Rain On Barren Land
The monsoons had begun and the placid island of Penang, soaked on a daily basis by torrential tropical rains, burst into a wild confusion of luscious color as and when the sun provided brief but searing respite. The greens of the grass and fern, the reds, oranges, and pinks of flowers, and even the deep brown of the wet mud preened gloriously for a short while, only to be drenched again by the rain that poured down noisily most of the day.
People rarely stepped out unless they had to because even with an umbrella there was no escape from getting thoroughly drenched by the rain that thundered down in sheets. So Savithri was surprised one morning when Nagammal and Natchiappa Chettiar turned up at her doorstep, smiling broadly and trying their best to fold an oil paper umbrella which had proven to be a pathetic challenge to the tropical downpour. They were dripping wet but ecstatic and had every reason to be. Five years after Natarajan’s birth, Nagammal was pregnant. They had learned the news the day before and had hurried to share their joy with Savithri and Swamy. But they weren’t the only ones with news for Savithri and Swamy. Rangan and Saras were expecting their second child too.
This was an exciting time for Savithri, as she had the opportunity to return all of Nagammal’s favors as well as be a mother-figure to Saraswati whose grandmother was no more and who had come to visit. Although she was still young, at twenty-six, Savithri felt more knowledgeable than Nagammal in matters regarding pregnancy and motherhood, since Natarajan, her own son was five years old. Obviously enjoying her new status as the most experienced mother, Savithri had a spring in her gait and a focus in her movements, which amused Swamy. “You are acting like a woman who has raised a brood of children,’ he said smiling broadly at her. Nagammal was beside herself with excitement and full of wonder about the sex of her child. She spent her days making little clothes for a boy and a girl while Savithri did not let her or Saras lift a finger as far as possible, constantly clucking around the two like a mother hen. The three women, often joined by Mary, busied themselves almost all day with either sewing or concocting health stews for new mothers and newborns.
Saras was initially a little reserved with Mary as Rangan had instructed her to be so. “Savithri is playing with fire. I just don’t approve of her mixing with that woman. But I can only tell her. There is nothing I can do if she does not listen. But you stay away. Even if she visits when you are there, stay away. What kind of woman runs away with another man when she is already married to someone else? I really don’t want us to have anything to do with her,” he had said emphatically and Saras, who looked up to her husband as an all-knowing divine being, vigorously nodded. But she realized that Mary was a likable woman and really showed no reason for anyone to stay away from her. In fact, Mary was attentive and extremely kind to Saras, bringing her little gifts. Mary brought Saras a new saree when she met her the first time. “I have to do this since I am meeting my nephew’s wife for the first time,” she said kindly in her mellow and pleasant voice. Saras, who had been an only child yearning for company, generally liked everyone she met. She was completely bowled over by Mary’s thoughtfulness and offer of affection and all of Rangan’s admonishments were completely forgotten.
Savithri would look back on those six to seven months as the happiest in her life. There had been so much laughter and activity that the months had flown unnoticed and the pregnant women had all too soon delivered their babies. Unfortunately, it also meant that Nagammal, who had so looked forward to the birth of her child, motherhood and real rights as the mother of one of the Chettiar’s heirs was not to live, to see and experience all of which she had dreamt of and prayed for so fervently. Nagammal died at childbirth without ever seeing her daughter, while Saras safely delivered her child, a son.
The shock and the sorrow that engulfed Savithri at the loss of her dear friend and confidante felt like a heavy beam that had come down crashing on her. She spent her days sitting on the little terrace simply staring vacantly at the street as if expecting to see her dear Nagu bustling in with her infectious chuckle about something she had seen or heard. She kept going over snatches of conversations that she had had with her friend over the years. In many ways, Nagammal had been the window through which Savithri had grown to like and accept Malaya as her home.
The sadness at Nagammal’s loss so heavily cloaked Savithri and the Chettiar that it made them both ignore the one tangible legacy that the woman they had both loved dearly had left behind, the baby. Swamy was hard put to comfort his wife but found it harder to console the Chettiar, whose grief was so profound that he refused to even acknowledge his newborn. The infant lay unattended and uncared for because even Savithri was too distraught to pay attention when Swamy brought the child home. His only recourse was to ask Mangalam for help.
