The End of A Generation
Savithri felt so much calm and peace return to her life while she stayed in Lalitha’s home, that she chose to stay on when Saras returned to Singapore. “Give her some time. She will come back when she is ready,” said Rangan to a perturbed Natarajan. “I know my sister. She is just lonely here. She will miss you.” Rangan was wrong. The sister that he had known, had changed. The change in scene and companionship was something that Savithri relished. It gave her a purpose to continuing living.
Some years later she would confide in Elisa, “I felt like I was dying slowly in that house. It was so suffocating after he was gone.” Savithri would continue to stay with Lalitha and only visit Natarajan occasionally, till she passed on, many years later. Savithri would visit Natarajan but she would always ask to return to Kuala Lumpur after two or three months, using boredom as an excuse. The truth, however, was that Lalitha did indeed live in a very interesting little neighborhood in Kuala Lumpur.
Lalitha and her husband Dharmishton rented a home in Sentul Pasar. It wasn’t the best place to live since they lived in a house which was a little rundown and had a common bathroom outside the house, but it was the most affordable on Dharmishton’s teacher’s salary. It was close to his school and most importantly it was safe since everyone knew everyone in the little neighborhood, which was like an enclave consisting mostly of Indian homes in an otherwise multiracial society.
Lalitha and Dharmishton rented the downstairs of a large bungalow. The owner and his family lived upstairs. The owner of the bungalow was a Sinhalese man who had once been very wealthy and the bungalow was one of his two remaining houses that gave him an income. Unfortunately, almost all his wealth had been spent and was still being spent on trying to cure his daughter, Lily who suffered from depression after her husband of two days had eloped with her younger sister, Hyacinth. After the marriage, the family had discovered that the man had known Hyacinth long before he had set eyes on Lily. He had simply married Lily to spite Hyacinth, who had initially rejected his advances. Savithri and Lalitha would often hear poor Lily as she sat on the window sill of her home, singing sad songs about broken hearts and unrequited love from Hindustani movies. Sometimes they would also hear loud wailing and sobbing.
Next door to Lalitha and Dharmishton, lived an old lady and her unmarried son. Lalitha secretly nicknamed the old-lady “Cannibal” because the woman would belch really loudly after each meal. “Ah! Lunch is over in our neighbor’s home,” Savithri or Mary or Lalitha tittered every time they heard the woman. Directly opposite their home was the home of Rukmini, the Bharatha Natyam dance teacher who claimed that her great grandmother had been a courtesan in the court of the Maharajah of Cochin in India. She claimed that her great-grandmother had somehow found her way to Ceylon where she had married a wealthy landlord. How and why the great-grandchild of a wealthy landlord arrived in a little colony in Kuala Lumpur consisting of rundown houses with common bathrooms outside the home and taught dance for a living, forever remained a mystery. But it gave Savithri, Lalitha, and later Mary who came to stay with them when George passed on, something to wonder about on rainy evenings. The fact that Rukmini did not have a husband, and the fact that she told different tales about her background and her husband, depending on her mood and her inclination, helped generate more speculation about who she really was. But it did not matter to Lalitha or Dharmishton or even to Savithri and Mary.
The reality was that Rukmini was an excellent dance teacher, who painstakingly nurtured Elisa’s fascination with the art. Both Savithri and Mary would exchange astounded looks when Elisa would start dancing in her own unsteady fashion even as a toddler when she heard Rukmini striking a rhythm for her students with a stick on a slab of wood. Elisa was a natural and that was obvious to anyone who watched the child develop into an accomplished dancer. “She is Neela Chitti come back to us,” said Mary to Savithri, while both exchanged knowing looks. Lalitha and Dharmishton were not as convinced by this thought but relished their daughter’s talent and nurtured it as best as they could.
So when Elisa as a teenager, announced that she wanted to be a dancer and that she had to go to Kalakshetra, in Madras, India, to learn all she could, they set aside their apprehensions about an uncertain future for their only child and supported her. By this time, they had moved away from the little colony in Sentul Pasar and were living in a home that they owned in bustling Petaling Jaya. Mary had passed on and Savithri had become a graceful old woman who still traveled to Singapore every now and then to see her grandson Raghu but preferred to shower her affection on Elisa in Petaling Jaya. So when Elisa chose to travel to Madras to learn dance, of course, Savithri and Meena went with her as her chaperones.
