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The Journey to A Husband

The ship that was to take her to Malaya, the Rajullah, was anchored a little distance away from land and so people and luggage were transported to it by small bumboats. As soon as the little boats reached the ship, workers roughly grabbed passengers, men, women, and children by their hands and shoved them on to a platform that floated next to the ship and literally shoved them up a shaky metal ladder that led up to the ship. The whole operation was petrifying, to say the least, for first-time travelers like Savithri.

Finally when on board the ship, Savithri looked around her breathing heavily and her heart beating wildly in complete bewilderment. She had suffered so acutely from the experience of getting onto the ship that her emotions froze and even the milling crowd on the ship escaped her notice. What was worse was that the man who had grabbed her hand had yelled rudely at her because she had at first cringed and held back from him and the passengers behind her waiting their turn had shunted her towards him. She simply stood staring about her and would have continued to do so if her relatives who had come to send her off and the Malayalee couple that was accompanying her, had not come to her rescue. Savithri would forever remember this experience as one of the most traumatic in her life. 

The boarding experience had so numbed Savithri that she was a little confused when it came to bidding her brother and the rest of her family farewell. Rangan fought hard to be brave and keep his tears in check as he told his sister to take care of her health and belongings on the ship while his sister nodded back morosely her face reddening. They kept the conversation mundane and trivial for fear that each one would break down in public. Madhavan Nair, the Malayalee man who was accompanying Savithri with his wife Omannakutty, reassured the siblings that there were plenty of jobs available in Malaya for young men and that Swamy was already making arrangements for Rangan to get a job. “It’s only a matter of time before you can join your sister in Malaya. Who knows? Your brother-in-law may ask you to come next month,” he said cheerfully, patting Rangan on his back. The boy nodded, swallowing hard. “Don’t worry. Swamy is a very capable man. He will arrange for you to come soon.”

By the time the ship finally set sail, Savithri stayed on deck with tears streaming down her flushed face while straining to catch a glimpse of her family on land, especially her brother. Mangalam and Venkateshan were patting him on his back as he wiped his face with the back of his hand. Madhavan and his wife worked hard to console Savithri and take her back with them to their cabin. By the time they managed to coax her to go back to the cabin she was so worn out that she slept for the rest of the day. This helped her deal with the distress of the separation from her family, at least in a small way. All she saw in her troubled slumber was the lone figure of her thin, lanky brother and a shadow of her mother hovering behind him. It would take her two or three days on the ship before she could sleep through the night without waking up and then crying herself to sleep. 

The days on the ship were for the most part peaceful. If she wasn’t talking to her companions about her home and family, Savithri would be standing on the deck looking out at sea in the direction that she thought was where home lay. Not once did she think about the inevitable, and that was meeting Swamy. Madhavan, she discovered had known Swamy even before Swamy had left for Malaya. It would be several years before she would discover that the relationship that existed between him and Swamy was much deeper than just a friendship. Madhavan Nair was actually Seshadhari’s son through a long-term relationship that he had had with a Malayalee woman. Nobody spoke about the relationship but everyone knew. 

“I hated him in school,” Swamy would say when Savithri finally discovered. Apparently Swamy and Madhavan went to the same school and were almost the same age. Every time the teacher asked Nair what his father’s name was, Nair would say “Seshadhari” and Swamy would cringe with shame while their classmates would snigger. Swamy’s dislike for his father began then. Over the years, Swamy had realized that Nair’s mother was no more than a helpless woman dependent on his father for her children’s and her own livelihood. Madhavan had a sister, Jalaja, who was married and living in Malaya. Swamy would gradually, develop a grudging affection for his step-brother and step-sister. However, he was the only one in his family who was willing to do so. His mother, while she lived, had never accepted the fact that her husband had been unfaithful, and his brothers chose to ignore the other family, as acknowledging their existence would mean that their share of their father’s property would be smaller.

