The Beginning of A Lifetime
It was a sunny, breezy morning in September of 1920 when Ranganathan or Rangan as most people knew him, set out for Malaya. The warm salt filled air teased his nostrils as he drew a deep breath. Rangan wrinkled his nose a little at what he was sure was the faint smell of fish, completely offensive to his staunch vegetarian nurturing. Skinny, sensitive and severely lacking in exposure to the world outside his remote village, a vague fear of having to constantly put up with the smell of non-vegetarian food or worse having to sit with people who ate it, hovered in the back of his mind as he struggled up the metal ladder into the crowded ship. He looked around fearfully at the crowd, his dark eyes darting nervously. The furthest he had ever been was to his sister’s village, which was about a whole day’s journey from his own. Now he was going on a journey that was going to take more than a week. His stomach was already churning a little.
As soon as Meenakshi had died, Rangan had mechanically followed his uncle’s instructions. There were rites and rituals to be performed and some other minor legal matters which needed to be attended to, in relation to the small plot of land that his mother had shared with Subbhu. It wasn’t a very big piece of land and Meenakshi had told Subbhu that he could take it, as she was dependent on him. But since there was nothing else that Subbhu could do for Rangan, he felt strongly that Rangan should get his mother’s share of the land. “I want you and your sister to have something from your grandfather. If I don’t make your ownership legal, your Mami will take everything for her daughters. I will not be able to forgive myself if that happens,” he said when they were not anywhere near Seetha. Many years later Rangan would write off the piece of land to Subbhu’s daughter Ponna anyway, as he would find little use for it for himself.
Towards the end of Meenakshi’s life, Seetha was completely reckless about expressing her displeasure at having to feed Rangan and take care of Meenakshi. Rangan wasn’t contributing financially, and Meenakshi was not even completely conscious most of the time, leave alone strong enough to work. When Subbhu had to spend some amount of money in between Swamy’s money orders, the low rumblings of discontentment from Seetha grew into loud complaints. “She is going to go. Everyone can see that. Why do you have to spend all this money when those who are going to live for a few more years don’t have enough?” “What kind of a woman are you? Why are you so completely heartless? She is my sister. I have hardly done anything for her. This is the least I can do,” Subbhu would retort, doing his best to stay calm. “I am not the one who gave her the illness and neither am I the one asking her to die. That is her fate. We have done our best for her. It’s just that it is of no use spending so much money when the doctors have given up hope. Anyway, if it is necessary to give her the medical attention, her son should start working. What is the use of him going to school now? We are not going to be able to afford to send him to any college. We have one more daughter to get married, and then we have to live,” Seetha would persist. “I think you are forgetting that her son-in-law is sending us the money to take care of her,” Subbhu would snap hotly. “Whether it is his money or ours, money is money. Why waste it on a dying woman? After all, they have stayed here for so long. The money that he is sending from Malaya can be used for our daughters. He is not going to know any better,” she would say rolling her eyes. At this point, Subbhu would get up abruptly and leave the room trembling with suppressed fury. Seetha was determined to have Rangan start working. “If that boy wants to stay here he has to go to work,” she declared one morning as the boy left to go to school after his mother’s death. “Speak softly! The boy might hear you,” her husband shot back angrily glaring at her. “I know you are heartless but at least have some compassion for a boy who has just become an orphan.” “All you know is to shout at me. But I speak the truth. We cannot afford to have him go to school and feed him anymore. He has to choose,” insisted Seetha with her characteristic callous adamancy. “Why don’t you poison me and the boy, and then you can have everything for yourself and your daughters. Isn’t that what you want?” Subbhu almost yelled. He walked off to work in disgust, shoving his plate of breakfast away from him furiously and knocking down his tumbler of coffee in the process.
Subbhu was at a loss, and Rangan did his best to stay out of the house all day so that he could avoid his aunt. When he was not at school, he spent his time in their neighbor’s, a kindly, old widower’s home. He had been Rangan’s teacher and his daughter Rani, a plain looking girl, almost as old as Rangan, kept house for him. She was obviously a constant source of worry for him because she was getting a little old for marriage, and there was nothing that he could do because of the lack of dowry. “Rani will be an ideal daughter-in-law and wife to anyone,” the widower would say despairingly to his neighbors, still hopeful that someone would suggest a bridegroom who would accept her without a dowry. Secretly, he prayed that Rangan would marry his daughter. The retired teacher received a small sum every month as pension and he knew that Rangan had a little plot of land; Subbhu had told him about it. The old man was confident that the three of them, he and his daughter and Rangan, could eke out a decent living. But the timid man was terrified of Seetha, and so the matter was never discussed.
