The Boy Who Was Really A Man
The years of exposure to the searing tropical heat of Malaya had etched lines that made Swamy look much older than his thirty-six years. Swamy had left for Malaya as a bright-eyed, eighteen or nineteen-year-old in search of adventure and riches. Hailing from a wealthy and land-owning family, he had been sent from his native village of Kodungallur in Kerala to the big city of Madras to further his education. However, young Swamy, who had never really been inclined to school, had had different ideas. The stories of a fellow traveler about the abundant riches for the picking in Malaya had fascinated him. The traveler had convinced him that all he needed to do was to somehow make his way to Malaya and riches would find their way to him.
As soon as Swamy had arrived in the bustling city of Madras, he had got in touch with the uncle of a friend who had gone to Malaya. He had quickly sold the thick gold chain and ring that his proud parents had given to him as parting gifts, to buy a ticket bound first for Burma and then Malaya. The reason for Swamy boarding a ship bound for Burma first is unclear but the trip had cost him somewhat dearly. A fast-talking cabin mate had quickly relieved young and wide-eyed Swamy of most of his money, and so by the time he had arrived in Malaya he had barely had enough to buy himself a meal.
Swamy, who had first arrived in breezy and unhurried Georgetown, in Malaya, had possessed few skills to sell other than an ability to speak English reasonably well and a good head for numbers. His friend, his only contact in Malaya, worked in an estate somewhere in the south of Malaya and so it was a while before he could get in touch with him. In the meantime, Swamy had depended on the generosity of a kindly old Chettiar whom he had met on board the Rhona, the ship that had taken him to Malaya. The Chettiar had taken a liking to him and given him a job in his money-lending business. Swamy’s job had been to maintain some accounts and in return, the Chettiar had given him a small salary and a place to stay.
It was a year before his friend could help him land a junior clerk’s position in a rubber plantation in the south of Malaya, not far from the estate in which he himself worked. The plantation had been in such a remote part of Malaya that it had taken Swamy two and a half days to reach it from where he was in Georgetown. The only comforting thought for Swamy at that point when he had taken the job was that his friend worked in a plantation that was about ten miles away from him. Swamy had quickly learned to be a good clerk. His boss had liked his efficiency, his ability to learn fast, and his language skills. Soon Swamy had been promoted to be a senior clerk and had hence been entitled to living quarters, an airy bungalow.
His days were quiet and peaceful. He pored through thick ledgers of accounts all morning and sometimes went out into the plantation to inspect the work of the rubber tappers who were mostly Tamil speaking Indians. They liked him because he could speak to them in Tamil, which was their native language. He sometimes wrote or read their letters and often served as a mediator between them and the bosses. There were times when the workers even asked Swamy to intervene when they had disputes among themselves or got into disagreements with their spouses.
His British bosses valued him because he worked hard and well and was useful in communicating with the Tamilian workers. Once in a while, they rewarded the tappers with silent, Indian movies, which Swamy would watch too. It helped the workers and Swamy to quell their overwhelming longing for their faraway homes and families which some of them never saw again due to illness or just plain unending financial woes. Swamy’s quiet and uneventful life in the estates was one day interrupted by a letter that he received.
His mother had died and had actually been dead for three months by the time the letter had finally reached him and his father and brothers had asked him to return. Numbed by the contents of the letter, it was hard for Swamy to think of his home without his mother. All he could do was to sit in his room all day and try and picture her gentle, smiling face. He had to go home and visit his family that he had not seen in seventeen years. He wasn’t even sure that his father and brothers would recognize him anymore. He was a stocky, swarthy man with a receding hairline, a far cry from the thin boy with a ready smile.
