The Move To Fortune
One morning, Swamy received a letter for Rangan that was not from India. It was from Singapore, from a Damodar Kamath. The letter read as such,
Dear Mr. Rangan
I hope you are comfortably settled in your new home. I know how difficult it is when you are new to a place, adjusting, and trying to make a life for yourself. We all go through the same thing. You are lucky you have your sister and brother-in-law here and I am sure they are a great help to you.
As I mentioned on the ship, my business is doing very well here in Singapore and I plan to open a new lunch home. It is for this reason that I am writing to you. I need a manager now that my business has grown, and I am getting a little old to be as fast as I used to be when I first came to this country. I believe the position will suit you very well as I will also provide your board and lodging. But this would mean that you would have to move to Singapore.
Please do consider my offer and reply at the earliest. I need help urgently.
Yours sincerely Damodar Kamath
When Rangan first read the letter to Swamy and Nair, they both exclaimed loudly and slapped the startled boy on his back. “I told you. You are a lucky young man!” said Swamy happily. “You have become a big boss! I knew you would be one soon!” added Nair excitedly. Rangan was completely bewildered by their reaction, even a little hurt. The thought of making a life for himself away from his sister and her family had not even remotely occurred to him. His simple and naïve mind quickly conjured up the thought that the two men were trying to separate him from his sister and this made him a little indignant. And like Rangan, Savithri too felt that her brother had come a long way from Chandrashekarapuram and that was far enough for him.
It took both Swamy and Nair some amount of time and effort to convince Rangan that what would be a godsend for every young man who came on one of those crammed immigrant ships, was being handed to him on a platter. “You are going to Singapore, a town. And, you are going to a job. Most people who land up here or anywhere around here have to go around begging for jobs from people whom they know or friends of people whom they know. You don’t have to do any of that. And what is better is that you’ve been offered board and lodging. Think of the savings,” urged Swamy. “Before long you will be able to have your own place, and maybe start your own business,” added Nair. “You must take this offer, Ranga. You are very lucky. I mean it for your own good. I can ask you to stay on here but that would be very selfish on my part and I am sure your sister will agree with me in due course. You must try and build a life for yourself when you are young, and now is the time,” said Swamy firmly.
With a great deal of persuasion from both Swamy and Nair, Rangan finally decided that he would take Kamath’s offer even if a little reluctantly, and move to Singapore which was about two hundred miles away from Mantin Hills. Swamy had to convince both Rangan and Savithri that it was not as far as India and that it was possible to visit at least two or three times a year. Rangan wrote to Mr. Kamath, promising to be in Singapore as soon as he could, and Swamy applied for leave so that he and Savithri could accompany him to Singapore. So one morning in September of 1921, Rangan began his journey to Singapore with his sister and her husband by road. The journey took about a whole day with frequent stops along the way.
Singapore was quite the opposite of what he had grown up with in Chandrashekarapuram and had grown accustomed to in Rinching Estate. It was a bustling town with numerous buildings, vehicles and all kinds of people. Rangan and Savithri stared about them in wonder at the strange faces and the honking traffic, while Swamy literally led them like children, clutching their wrists, as he weaved through busy streets. Rangan and Savithri had never in their lives seen so many cars, buses, trishaws, and lorries. The deafening noise made both of them secretly yearn for the refuge that the estates provided, but they were too afraid to say anything to Swamy.
Kamath’s lunch home was situated right in the middle of a very busy area in Market Street, flanked by the kittangis of Chettiar moneylenders. Each kittangi, a long and deep building with no partitions, was occupied by several Chettiars who lived and conducted their thriving money lending businesses there. Of course, other than the Chettiars, there were also many other races that lived and flourished on Market Street. Among them, were the Chinese who spoke a strange language that Rangan would later discover to be Hokkien, a Chinese dialect. Savithri would one day watch open mouthed as her brother, the once shy, nervous and gangly boy from Chandrashekarapuram, haggled with Chinese vendors who respected him because he was at home in their tongue, Hokkien.