Venkateshan and Mangalam had settled into a quiet and unassuming life in a temple on an estate, which was close enough for the brothers and their wives to see each other at least twice a week. Swamy made it a point to visit as often as he could as he suspected that his brother had taken to drinking on and off when he was not serving as a priest in the small estate temple. He confirmed this when he found a numbered mug once when he was in their kitchen, looking for a container to cool his coffee. Only toddy shops handed out numbered mugs because customers often staggered away in drunken euphoria with their toddy, completely forgetting that they had paid for the drink and not the mug.
Mangalam, with a mask like face that rarely displayed any emotion, had accepted her new position as the wife of a temple priest in an insignificant estate temple. She did not share her thoughts with her husband or with Swamy and Savithri, choosing instead to just live her life without expectations. Venkateshan on the other hand, grudgingly accepted his position in the temple as there was just no other option. There was always a certain disdainful air in the way he did his job. He would often reminisce about the good old days when he was a much in demand performer with an admiring audience that would travel miles just to hear him sing. And, his dutiful wife would listen with a hint of a cynical smile. As respectful as she still was, she was no longer the adoring wife who jumped to do his bidding. Her almost sullen silence frightened him a little because this new Mangalam lived in a world, which was closed to him. She did what she had to for him by force of habit, or worse, out of pity but she had clearly lost faith in him and in his position as the husband who would protect her from everything. Sometimes when he thought she was not looking, he would watch her going about her duties with a mechanical vigor almost like she was simply working off a debt, like she had a fixation, that if she just did what she had to do, she would be rid of this life, its attachments and her life with him. And try as he did to gain entry into her world in his own irresolute way, he found it easier to teeter back to his old ways using her indifference as a crutch. Therefore it was not uncommon for Swamy to drop in some afternoons only to find his brother hurriedly trying to mask his alcohol-laden breath by chewing betel leaf.
So Valliamma, Nagammal’s newborn infant was a gust of crisp, fresh morning air that blew into Mangalam and Venkateshan’s lives by chance and jolted them with new meaning. When Swamy initially asked Mangalam to care for the child, Venketashan was vehement in his refusal to allow it even temporarily. “Just think, father would have never allowed it. He would have been livid. You must think of our family name and reputation. We don’t know the family background of this man. Have you forgotten Swamy that we are Brahmins who come from a very well-known family? How can we just take in some child randomly?” he asked shaking his head vigorously.
His refusal was met with a telling stare from his wife, which clearly communicated that she had no intentions of submitting to his objections. “Leave her with me. I will care for her until her father is ready to take her back. It is a sin to neglect a newborn and religion teaches us this,” she said quietly, silencing Venkateshan’s fresh protests with what really looked like a steely glance. Valliamma or Valli, as Mangalam took to calling the child, changed Mangalam’s and eventually Venkateshan’s life. The tiny child of no more than six pounds revived their marriage and brought them closer in a way that they would have never imagined, even when times had been good. What began as a temporary measure evolved into a permanent solution for the Chettiar, who did not want to take Valliamma back when he chose to return to his village in India.
Natchiappa Chettiar’s family in Sivaganggai was huge and they all lived together in an equally enormous plush mansion. A family of traders, that traveled anywhere and everywhere where there was business to be conducted and money to be made, they were a well-respected and known family in their community. Natchiappan was married to a long distant relative at the age of fifteen and with her, he had sired three sons. Most of the other children in the family were girls. So Natchiappan’s sons were treasured as the much-desired heirs to the immense wealth that Natchiappan, his father, brothers, and uncles had accumulated.
Natchiappan had found his way to Penang when he had chosen to leave his village and expand the business in Malaya. Leaving his wife and family in the care of his mother, he had stayed in Penang for almost five years before he had taken in Nagammal, the daughter of a debtor. Initially, he had had no intentions of making his relationship with Nagammal permanent. However, as the years slipped away and his relationship with his wife became a shadow in the background that materialized into reality only during his infrequent visits, Nagammal became the wife that he wanted and needed. During her lifetime, he had doted on her and yielded to her every whim. The only time when Nagammal had to recede into the background was when he was visiting his family in India. They knew of Nagammal but they preferred to ignore her existence. So her child would not have been welcome and would have definitely not been accepted into the family. Upon Nagammal’s death, the Chettiar lost interest in his life and business in Malaya and made the final move back to his village in India. He asked Swamy to take over his business and accept his daughter as his own. “She will be better off here with you as no one would accept her in my family. I cannot do that to Nagu,” he pleaded. “I need to be sure that my daughter will be safe and well-cared for and only you can assure me of that. So please, accept her,” he begged.