As soon as Swamy arrived in India his family made arrangements for him to see several potential brides. Swamy’s protestations about not being settled in life yet were ignored and arrangements were made to find the right girl for him. He saw several girls and didn’t really care for any of them. He was told about Savithri but he shied away because she was too young for him. Nonetheless, his family persisted in its effort to convince him. “You are not young. Most boys your age are married with three or four children who are themselves ready for marriage. Moreover, nobody wants to send their daughter to where you live. We have heard there are tigers and lions roaming those jungles. This girl has no real family to speak of, just a widowed mother, and an uncle who is afraid of his wife who can’t wait to be rid of her. She has no dowry and so her family can’t really be choosy. But the girl is beautiful and so your children will be good looking,” said his father gruffly. “This is your last chance. If you don’t like this girl then you will have to remain alone all your life. We have already seen the girl and so you don’t have to go there. She is healthy, nothing wrong with her. We even asked her to sing and she did. So she is not deaf or dumb. The girl’s family did not even insist on seeing you since this match is a boon for them,” he continued, glaring at his son with his piercing eyes, almost daring him to disagree, and willing him to capitulate.
The day of the wedding arrived in January of 1919. Savithri was dressed in the few, nearly fine things that her family could gather. She was swathed in the sari that was observably too much and too long for her girlish build, and her hair was pulled back and braided with flowers. She kept complaining that her hair had been pulled back too tightly and that her clothes and jewelry were poking into her. Meenakshi could not participate in anything because widows were considered to be unlucky even in their own children’s weddings. She could only sit by Savithri until she was called for the actual marriage ceremony and only take on tasks that did not require her to come in the presence of any of the guests, or that were not involved in the religious rites of the ceremony. She kept her bald shaven head well covered and her eyes downcast and discretely stepped aside every time a guest walked past her. She persuaded Savithri to sit still and behave like a bride by promising her more sweets and clothes. Slowly but surely the pout on Savithri’s face melted into a reluctant smile.
Savithri’s wedding was quite a spectacle in the tiny remote village and guests returned to their homes satiated by the splendor of the ceremony, the food, and the sweets. Seetha had allowed Subbhu to be a little generous. “I don’t mind if we have to pay a little, we will be rid of this girl now. Moreover, the boy’s father is giving us some money since he is getting this young girl for his old son,” she confided in Kamala, both of them chuckling conspiratorially. For many years after, many a villager used Savithri’s wedding as a yardstick to measure the grandeur of any wedding. Seetha was all smiles and extremely gracious with all the guests, and very kind to Meenakshi and her children. Rangan stood around a little uncertain at times and a little sullen at other times. He was fifteen or sixteen and so was considered still too young to be significant on such an occasion.
Swamy arrived with the usual pageantry that bridegrooms were accorded at their weddings. As soon as word reached Subbhu that Swamy and his entourage had arrived at the outskirts of the village, he immediately sent the musicians and a group of ladies with huge platters laden with flowers, garlands, sweets and fruit to meet him and his family. The musicians played enthusiastically and the smiling ladies dazzled in their ceremonial finery. The entire village turned out to participate in the festivities and accompany the procession of musicians and ladies that led Swamy and his party in their bullock carts to Subbhu’s house. When the procession came to a halt outside Subbhu’s house, Subbhu, his wife and some other relatives hurried forward smiling to garland Swamy and welcome him to the wedding.
Despite the glaring disparity in age, everyone who came to Savithri’s wedding felt that she was extremely lucky. The groom’s people were so humble and so kind to accept Savithri, who had nothing. “Well, the groom was a little old and actually looked like the father of the bride but the family can’t complain. They could not have done any better,” was the general opinion. “Are you sure he is only thirty-six? He looks much older,” Subbhu had hissed when the bridegroom had arrived. “Well, I am seeing him for the first time myself. Kamala said that she had seen him before,” Seetha had protested. And this was true but what Kamala had not told Seetha was that when she had seen Swamy he had been a young lad of about fifteen.
It was a few days after the wedding that Kamala had admitted to having seen the groom several years ago, laughing at Seetha’s surprise. “But you didn’t say anything about him looking so old! My husband was very upset with me,” lamented Seetha. “Well, when I saw last him he didn’t look that old. Anyway, why do you care, Seetha? Does it matter what the groom looks like? You achieved what you wanted, and that was to remove the burden from your home. And, he is good enough for that girl who has nothing anyway. Be happy about that.”
