Only To Rise Again

If Savithri was shocked by the new Mangalam, she hid it very well by welcoming her with the same warmth and affection that Mangalam had shown her, when she had arrived as a frightened bride in their father-in-law’s home. Mangalam was quiet most of the time and lost in thought except when she had Natarajan in her arms. He seemed to be the only one who could bring back a semblance of the person that she had been. Venkateshan seemed lost and disoriented. He wasn’t sure if he liked the new place and the strange new people. He chose to simply listen deferentially to his younger brother, Swamy, allowing him to take charge and give him direction. He hardly even spoke with his own wife who still went through the motions of being a dutiful wife, serving him his meals and taking care of his needs. It was obvious to everyone around them that their past haunted them and their future frightened them.


As soon as Swamy and his family returned to Penang, he set about getting his business back in order. He then introduced his brother to Natchiappan Chettiar and asked the Chettiar to help him find a priest’s position for Venkateshan. The Chettiar very willingly and quickly used his social network and found a suitable position in a small temple, conveniently located in an estate not too far from where Swamy lived. The temple also had small living quarters for Mangalam and Venkateshan. As reluctant as Venkateshan was, he quickly got used to his new life and settled in while Mangalam adjusted suitably. A small part of her old self began to reemerge slowly, especially when she saw Natarajan. But Savithri and Swamy grew accustomed to the idea that the ever cheerful, confident and capable Mangalam was forever lost in the big house, back in Kodunggallur. 


With Venkateshan and his wife settled, life returned to its usual slow, leisurely pace of the late 1920s in Malaya for Savithri and her family until Mary Varghese turned up at Nagammal’s home. Nagammal had exchanged addresses with Mary on board the ship but for some reason, Mary had not made good on her promise to visit for so many years. Initially, Nagammal was unsure about who Mary was but when it dawned on her, she was beside herself with excitement. She quickly informed Mary that Savithri, who had also been on the same ship, lived close enough for them to visit on the same day. 


Savithri was surprised when someone else got out of the trishaw with the familiar figure of Nagammal, but a wide smile quickly appeared on her face when she realized who it was. Unlike Nagammal, Savithri was quick to recognize Mary. She ran out to the gate to greet her visitor. Some of the hesitation, about how to respond to a woman who was dressed in the traditional attire of a married Brahmin but called herself Mary, returned, but her genuine fondness for the woman helped her get over this. George Varghese, Mary’s husband, worked in a church in an estate that was not too far from where Nagammal and Savithri lived. They had a young son by the name of Dharmishton. 


As the afternoon wore on, Savithri warmed to Mary as she had on the ship. There was something about the good-looking, tall, well-built and statuesque woman which drew her. Savithri felt a strange incomprehensible sense of familiarity when she saw Mary. As the three women talked, Mary revealed that her mother was a wealthy woman who owned a vast amount of land in Guruvayur. Mary did not know much about her father except that he had left her mother without a word about where he was headed when she, Mary had been little more than a baby. 


Despite both Nagammal’s and Savithri’s curiosity about Mary’s past and how she had ended up marrying George Varghese, they could not help but feel her sadness when she spoke of her mother, whom she would probably never see again because of who she had become. “My mother cannot accept me anymore because of George and of course, the fact that I am Christian now. I can’t even enter her village,” she said sadly. Despite her anguish about her estrangement from her parent, Mary still brimmed with pride when she spoke of her mother whom she described as “a very capable woman’. “She had to be because she had no man in her life to direct her,” she said with a slight toss of her head. Mary went on to say that her mother did not even have brothers to help as she was estranged from all her brothers due to some property issues. 


A slow realization had begun to dawn on Savithri as Mary spoke. She looked at Mary curiously and listened to her story with renewed interest, while Nagammal busied herself with getting something for Mary to eat. “My mother hated her brothers because they had forced her to marry a man she did not like, and that was my father. And, I don’t blame her because my father did leave her in the lurch when I was just little more than a baby. But what hurt me was that she did the same thing to me. She married me to a man who never once showed any interest in me. He never once touched me and I lived with him for more than ten years. The only reason my mother got me married to this man was because his parents were willing to let him live in my mother’s house. They were poor and willing to do anything to please my mother.” 