Rani was very good friends with Rangan and Savithri, and in fact, there were many times when she would pass them food through the back fence when nobody was looking. Although she was not a physically attractive girl, she had a gentle grace about her that soothed Rangan. The more he talked to her the more the sadness of his circumstances diminished. The faith that Rani showed in him, gave him the strength he needed so desperately especially when it became clear that his mother had begun to fade. He talked endlessly about his mother to Rani, telling her about how it frightened him to hear her talking to his dead father. It was like she was already gone. And, he was not wrong. In the days leading up to the end, as she lay semi-conscious on the bed that her son-in-law had afforded her, Meenakshi felt a serenity that she had not felt in many years. She lay at ease that her children would be alright and that her son-in-law would take care of them. She was ready to go and unknown to Rangan she was already with his father, in mind and spirit. When Meenakshi drew her final breath, those who were close enough to hear, thought they had heard a sigh. They were right, she had sighed with contentment.
In the days after Meenakshi’s death, Subbhu and Rangan settled into an uneasy quietness, both wondering about the next step that Rangan had to take. And it was at this time that Swamy’s letter had arrived bringing the much-desired relief that Subbhu needed and the hope that Rangan hungered. In his letter, Swamy had asked Rangan to come to Malaya as soon as possible. “Come and work here. You can live with us until you get settled in a job and then depending on where you get a job you can move there. But come as soon as you can.” He wrote separately to Subbhu and included the money that was necessary for Rangan to leave for Malaya.
When Meenakshi passed away, Rani had been Rangan‘s sole solace. Rangan spoke incessantly and excitedly about his journey, to Rani, who listened with her characteristic reticence. “Finally I am going to join my sister. It will be like old times. I know I will be successful one day, just like my mother wanted.” Rani was happy for Rangan, although a sadness that she successfully masked with her gentle smile lurked deep within her. In the months that Rangan had grown to depend on her for support, she had grown attached to him. But there was nothing ever said and nothing would ever be said. Smiling gently as she listened to his excited chatter about his future and the wealth that he saw for himself in Malaya, the only thing that Rani could ask shyly was, “Will you ever come back here?” And, to this, his response was, “Not for many years. Not until I have become a rich man.” Rani would become a very pleasant memory for Rangan for as long as he lived. And things didn’t exactly turn out too badly for Rani either. She ended up becoming the wife of an extremely privileged widower with grown children. Despite his age, the widower doted on her and willed a huge portion of his wealth to her so that she would live well even after his death.
Soon after Swamy’s letter, Subbhu set about getting things ready for Rangan to leave. Seetha of course enthusiastically joined in the preparations, and on the day Rangan was to leave she even insisted that she go along with Subbhu to ensure that Rangan left safely. “I have to ensure that my son is well taken off and safe. He is still a child, poor boy. If not for the fact that he is going to a better life and future, I would never let him go,” she told her neighbors. She had prepared several jars of pickles and food items for “her son and daughter.” At the port, when Rangan was about to board his ship, Seetha melted completely in tears and emotions. She held Rangan’s hands and told him that he was the son that had to take care of his uncle and aunt in their old age. “You have to come and take us too when you are settled in Malaya. By that time, Ponna will also be married and your uncle and I will be all alone with no one to take care of us,” she said with tears flowing and her hands gripping both Rangan’s hands.
One could never really make anything of Seetha’s tears. On the one hand, she made no bones about the fact that she cared only for the well-being of herself and her two daughters, and yet when she did display some sentiments or feelings for others it was hard to believe that they were not genuine. Subbhu would wonder till the day he died if it was her nature or his own ineptitude that had destroyed the once demure bride that Seetha had been and created the harridan that she had become. Rangan looked at his aunt as she held his hands and a surge of emotion gripped him. Feeling his own tears welling up at the thought of leaving behind the only family he had known for so many years, he held his aunt’s hands in his own tightly as he promised, “I will come back for both of you. You can be sure of that.”
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