Damodar Kamath was a generous and warm man who welcomed the trio with open arms. He immediately offered the three of them a room in his home, just above his lunch home while his mother, equally hospitable, provided them with a warm meal. Swamy was impressed, and Savithri, relieved. “I will take care of him like my own son. You don’t have to worry about anything. In fact, he will stay above the lunch home,” Kamath assured both Swamy and Savithri. Satisfied that Rangan would be alright, Swamy and Savithri headed back to Mantin Hills after two or three days. As he watched his sister and brother leave, it slowly dawned on Rangan that the time had finally come for him to move ahead, alone.
Singapore was very busy, a far cry from the still and silent estates north of the island and of course the remote and benign Chandrashekarapuram or even the marginally faster paced Kodunggallur in India where most people retired for the night by eight. Here, people, motorcar horns, and just plain life could be heard at all times, even late into the night. One had to try hard to feel alone in Singapore. Moreover, helping to manage two lunch homes took up a great deal of time, especially since they were full from the time they opened at 6:30 in the morning to the time they closed at 11 at night.
Rangan found that he had very little time to think, leave alone feel sorry for himself. His day began at about 5 am in the morning and did not end till about midnight, when he had ensured that the restaurants were properly cleaned and locked. This was his routine every single day except Sunday when the lunch homes were closed. On this day, exhausted to the point where he could barely stand up, he simply slept all day, sometimes not even waking up for meals. On a daily basis, he had his meals either at one of the lunch homes or in Kamath’s home.
He liked being in Kamath’s home because he still craved for the family that he had had in Chandrashekarapuram. Kamath’s mother was just like her son, kind and generous. She liked Rangan and felt that she had to take care of him. Kamath’s daughter Saraswati, who had grown into a young lady, was not entirely unnoticed by Rangan. He liked her and in some ways, she reminded him of Rani, although her inclination to laugh aloud when she found something funny or to overtly express pleasure at things that made her happy were novel to Rangan and baffling. The shy young man was often pleasantly taken aback by her laugh.
The women that he was used to, had always been cautious about showing their happiness for fear that some supernatural force would punish them for it. Rangan could almost hear his mother saying, “Don’t laugh too much lest you cry at night” or “Don’t laugh loudly. Girls should not laugh loudly. People will get the wrong idea. They may not think of you as a girl who comes from a decent home.” Even now Savithri would only smile when she was happy, and when she found something really funny she would at most chuckle in a low and nervous way. As hard as he tried, Rangan could not ever remember a time when his mother had laughed. She would always just half smile in a half melancholic way. Even Rani, who had been his friend and confidante, had never ever laughed aloud. Rangan found Saraswati’s ability to find joy in life and at the same time laugh at it, very engaging. She was a plain girl but she was a very happy girl, and Rangan felt all the darkness that he was accustomed to instantly lighten every time she entered the room.
The budding friendship that had all the makings of a permanent relationship was something that Mr. Kamath and his mother welcomed. “He is a good boy, responsible and hardworking and honest. He will take care of our Saraswati,” said Kamath’s mother. “And, she won’t have to move away from us. We can have them live with us.” Kamath nodded in agreement as he ate his meal that his mother served him. He felt fortunate to have found Rangan, who was proving to be an ideal worker as well as a potentially perfect heir and husband for his daughter. Damodar Kamath made up his mind three years before Rangan plucked up courage and asked Swamy and his sister to approach him for Saraswati’s hand.
Rangan’s wedding was a simple affair, attended mostly by Mr. Kamath’s friends and Swamy, Nair and Omanna, in the South Bridge Road Mariamman temple in Singapore “He is everything any parent can ask for,” said a joyful Kamath to his friends, who came to congratulate him on his daughter’s wedding. He and his mother had worried a little bit about Saraswati because the only thing that was really attractive about her was his wealth. They had not expected to meet Rangan, clearly a simple, unassuming young man, who was truly fond of Saraswati. As the years progressed, many who knew and who would get to know Rangan and Saraswati would think of them as the most compatible couple they knew. “There are few people in the world, who are so blessed as to be paired with partners who know and understand them so well,” their friends and relatives alike would say.