As the wedding celebrations progressed, talk of the bridegroom’s worth grew. By the time the actual wedding took place, Swamy was supposed to be a senior officer in the British government, living in a palatial bungalow, and earning a salary of more than ten thousand rupees. Several guests swore that such big officers always drove around in grand cars and had an army of servants at their beck and call. Everyone vigorously agreed that Savithri was indeed very lucky. “The wedding,” as Savithri’s wedding came to be referred to, and Savithri and her good fortune served as good conversation material for many a stifling and sleepless night.
It pleased Seetha to think that just as Swamy’s worth grew with the gossip, her own worth as Meenakshi’s benefactor and deliverer grew. She was the one who had shown Meenakshi’s family the way out of poverty. She, Seetha, had found the perfect groom for her poor niece who would have otherwise never married. Her neighbors gazed at her with a new found respect. “Seetha is just a sister-in-law but she is so good to Meenakshi. In this day and age, when your siblings cannot be bothered about you, Seetha, as just a sister-in-law has really taken care of this family and done so much for them. Seetha is more than a sister-in-law to Meenakshi. She is her mother,” the villagers would reverently assert, every time they talked about “the wedding”. For a fleeting while, before her unpleasant nature dominated again, Seetha acquired the status of a munificent mother goddess among the simple villagers.
As the days passed, and the late-night conversations about Swamy persisted among villagers, his wealth and grandeur grew. By the time Savithri left the village to go to Malaya, the talk was that she was going off to a royally luxurious life. Subbhu and his family did little to dispel the myth that surrounded Swamy as an ideal catch. So, what if Swamy was a clerk in an estate and not an officer in the government? Who was going to check? The villagers never ever discovered that when Savithri left the little village, she was going off to be the wife of an estate clerk who rode around on a bicycle and lived in an equally if not more remote little place in Malaya.
After the wedding, Savithri was to continue living with Meenakshi until her in-laws’ consulted their astrologer for a suitable day when she could go and live with them. Since she had already attained puberty, the wait was not going to be long before she could be sent off to her in-laws’ home. Her husband would, of course, send her money that would support her, since he lived in Malaya and made much more money than Subbhu, and Swamy was more than happy to do this. “Don’t worry about anything. I will send you some money every month and as soon as I can, I will send for Rangan to come and work in Malaya,” he told his mother-in-law who stood hidden on the other side of the kitchen door that was slightly ajar. It was not considered appropriate for her to face her son-in-law, who was also a little older than her.
Meenakshi never really got to know what her son-in-law really looked like because she never actually saw him face to face. The fact that she was a widow and her son-in-law was three years older than her made it imperative that she never come before him. All she knew was that he was a little tanned and not exceedingly tall. His appearance did not bother her as much as his age. Every time she thought about it, she felt a stab in her heart. If only Savithri’s father had been alive, he would have never allowed this marriage. She was afraid for her daughter, so very afraid. If something happened to Swamy, what would Savithri do in Malaya where she knew no one?
She had wanted to say all of this to her brother. But it was so hard to speak her mind when she was dependent on someone for the very roof over her head. Many a night she had cried silently and appealed to her dead husband’s spirit to protect her daughter and to somehow stop the marriage. But now listening to her son-in-law’s low reassuring voice, she felt that perhaps the marriage may very well turn out to be a blessing. Perhaps her daughter was going off to a better life in Malaya. Maybe, her daughter will actually be the one to pull her and her son out of their hardship. As time passed, Meenakshi realized that Swamy was a responsible man who took his duty towards her daughter and her family very seriously. Her sadness about his age slowly dissolved and in its place grew a quiet but profound respect. If Savithri’s sacrifice in marrying a man who was twenty-three years older than her was ultimately going to benefit her brother, it was well worth it. The reality that was Meenakshi’s was that any sacrifice that a woman could make which was for the good of the men in the household was well worth it. The women of her family had taught her well.
