Sundown

After the move, Rangan and his family settled into a comfortable pace with Savithri and her son continuing as their guests. Swamy wrote regularly. Although he didn’t go into specifics, Savithri sensed a dejection and sadness in his tone. It was apparent from his letters that Hariharan and Godavari had moved out of the big house. Savithri was curious about this but there was no mention of any reason for their move in Swamy’s letters. Swamy was more interested in knowing if Savithri and their son were well. “I will come back as soon as matters here are tied up. Don’t worry about anything, I am okay,” he wrote. Burning with curiosity, as much as she tried, Savithri could not picture the scene in Swamy’s father’s home. The fact is that in reality, the true picture was something that she would not have imagined. 

As soon as Swamy had arrived in Kodunggallur, he had realized that everything had changed from the time he had last been there. Firstly, Hariharan and his wife did not live in the big house. They had moved into the small house in the middle of the fields and were in the process of rebuilding it. Hariharan had also taken on a new wife who lived with him and Godavari and his children. The new wife was Godavari’s step-sister, Parimalam. Swamy had also learned that the big house was all that was left to Mangalam and Venkateshan and that Hariharan had made their father unwittingly will everything else to him. “He made Appa sign some papers, lying to him that they were for the sale of some land that they had already agreed to sell. You know how Appa loved Hari and trusted him as the only son who understood him. He just signed the papers without as much as a thought. It was towards the end that Appa found out what Hari had done but by that time he was too sick to do anything. Hari would not even talk to him. He just came home one day and asked Godavari to pack everything and they moved out of here. When I asked him where they were going he simply asked me to let him know when the old man died,” related a crestfallen Venkateshan while Mangalam stood next to him, expressionless. 

The will was written such that all the lands and property other than the big house would go to Hariharan and his offspring. Venkateshan would only have the use of the big house for as long as he lived but he would not have the right to ever sell the property because it was the family house, and eventually only Hariharan’s children would have the right to the house since Venkateshan and Mangalam were childless. Hariharan had made a small provision in the will for Mangalam. He would take care of her for as long as she lived in his house after Venkateshan. He would not be responsible for her if she chose to live somewhere else. There was absolutely no mention of Swamy or his family in the will. 

When Hariharan had announced that he was taking a second wife, the family had been shocked by the callousness with which he had announced his decision. Hariharan had rudely dismissed all their questions. “The old man had an affair with some Malayalee lady and everybody knows that. He even had two or three children by her. Our mother accepted it and so will Godavari. Anyway, I am married to her sister Parimalam.” His derision, his betrayal and his insensitivity were enough to kill Seshadhari. 


This was his favorite son, who had spent his whole life at his beck and call and hung on to every word that he had uttered. This was the son who had worked shoulder to shoulder with him in knee-deep mud in the rice fields while his other sons had shown no interest in the lands, preferring instead to dabble in what he had seen as useless pursuits. This was the son after his own heart, the one that he had loved dearly because he was just like him. Unknown to Seshadhari, his critics were saying exactly that. “What can you expect from that son? He is just like his father.”

Swamy who was completely shaken by what had happened to his family was shaken further when he learned that Venkateshan was an alcoholic. He had known all along that his older brother liked a drink or two every now and then but had not known that Venkateshan had acquired a reputation as a drunk. Actually, when he had first turned up at the big house, Venkateshan’s appearance had stunned him. Gone was the handsome, clean-shaven, cultured man who was always impeccable in his dress and manner. In his place was a gaunt old man wearing a once white, stained dhoti, too downcast and embarrassed to look his brother in the eye. Swamy had wanted to ask but had held back assuming that their father’s death was the cause. 

Swamy’s despondency was deepened by the complete state of disrepair in which the big house stood. The big house that had always been buzzing with life and movement, was desolate and quiet. Mangalam still had some money to run the household because Venkateshan had made a bit of money in his heyday as a musician but as she said, the money that Venkateshan had made when he was a performing musician and singer, would not last forever. Already Mangalam had let go off most of the servants, keeping just one or two old-timers for their loyalty. The old home, where there was always an abundance of everything, was no more. Swamy could remember a time when there would always be at least three or four guests of his father for meals at any given time. He could still hear his father’s stentorian voice, booming across the courtyard, commanding at all times and getting his own way in everything. The house that was once filled with activity and voices, both imperious and happy, was now a sorry reminder of an era that was simply over. 

The sight of Mangalam depressed him most because he had known her from the time he had been a toddler and she had been a young bride. He missed the capable, always smiling, calm, confident immaculately dressed Mangalam. He could still hear her warm voice soothing even as she scolded an inefficient maid or reasoned with a cantankerous old man or a rebellious brother-in-law. He could barely recognize the woman that he saw now. She looked tired and drawn and wore none of the silks and jewelry in which she had always been bedecked. Hassled and hopeless, she could barely manage a smile when she saw him. 