Mangalam spoke before anyone could say anything. “I would like to keep her, with your permission,” she said, directing her calm and unwavering gaze at the Chettiar, almost forcing him to accept her demand. There was no denying her, as she was clearly not looking for a discussion. “I have cared for her these three months and she will be happiest with me,” she continued, cradling Valli close to her chest while the infant gurgled happily as if she agreed. Both Swamy and Savithri looked at Mangalam, who had finally begun to show more of the old glow and spring in her now purposeful walk. Even her voice was beginning to have traces of the old mirthful quality. Swamy, who had expected Venkateshan to express displeasure or disparagement, was surprised when he just looked on quietly. Natchiappan looked at Swamy and his wife and was about to speak when Swamy intervened.
“Yes, Natchiappa, I think my sister-in-law is right. The child will be happiest with her as she is the only mother Valli knows,” he said slowly. Natchiappan turned to Savithri, looking for some sort of objection. “I think my husband is right. Nagu would have wanted Mangalam Akka to have the child. She would have wanted to fulfill a childless person,” said Savithri beginning to tear. “She was always looking to help or fulfill other people in every way she could,” she added choking with sobs. Natchiappan sighed and nodded slowly. He gently stroked the now drowsy child’s downy head. Looking at Mangalam directly, he said, “I will ensure that you are financially well-off enough to take care of my daughter really well. And I know you will care for her like your own,” he said, his voice expressing the sorrow that he felt in leaving his child behind. “She is my daughter,” responded Mangalam looking down at the child.
Taking some of his wealth back to India just to make his family there happy, Natchiappan Chettiar, who had spent a good thirty years in Malaya, left for India one bright and sunny morning, never to return. Natchiappan Chettiar had entrusted most of his wealth for his daughter with Swamy, who was to ensure that Valliamma, Natchiappan’s daughter would be well taken care of and that her guardians would not want for anything. Natchiappan initially wrote frequently to Swamy but soon the letters dwindled and then stopped one day. At first, Swamy and Savithri worried for a few months without any way of finding out about their friend, mentor, and benefactor. Afraid that writing to him would disadvantage him and create issues with him and his family, they gradually and uneasily accepted the fact that he had decided against staying in contact. So they never discovered what really happened to Natchiappan. Thankful for the memories that they had, of two people who had unassumingly and wholeheartedly taken the place of lost relatives, Swamy, and Savithri in particular, cherished the gift that they had left behind in the form of Valliamma. The only problem was that they had to be content with playing the role of uncle and aunt as Mangalam jealously guarded the right of a parent that Natchiappan had bequeathed to her.
Valliamma was Mangalam’s sole purpose in life. However, what was surprising was that more than Mangalam, it was Venkateshan who saw Valliamma as a breath of new life. He stopped drinking and started to sing again. It became astonishingly clear that Venkateshan had accepted Valliamma as his daughter when he declared one day that he was going to change Valliamma’s official name to Jayalakshmi which had been his mother’s name. “As the family’s oldest granddaughter, she should have our mother’s name,” he said a little hesitantly to an amazed Swamy, who immediately welcomed the idea. “Moreover, as my protégé, I feel the name would be more suitable for her,” he said softly, gazing into the distance.
Valliamma, who was now Jayalakshmi, settled easily into Venkateshan’s and Mangalam’s household like she was meant for it. Mangalam was almost back to being her old self, spirited and mirthful and it gladdened Swamy’s and Savithri’s heart to once again see and feel the energy that flowed from her. The change was evident in Mangalam but startling in Venkateshan. He took his role as father, mentor, and teacher to his little student very seriously. Jayalakshmi learned fast and well and he had plans for her. He was already envisioning her as the one who would redeem his lost dignity and pride.
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