“George was a teacher in a school close to our village,” was all that Mary would offer by way of appeasing Nagammal’s and Savithri’s curiosity about her new husband. However, by now, Savithri was more interested in Mary’s mother and family especially since she knew Mary was from Guruvayur. She wanted to know more but was uncomfortable asking. Very hesitantly she asked Mary, “What was your mother’s name? And, where exactly in Guruvayur does she stay?” Mary looked at Savithri calmly and smiled. “Why do you ask? Do you have family in Guruvayur? Where are you from in Kerala? I know you have told me but I can’t remember what you said 7 years ago. You are from Kerala, I am sure. I can tell by your accent,” she said still smiling. 


“Well, I am from Chandrashekarapuram but my mother said that my father was from Guruvayur,” replied Savithri nervously, afraid to appear inquisitive. “My father died when I was still very young. My mother passed away about six or seven years ago, just about the time we met,” continued Savithri. “My mother’s name was Alamelu. She had five brothers and she lived just behind the Guruvayur temple,” replied Mary. Then she looked questioningly at Savithri. “What was your father’s name?” 


Savithri looked away. She knew who Mary was now. She knew about her father’s relatives and the aunt who had thrown out all her brothers and her parents. And, she knew about Neela. She knew that her grandmother, or Neela Patti as she and Rangan referred to her, had done something of which the entire family was ashamed. Her aunt Seetha had spoken about her father’s family quite often just to mock Meenakshi. “If your husband had been a real son of that family he would have got something,” she would say feigning concern. “Unfortunately you had to marry the son of a woman who disgraced her whole family by running away and bearing a child who never knew who his father really was,” she would continue, feigning grief at Meenakshi’s plight, while casting knowing glances at Kamala, her best friend, and neighbor. 


Meenakshi would never respond to Seetha’s spite. She would merely take her children into the dark room in the back of the house and stay there till Seetha busied herself with something else. When the children asked Meenakshi for details she would rebuke them for being disrespectful to elders and hush them. But Savithri knew it was something terrible because sometimes she would walk in on her aunt gossiping with her friends and they would all hush up the minute she or her brother walked into the room. They would look at Rangan and her with a mixture of pity and curiosity. So Savithri and Rangan had both grown up acutely aware that they should not talk about or ask about Neela. Meenakshi would emphatically say, “I don’t know very much and so you don’t have to know anything. You knew your Lakshmi Patti well and you remember her, correct? That is enough.”


If Savithri could have read Meenakshi’s mind, she would have realized that her mother was morbidly afraid that Neela and her disgraceful act would affect Savithri’s marriage prospects. Seetha had repeatedly frightened her about this. “Nobody will marry a girl who is the daughter of an illegitimate child. Don’t talk about your husband’s mother. You are lucky that you live here in Chandrashekarapuram and not in Guruvayur. People here may not have heard.” But she herself had ensured that all the neighbors were well-informed about Krishnan’s origins. 


Unfortunately, Seetha was right about nobody wanting a bride from a dishonored family. Most orthodox families were particular that their daughters-in-law were pristine and untouched by any scandal whatsoever, even if the perpetrator of the dishonor lived two generations before the bride. In fact, just before the marriage of Savithri, Meenakshi had spent several sleepless nights worrying that Savithri’s in-laws would get to know about Neela. What she did not know was that Swamy’s father had made his inquiries and had known about Neela and her act of shame but had chosen to ignore it because no one else would offer their daughter in marriage to Swamy, who was already too old for marriage. 


Mary looked askance at Savithri. “What was your father’s name, Savithri? Since you say he was from the same village, perhaps I would know him.” “My father’s name was Krishnan,” said Savithri softly. She hoped that Mary would not recognize the name as anything significant because it was a common name. She was wrong. “I know the only relative my mother cared about was Krishnan. Are you Krishna’s daughter by any chance, Neela Chitti’s granddaughter?’ asked Mary excitedly. Savithri blushed a bright red at the mention of Neela’s name as no one had mentioned that name in years. 