“Why didn’t you write telling me what exactly was happening here, Manni. You always wrote only about the good things?” was Swamy’s first question. “And what would you have done, living so far away?” she retorted. “I would have come and done something so that you would not have lost everything,” Swamy replied a little hesitantly, taken aback by her tone. “What could you have done? You did not know anything about the lands or the business or what was happening in the family even while you lived here! You had no interest! You were only interested in running away from here and making a life for yourself. When you were not talking about your life, you were ranting and raving about that Malayalee lady and her family, your father’s other family. That’s all you cared about, yourself or what was outside this house. You could not care less about what happened to us. So what would you have done to help us? Tell me!” asked Mangalam, her voice slightly raised and her dark eyes dancing in anger. Swamy was speechless. He hadn’t even known that there was this angry side to Mangalam. It saddened him all the more because he knew that this Mangalam had evolved out of desperation. 

“Be quiet! Mangalam” said Venkateshan unsuccessfully trying his best to sound like the authoritative husband that he was accustomed to being. Unfortunately for him, she was not the old Mangalam and he was not the old Venkateshan who, by virtue of being a man and a provider, would always have had the last word. He was now weakened by his addiction and humiliated by his helplessness, while she was betrayed by the men whom she had believed in and faithfully served almost all her life. She was a finished chapter in the lives of these men and it did not matter now if she had to spend the rest of her life in some temple hoping for one free meal. Women like her often ended up that way. So without making an effort to defer to her husband and choosing instead to throw a tearful, pained glance at her brother-in-law, she retreated into a kitchen darkened by twilight.

For the first time since leaving for Malaya, building a life there and feeling successful, Swamy was completely dispirited. He sat where his father used to sit, on the hardwood swing in the middle of the large empty living area, which still had some of the old shine. He saw a ringed mark on the wood, probably caused by a hot tumbler, which his father had inadvertently placed on it and traced it with his finger. For the first time, perhaps in his entire adult life, he missed his father and everything about him, his voice, his authority, his ability to make others listen and obey, and just everything else that made him who he was. But while Seshadhari lived, those were all the very same qualities that Swamy had hated and run away from, all the way to Malaya. Perhaps at this time, when he was confused and shaken he wanted those traits to give him some direction, some reassurance. He felt responsible for Venkateshan’s and Mangalam’s plight. He did not care that he had got nothing because he had never wanted anything. But he felt he had to do something for Venkateshan and Mangalam. He avoided Hariharan as much as Hariharan avoided him and the brothers never spoke again. 

Swamy decided to visit his father’s Malayalee mistress just to get away from the big house. As a young boy of about 10 or 11, he would secretly visit his step-brother and sister to play with them. This was after he had got over the mortification of sharing a father with this common boy in his class, who took pleasure in cheekily saying Seshadhari’s name loudly whenever a new teacher asked for his father’s name. The Malayalee lady though had always treated Swamy with deference, as the son of her patron. In fact, she had been far more generous with him then she had been with her own children and he was always grateful for it. She now welcomed him warmly despite the fact that his father had abandoned her with a paltry sum when his liaison with her had become embarrassing. Swamy found it strangely comforting to sit with the simple old woman, just chatting about Nair and Omanna. It was like his father had no connection with them. It took his mind off the gloom that was cast on the big house. The fact that Nair was coming to Kerala soon to take his mother back with him, as there was nothing left for her in Kerala, helped Swamy make up his mind. Swamy hurried back to the big house and asked Venkateshan and Mangalam to pack their belongings and leave for Malaya with him. “I can take care of you now. I have the means to do that. Since Anna is well-versed in Sanskrit and mantras, he could easily find a position as a temple priest. There are more and more temples being built in Malaya and there would always be a position available for him.” Swamy was sure that the Chettiar had a great deal of influence and he would definitely help Swamy place his brother somewhere. It was better than living in the big house in disgrace just waiting for a time when everything crumbled.

Venkateshan and Mangalam were stunned as they had not expected Swamy to propose this. They also saw themselves as too old to start afresh in a strange land so far away. But Swamy insisted and persisted till they agreed. He did not want to leave his brother and sister-in-law in India at the mercy of Hariharan who could turn them out whenever he chose. Swamy even went ahead and booked their tickets and wrote to Savithri informing her of his decision. He would meet her in Singapore with Mangalam and Venkateshan. “Savithri will be ecstatic. She misses you very much, Manni. I am quite sure she would have wanted the same thing had she been here,” said Swamy looking intently at Mangalam giving her no option but to set aside her misgivings and pack the few things that she had left. 

But Venkateshan’s pride in who he had been, prior to his addiction and Hariharan’s debauchery, made him resist quite energetically. “I can’t be a priest in a temple having been a well-known musician and scholar. It is beneath me,” he protested. Refusing to back down, Swamy responded quietly, “Well, as a temple priest you will have more dignity than you do now. Everyone knows that you have almost nothing now and worse, everyone knows that you are a drunk. The workers have seen you staggering back from the coconut groves, completely drunk on toddy. They tell me that you have spent many a night sprawled in the groves and that they have had to carry you home. Surely serving as a priest in a temple is much more prestigious. I am taking Manni with me. Our family owes her some security and I cannot leave her to her fate and hope that Hariharan will not throw you out and use her as a housemaid.” The note of finality in Swamy’s voice effectively broke Venkateshan’s resolve.

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