mother has blessed you both with happiness and I am sure she will continue to watch over both of you. I am sure she would have been happy to see her son marry well. I will pray for you both, wherever you are. I just wish I could see you both before I breathe my last.” Although Savithri smiled at this last phrase, as her uncle was given to being emotional, she sensed her uncle’s resignation.
Seetha’s letter was characteristically mocking. “So you are both now Malayan people?” was her scathing opening line. What she meant was that they had lost their identity as Keralite Iyers. “You have gone to Malaya and lost all your culture and your background? I can’t step out of my house because everyone in the village is laughing at me since your brother has married outside the community and become an outcaste. Thank god my daughters are married and Rangan’s irresponsibility will not affect them. I would not have been able to find bridegrooms for them because your brother has been so selfish. This is how you repay your poor uncle and aunt who spent their lives trying to raise you both properly while neglecting their own children? Your poor mother died for the two of you and this is how you treat her memory? I believe those type of Brahmins are not even vegetarians. People in the village tell me that they eat fish. Your brother has sinned and he will have to pay for it,” she declared and Savithri cringed as she read this. She said a silent prayer for her brother so that her aunt’s curse would not affect him or his family. She never told Rangan about her aunt’s letter and Rangan did not reveal to Savithri that his aunt had written a similar diatribe to him.
Some years later when Rangan began helping his aunt and cousin financially, Savithri would grumble about his kindness and tell him about the letter that she had received. They would then laugh at the realization that both had received similar letters. When Rangan became too busy with his numerous restaurants and Saraswati began writing to Seetha enclosing money orders on his behalf, Seetha would repeatedly say that she had welcomed Saraswati as a daughter from the minute she had heard that Rangan was getting married. “I knew you were a good girl right from the beginning. It never mattered to me that you don’t belong to our community. I have never believed in such things anyway. A person has to have a good heart and that is all that matters.”
Savithri’s stay in Rangan’s home was uneventful but enjoyable. She spent her days talking to her brother who was always busy but made a special effort to be with his sister. They talked for long hours about the village that they had left behind. Savithri spoke about it with a touch of longing but she sensed that her brother treated his memories with a touch of contempt. He told her about Kamala, the neighbor and their aunt Seetha’s best friend’s husband. He had run into him in a store in town. “The man is a complete fraud and cheat. But that woman Kamala was all evil. She deserved it,” Rangan exclaimed.
Kamala’s husband, the son of the village priest, had left her when their daughter Gomathi had been barely six years old, to go in search of work and had never returned. In fact, she had not heard anything from him and some neighbors whispered that he had left the country and was living in Malaya with a new wife. Some other neighbors claimed that he had died of typhoid in some other village and they sniggered among themselves about how Kamala wore colors and dressed like a married woman. And yet some others swore that her husband had become a sanyasi and was actually living somewhere in the north. Many years later, Rangan would meet Kamala’s husband in Singapore by chance.
The man had at first wandered around India looking for a job, and then as a sanyasi. He had then left India when he had found that both working for a living and a life of renunciation were too difficult, and so had arrived in Malaya in the hope of making it rich somehow. He had indeed made it rich but not exactly by his own endeavors. He had ended up marrying a Malay businessman’s daughter who had been enamored by his good-looks, becoming the father of a brood of eight children, and running his father-in-law’s fairly successful grocery business that sold imported food items in the heart of the city.
Rangan had not recognized him initially because the man had aged and was dressed like an orthodox Malay Muslim. It was the man who had recognized Rangan in the course of conversation. Rangan had gone to his store on business and had started talking with him. The man had then revealed who he was when he had realized that Rangan was from the same village as him. His vague inquiries about Kamala and their daughter had been more for conversation than concern. It was clear that the man who was now known as Kassim Bhai was completely removed from the Venkatachalam that he had once been in Chandrashekarapuram.
Savithri winced at her brother’s remark about how Kamala deserved her fate. As much as she remembered Kamala’s spite towards her mother she couldn’t help feeling sorry for the woman. Kamala was part of the cherished memory of the village where her mother had lived. The naïve and sensitive village boy that Rangan had been would have felt that compassion too. But, the mature, capable, confident businessman and husband that he now was could only see evil in that ill-fated woman. Still, Savithri felt immense pride when she saw and heard her brother talking to workers and vendors with a firmness that showed no trace of that thin, nervous boy who had stammered when speaking to Seetha without ever meeting her eyes. Savithri was thankful to Kamath for what her brother had become but she was also a little wary of this new person that he was. She couldn’t quite say with conviction that he was the brother that she knew so well.
Rangan and his family lived above the lunch home in Market Street but his father-in-law planned to move them to a bigger home in the Serangoon area. “It is also a good place to start more eating houses as more and more Indians are arriving every day and they seem to want to live in that area. We can continue with what we have here and I can take care of these while you focus on building the business there,” said Kamath. Rangan never disagreed with his father-in-law.
Two months after Savithri came to stay with Rangan, the family moved to a big house in the Serangoon area. The house was long and deep with a courtyard inside. It reminded Savithri a little of homes in their village, which were smaller but with the same open space between the front of the house and the kitchen. “You are lucky for me, Savi,” said Rangan with his usual half smile as he looked around his new house, which was about twice the size of their last home. “After your arrival in our home, we are moving into a bigger home. Amma always said you were lucky,” he said patting Savithri on her back, visualizing his life in this house, the house where he would grow prosperous and wealthy, and finally, give meaning to Meenakshi’s life.
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