Savithri did not respond for a few seconds preferring to pretend that she was focused on putting away food that was on the table. Nagammal watched the two women quietly feeling sorry for Savithri whom she could see was very uncomfortable. Mary caught Savithri’s wrist as she picked up a plate and persevered, “Tell me Savithri. Are you Krishna’s daughter?” Savithri sighed and softly said,” Yes.” She felt a growing fear within her. She really was not sure how Mary was going to react. Mary beamed and stood up almost joyously. 


“Your father was the only nephew, in fact, relative that my mother liked and missed. She would curse her own brothers for disowning him.” Savithri sat down with a thump on the chair. Overcome with relief, she was almost grateful for Mary’s response. She had been terrified that Mary would look down on her or say something derisive about her grandmother. For a minute or two the relief was so overwhelming that Savithri was uncertain about what to say or even feel. For most of her life she had only heard snide and unkind remarks about her father’s family.


Mary was overjoyed about meeting a long lost relative and a member of her own family from Kerala. She could hardly hold back her tears. Beaming while gripping Savithri’s hands tightly she said, “My mother has told me that Neela Chitti was a very beautiful woman. You probably look like her.” Savithri was touched but embarrassed and completely tongue-tied. “I don’t know much about Neela Patti,” she almost whispered. “My mother hardly ever spoke about her.” At this point, Nagammal was looking at the two women with interest. “In fact, my mother would never speak about her,” said Savithri painfully embarrassed. She wished she had not asked Mary anything in the first place. She was now afraid that Swamy would get to know and she knew her mother would not have been happy about that, although she still did not really know why. 


Mary smiled gently in response. “Unfortunately I grew up learning to dislike all my mother’s relatives. Strangely, the only relative my mother had a good word for, was your father. And, now I am so happy to meet you in this place where I have often yearned for family. George is a very good man but I miss my mother very much.” Savithri could not be guarded for too long in the face of the genuine warmth that radiated from Mary. By the time Mary left that day, the women had revived a relationship that had been thought to be completely dead for a whole generation. As soon as Mary left, Savithri wrote to Rangan telling him about her meeting with Mary. 


Rangan’s response was both surprising and disappointing for Savithri. It was surprising because she realized that she had been wrong in thinking that he had forgotten all about their past. But it was disappointing because he was harsh in his censure of her friendship with Mary. “Have you forgotten about the hardship and sorrow that Appa and Amma had to suffer because of that family that threw them out? How could you forget that Appa left Amma penniless and dependent on other people because of his family?” he scolded. “On top of that, this lady seems like she has really loose morals. She was a married woman and she eloped with a Christian man and married him as well. What kind of a woman is that?” he questioned harshly. “We may have been poor but Amma was particular that we remain respectable. Have you forgotten how hard she struggled to get you married? Do you want to ruin that now by allowing this woman into your life? Your husband will not approve and you will spoil your relationship with him. So stop encouraging that woman into your life. I will not stand by and watch you destroy what Amma literally killed herself for.” 


Savithri was disconcerted by Rangan’s last few remarks. She had not really thought about how Swamy would react. In fact, she had forgotten that her mother had worked hard to hide the facts about Krishnan’s real parentage from Swamy’s family. As far as Meenakshi was concerned, Swamy and his family should never know that Nambi and Lakshmi were not Krishnan’s real parents. Savithri thought about her husband whom she had grown so attached to, despite the huge disparity in age. Of what she knew of him, she felt that he would never disapprove of her or her family because of a mistake her grandmother had made. In fact, there were many times when he had educated her on how and what to think in relation to people and their faults. But she was not sure if he would take this lightly. After all, their mother had hidden the truth, and that was in a way cheating. 


Savithri worried about what Rangan said in his letter and a small nugget of fear gnawed at her insides. But she, like Mary, wanted to have a piece of her home here in Malaya. So for the first time in her life, Savithri made her own choice. She chose to ignore her fears and Rangan’s disapproval. Besides, she was extremely curious about her grandmother, Neela Patti. She was convinced that Mary knew everything but was just shrewd enough to guess that she, Savithri was uncomfortable with talking about a shamed grandmother and so had retrained herself from talking in front of Nagammal. But Savithri’s burning curiosity about her lost family got the better of her and she sent word to Mary asking her to visit again and to bring her son with her. The desire to mend broken links with her family was strong enough to quell the thumping in her heart as she made the invitation without checking with her husband. 