The only letdown for Rangan at his own wedding was Savithri’s absence because she had news of her own. She was expecting a child again. Swamy and Savithri had moved to Penang a year before Rangan’s wedding and Swamy was now working in the shipping business. The move to Penang had been ideal for Savithri. The beautiful and idyllic island of Penang, with its easygoing people, provided the social fabric that was completely missing in the lonely estates. She had neighbors and friends that chatted with her over the fence or dropped in for a cup of sugar or a bowl of rice. She had missed that in the estates where she was almost always alone and at a loss for new ways with which to busy herself.
It was also in Penang that Savithri serendipitously rediscovered a link with her past. Nagammal, her old friend who had traveled with her on the ship from India, lived a few streets away from her. The meeting was an emotional one for Savithri, as Nagammal’s motherly nature reminded her of Meenakshi and of course, Mangalam. And, like Mangalam, Nagammal too was childless. Initially, Savithri’s and Nagammal’s relationship strengthened out of their anxiety at being childless. They found solace in each other’s friendship, prayed for each other and fervently hoped that at least one or the other would quickly conceive. So when Savithri became pregnant again, Nagammal was overjoyed for her and immediately took her to the Thaneermalai Temple upon the hill nearby, to offer some special prayers, which were meant to be good for the unborn child.
For Nagammal, meeting Savithri again was like a gentle breeze that wafts through a hot afternoon. As kind as the Chettiar, her husband was to her in every way, the shallowness of her happiness with him and the effort it took to maintain the appearance of fulfillment was sometimes stifling. The Chettiar, whose full name was Natchiappa Chettiar, owned several warehouses while running a very successful money lending business. He was an extremely pleasant and affable man and clearly loved Nagammal deeply. However, the truth of the matter was that Nagammal was not really the Chettiar’s wife. His lawful wife and family lived in Sivaganggai, his village in India. “I can’t ask for much. He is quite good to me considering I am not his wife,” said Nagammal matter-of-factly one afternoon as both she and Savithri sat embroidering. Savithri looked wide-eyed before literally bursting out, “What are you saying?” Nagammal smiled pensively at Savithri as she continued.” The wife that he is really married to is in India. He never married me but I am like a wife,” she revealed to Savithri.
Nagammal was from Kedah, which was in the north of Malaya. Her features were more Chinese than Indian as a result of the fact that her ancestors had been Chettiars who had come to the Malay Peninsula several generations ago to trade and had ended up marrying local women. Some branches of her family she said had even completely adopted the local culture and language. She was one of the daughters in a poor port worker’s large family. Her own mother was a Chinese woman who had been adopted by an Indian family. Nagammal told Savithri that the Chettiar had taken a liking to Nagammal and so had accepted her as ‘payment’ when her parents, who had been financially indebted to him, could not pay him back.
In all fairness, the Chettiar treated Nagammal very well and exactly like a wife. He was in fact quite devoted to her. She was always dressed in the best silks and bedecked with jewelry. He took care of her parents and younger siblings and was even willing to father a child. His family in India knew about her but they preferred to leave things unsaid while he was careful to keep her separate from them. The Chettiar had even bought her a house in Madras so that she could stay there comfortably while he proceeded to see his family in the village. But it wasn’t enough for Nagammal. Acutely aware of the fact that Natchiappan had several children by his wife in India, she desperately desired a child because that was the only way she felt she could secure her future with Natchiappan. And, the birth of Savithri’s son, Natarajan on Dec 6, 1925, to twenty-two-year-old Savithri, seven years after her arrival in Malaya, served to deepen this desire.
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