When Swamy went back to his family home after the wedding he felt strange. He was a married man but he still felt like he was a bachelor. It didn’t help that his wife was not with him and was not going to be with him for several months, maybe even a year or two. He had hardly looked at her during the wedding. All he remembered was her long black hair, which she had worn in a braid. He had not wanted to look at her largely out of shame because she was so young that she looked like his daughter and every guest who came to the wedding would have seen that. He had only agreed to this marriage because his family had pushed him into it. But now that he was married, he felt a deep sense of responsibility towards the girl and her family. This was a responsibility that Swamy took very seriously for years to come and it was this sense of responsibility that would earn him his mother-in-law’s inestimable respect, his brother-in-law’s devotion, and his wife’s unshakable adoration. Swamy’s enthusiasm to help the family somewhat assuaged the shame that he felt at marrying a child. Perhaps, his marrying the girl was a blessing for her after all. “Maybe if she had married someone younger he would not have wanted to take care of her and her family or maybe he would have wanted her to detach herself from her family all together. At least, I can help them a little. The mother looks very ill,” he said to the only person he really spoke to within his family, his brother’s wife, Mangalam.
Six days after the wedding, Swamy left for Malaya without being able to see Savithri or her family again before his departure. He had instead sent a letter bidding them farewell and promising them that he would write regularly and send them as much financial help as he could every month. This was enough to make Seetha talk incessantly about her role in helping Meenakshi and her family to get a son-in-law who supported them. She would say something like,” If I had not pushed for this marriage, who can say what would have happened to Savithri. Who will marry a girl with no dowry these days?” “It’s okay if people bad mouth me because I found a groom who is much older than Savithri. I can live with that. As long as I know that the child is well settled in life. God has helped her through me. What would these poor orphans do without me?” In fact, when Rangan received a letter from Swamy inviting him to Malaya, Seetha was beside herself. She went so far as to say, “Even if your husband had been alive Meenakshi, I don’t think you would have had such a good life.” Meenakshi would listen to these claims with a resigned hint of a smile, which implied nothing.
As much as Seetha’s endless prattle about being his sister’s benefactor annoyed Subbhu, he could not help but secretly feel a sliver of gratitude towards her. He could now look at his sister without guilt or an overwhelming sense of sorrow. Subbhu and Meenakshi’s father had been a successful diamond merchant until he had been swindled by his partners. Broken and disillusioned, the man had easily succumbed to illness and died soon after he had lost all his wealth while the children’s mother had died from a snake bite a few months later. Their grandparents had cared for them and had got them married as best as they could. The loss of their parents had drawn the siblings closer. His sister’s poverty, her dependence on him and his wife’s ill-treatment of her had been a constant and persistent reminder of his weakness and his inability to keep his promise to his parents. Now, this man Swamy, had redeemed him. Strangely it had been Seetha who had helped him make good on his promise to his parents.
Meenakshi’s life did indeed improve after Savithri’s marriage. Firstly, she didn’t have to ask Subbhu for any money because she began to have some money of her own. She received a small sum of money from Swamy at the end of every month. Her children could wear better clothes and she could even afford small things like a thicker mat to lie on at the end of the day. The one that she lay on was so torn and tattered that she was pretty much lying on a bare floor every night. During the rainy season, it was cold and she used some torn saris to cover herself. She used the one or two good sheets and mats that her sister-in-law gave her for her children. She didn’t use a pillow because she wasn’t supposed to as a widow but with Swamy’s money, she could afford to have some made for her children. It was just as well that Meenakshi could afford the new, thicker mat because, in the days that followed soon after the wedding, she spent most her time lying down. Meenakshi’s health deteriorated steadily and quickly, and the English doctor that Meenakshi could finally afford told Subbhu that he had brought her to him too late and that she was very ill. He was not hopeful about her lasting for too long. Subbhu could not quite understand what was wrong with his sister. All he could see was that she was wasting away rapidly. The doctor had mentioned that there was something wrong with her lungs. Thanks to Meenakshi’s improved financial status, Seetha merely fretted but did not complain that she now had to do all the cooking and other chores by herself with Savithri’s help. She merely talked a little bit more about how she was the family’s only savior and if not for her, they would have simply landed in some poor house.
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