In the meantime, while waiting for Mary to respond, she decided to tell Swamy everything. A part of her was terrified that he would be unhappy about her mother’s deception and she thought about the girl in the agraharam, who had been sent back by her husband and his family. The gnawing in her stomach intensified at the prospect of being sent back to India in disgrace but there was no other way in which she could explain her interest in being close to Mary.


If Swamy did decide to break his marriage with her because of the dishonorable act her of grandmother, now made much worse by her newfound relative who had eloped with another man while being married, she would have nowhere to go. Her brother could not, and probably would not, accept her because he had disapproved of her friendship with Mary in the first place. He also had his own family to consider now. Subbhu was in no position to help her because his wife would not let him. She would probably end up in some temple in India. But what would become of her son? Savithri’s young and naive mind was completely fraught with fear when she finally broached the subject with her husband. 


Swamy ate his dinner silently as his wife talked, stammering at times. “I know my family was wrong to hide the truth about my grandmother but I was helpless. I don’t even know what exactly happened to my grandmother or what she was supposed to have done,” said Savithri glancing nervously at her husband. “It all happened even before my father was born and he himself never really knew the truth,” she continued licking her dry lips. Swamy had finished eating and so he stood up to go wash his hands. His silence and the fact that she thought he stood up abruptly, frightened her. She watched him nervously as he washed his hands and wiped them on a towel that she held out to him. 


“Why aren’t you saying anything?” she asked softly. Swamy smiled and patted her on her head. “I already know about your grandmother, Savi,” he said looking at her calmly. “My father was completely aware of your family background when he decided to accept you as a daughter-in-law,” Swamy remembered the conversation that had taken place just before the family had set out to see Savithri as a prospective bride. “The girl does not come from very good stock but you are not young and it is not easy to find a bride for you, especially since you live in a jungle. This is the best we can get. She is good looking and so at least your children will look nice, his father had declared brusquely.” 


Savithri stared at her husband with tears welling up in her eyes. The relief that washed over her almost took away her breath. Tears rolled down uncontrollably as she desperately tried to wipe them away with the back of her hand. “You are my wife and I will not send you back to India because of something your grandmother is supposed to have done or what your newly discovered relative has done if that was what you feared. As I have said many times, we live here now and we no longer have to think about how people in my village or my family will react to your grandmother and this new relative. In any case, you know that my family is full of all sorts of stories that I should be ashamed of,” said Swamy smiling kindly. “Anyway, as my father said, I had no choice but to pick you as a wife. Nobody else would have married me,” he continued with a twinkle in his eye. Swamy’s approval was enough to cement a lifelong friendship with Mary. 


Mary visited often and their children grew attached to each other. Savithri secretly sustained her discomfort with Mary’s rejection of her earlier identity as Balambal, the daughter of Alamelu, but she grew accustomed to it. She wanted many times to ask her about it but she held back for fear of being seen as intrusive since Mary herself did not talk about her marriage to George. She seemed to want to avoid the subject when it even indirectly came up in conversation. Once or twice, when Nagammal, who was bolder than Savithri, brought it up, her cheerful expression changed. “I am happy with my husband now,” was all she offered cryptically. Savithri, who was anxious to keep her relationship with Mary, accepted this. She simply shook her head at Nagammal. 


George, Mary’s husband was a handsome and educated man who was both soft-spoken and gentle in his manner. Other than the fact that he was Christian, Savithri could not honestly find a single thing about him with which she was unhappy. Perhaps the only thing that made her think was his insistence on Mary severing all her ties with her past life. Mary had only discovered that her mother had died because George’s uncle had informed them. This made Savithri wonder if he was unhappy about Mary’s renewed ties with a long lost niece. Since Mary did not reveal anything, Savithri chose to ignore her misgivings. For now, it warmed her heart to see little Natarajan run up to Mary with his chubby arms outstretched, every time she came home or to see him and Dharmishton play together.

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