At some point, Seshadhari had given the woman a small plot of land and a house as a peace offering and had never seen her again. But Swamy chose to continue his friendship with Nair even after his father had abandoned the relationship, much to his father’s embarrassment. Swamy’s bond with his step-sister and step-brother would be strong throughout his life and they would treat each other as family. But the rest of the world would only know Madhavan and Jalaja as really good friends of the Swamy family. The three of them could never bring themselves to talk about the real relationship that they shared with anyone. Savithri only found out years after her marriage and the awareness helped her to shed the final shred of fear of her father-in-law. 

Another couple that Savithri got friendly with on board the Rajullah was a fatherly Chettiar and his very strange looking wife. She looked strange to Savithri because she spoke Tamil fluently, wore a sari and dressed very much like an Indian woman but she really didn’t look like one. Savithri was completely intrigued by the woman’s appearance as she had never seen someone like her. It was Madhavan who informed Savithri that the Chettiar’s wife was probably a Chinese who had been adopted by Indian parents in Malaya. Nagammal, the Chettiar’s wife was both a devoted wife and a devout Hindu. The woman spent many hours on her fasts and rituals even on board the ship. 

Nagammal, a friendly and kind woman, treated Savithri as she would a daughter. “You are not eating anything. No wonder you are so thin. I have to see to it that you eat. Otherwise, there will be nothing left of you for your husband,” she teased, half-seriously. Initially, Savithri resisted because of her innate shyness and her upbringing that had taught her that food that was not cooked fresh at home was unclean. This was also the reason why she looked undernourished and weak. She hardly ate anything on board the ship. But Nagammal’s motherly nature won her over quickly. Savithri soon gained her strength and another friendship that would last till Nagammal’s death. 

Other than Madhavan and Omanna, and the Chettiar and his wife Nagammal, Savithri became acquainted with an intriguing woman by the name of Mary who was traveling with her husband George Varghese. What was intriguing about her to Savithri was that the woman was dressed like an orthodox Brahmin woman and yet she was traveling with a man with a Nasrani name. Savithri who had hardly ever met anyone outside Chandrashekarapuram or Kodungallur was so curious that she could barely stop herself from asking Mary directly about the incongruity. Mary was a tall, fair complexioned woman with an attractive face. Well dressed and with the bearing of someone who was accustomed to a privileged life, she must have been about ten or twelve years older than Savithri. 

For some reason, Mary warmed very quickly to Savithri and sought her out every morning on the deck. She did not say much about her background except that she was from Kerala and that her mother lived in Guruvayur but she hardly even mentioned her husband. There seemed to be a constant diaphanous air of melancholia that hung around her and in fact, shielded her from Savithri’s exploding curiosity. Every time she wanted to ask, Savithri would look at Mary’s sad eyes and stop herself.

George Varghese, Mary’s husband was not an unattractive man. “Perhaps his good-looks attracted her and she eloped with him from the agraharam,” offered Nagammal when they got to know each well and sat gossiping about Mary one idle afternoon. “Or, maybe he kidnapped her and forced her to marry him,” speculated Savithri. “But he looks like a gentle and educated type. I don’t think he would have done something like that,” counteracted Nagammal fanning herself furiously. Savithri had to agree. George looked like the type who would offer his other cheek. Try as they did, they could not think of how and why a girl apparently from an agraharam was with a Christian man. 

But Savithri liked Mary in spite of what she thought, felt and conjectured. There was something about Mary that drew her and made her feel like she was speaking to family. Maybe it was just her Tamil accent, which had the strong stresses and rhythm of Malayalam. Soon Savithri chose to ignore the fact that Mary had done something that no one she had ever known would do. She even grew to like George Varghese with his gentle and respectful manners. She liked the way he listened every time she spoke like she was saying something really important. She was unused to that. 

As the journey wore on, Savithri spent less and less time standing by herself and looking in the direction she thought was home. She found that as each day blended into the other, her longing for home was less painful. She had found a family on board the Rajullah. Not one of them was related to the other and not one of them resembled anyone she had ever known or had grown up with, but each one in his or her own way eased her into an unknown world that was Malaya. Each one helped her walk towards a strange man who was to be her husband, with greater courage and self-assurance.

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