By the time Elisa returned to Kuala Lumpur as an accomplished dancer, Savithri was a grand old lady in her early seventies and Meena was middle-aged and a little portly but still cheerfully pretty. Those who had known Savithri as a young woman could see remnants of the graceful, bright-eyed woman in the white-haired, wrinkled old lady. The grace was a little compromised as Savithri now walked with the aid of a stick, thanks to a little accident that she had suffered on the streets of Madras. She had fallen into a ditch as an autorickshaw had hit her. Savithri had suffered a broken hip and a damaged knee, both of which never really mended despite surgery.
Elisa was now a beautiful young woman, accomplished as a dancer and attractive as a person. As soon as she returned, the requests for her hand in marriage kept her parents busy and smiling. They happily settled on a promising, young Syrian Christian man who was settled in the US. It struck Elisa that he was slightly aloof when he came to see her as a prospective bride but it was enough for her that he had no objections to her pursuing dance as a profession. He spoke vaguely about how she could potentially have her own school in the Bay Area in California, which was where he lived. “You could do quite well for yourself there,” he said making it a point to roll his ‘r’s. Elisa smiled slightly at this and for a fleeting second wondered if he was affected but dismissed the thought because she loved his deep voice, the way he had rolled his long shirt sleeves just once, revealing strong hands and long, artistic fingers, and the way he cocked an eyebrow when he was amused; things that would make her smile and shake her head cynically, a few years later when she was divorced and alone.
Meena was no longer the timid girl who preferred to blend into the background at all times. Age, experience, and circumstances had given her the confidence that she needed to be in charge of both Savithri and Elisa, her disability, evidently no longer a handicap. She took care of Savithri with the patience and caring that Natarajan, Savithri’s biological child could not even imagine. As a matter of fact, Natarajan had reduced his contact with his mother to one letter in two months as his own responsibilities and family grew.
His son Raghuraman was now a grown man with a family of his own. Radha, Natarajan’s wife had passed on due to unknown reasons, early in the marriage, leaving Natarajan alone to take care of his son. At that point, Savithri had offered to return to take care of Raghuraman but Natarajan had declined the offer, preferring instead to marry a young woman from India. The woman had cared for Raghuraman well enough. But if not for Rangan’s watchful eye, the boy may not have finished school. He had to sit through almost two or three grades twice. Even as a child, Raghuraman was given to being a dreamer, constantly looking for a truth that was outside his own experiences.
Teachers would send home notes on how Raghuraman was often inattentive and lost in a world of his own during class. It was with great difficulty that Rangan had made Raghuraman complete school and then had paid a huge sum of money to an engineering college in India to accept him as a student. After that, the family had not heard from Raghuraman for several years. His whereabouts had been a complete mystery. Both Rangan and Natarajan had spent large amounts of money trying to trace him.
When they had just about given up hope of ever seeing him again and Natarajan was beginning to focus on the children that his second wife gave him, Raghuraman turned up bearded and bedraggled. “I am done with seeking. I am ready to experience,” he had declared cryptically much to the disgust of his disgruntled father and amusement of his younger relatives. Rangan and Natarajan had questioned him again and again about his whereabouts for all those years when he had been missing. But Raghuraman’s answer was always the same. “I was looking for some answers and I have found that the answers lie within me.”
Perplexed and irritated by him and his response, Rangan and Natarajan decided that Raghu needed responsibilities to tie him down. With a little bit of strongly worded persuasion from Rangan, Raghuraman meekly settled down to a mundane job as the manager of Rangan’s and Natarajan’s businesses and married a quiet, young girl who happened to be a niece of Natarajan’s second wife. And here ended Raghuraman’s attempt at lofty pursuits and reckless rebellion. Anyone who had known the bearded, theosophy spouting young man would have been hard pressed to find him in the clean-shaven, manager of a dry fruits store, busily counting the sacks of dry figs and raisins that had just been delivered.
It was about this time that Rangan’s health began to deteriorate. He missed his sister who still lived with his daughter in Kuala Lumpur and visited Singapore more and more infrequently due to her age. Almost eighty and often reminiscing about their childhood together, he longed to spend his days with his sibling. Saras, who guessed his longing, implored Savithri to return and live with them for the rest of her years. “I am not sure how much longer he has. You will regret it if you don’t spend these years with him,’ she said, her voice shaking with emotion.
When Savithri finally made the journey back to Singapore, it was only to attend Rangan’s funeral. As the years slipped by after Swamy’s death, circumstances more than anything had come in between the siblings. Savithri had set out for Singapore hurriedly when she had heard that Rangan was very ill but by the time she had arrived, Rangan had died in his sleep. The last image that he had had before he had released his final sigh had been that of his mother, smiling and welcoming. As he had faded out, he was telling her that Savithri would be coming too and that they would be a family again.
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