Widowed

The Swamys had settled into a comfortable life in Singapore, with Swamy starting up a dry fruit business with Rangan’s help. The fact that he had helped them start up their lives anew and helped them entrench themselves in Singapore, heightened Rangan’s hurt feelings, and he repeated this often to Savithri. “But it is my husband who gave you an opportunity to even live here. Without his help you would still be in that village, working on someone’s rice field as a paid worker, scrambling for one meal!” Savithri would retort angrily. Rangan would leave in a huff at that point because he could not argue with what she said.


Saras and Swamy would look on, quietly shocked by the irrationality of the siblings’ anger and discomfited by the venom that poured forth. Swamy, in particular, was deeply disturbed by the turn of events. He had moved to Singapore just so that his wife could be near her brother. He now worried if his move was in vain and so he looked to his son to care for his mother after him. “I am getting older every day. You need to stand by her at all times after I am gone. I am not sure how long this feud is going to go on,” he would say to his son who reassured him in return.


It was about this time that Savithri began to look for a bride for Natarajan. After much deliberation and much discussion, Swamy and Savithri decided to settle on Radha, the daughter of a friend of a friend in Kuala Lumpur. She was a pleasant looking girl and extremely cheerful in disposition. Her best features were her beautiful eyes that were large and dark, thickly fringed by long lashes. Although slightly concerned about Radha’s plump figure, Natarajan generally liked what he saw. Savithri convinced her son that her future daughter-in-law looked healthy and that more than anything, her horoscope matched Natarajan’s perfectly. “She will be lucky for you,” declared Savithri, pleased with her choice. “Listen to your mother, otherwise you will never hear the end of it, should anything go wrong with your life,” chuckled Swamy. “You will get used to your wife’s appearance, just like I have,” he laughed. Savithri glared at him since it was true that she had gradually lost her slim figure after their move to Singapore, and was now a little large. 


Soon after Natarajan agreed to the match, a wedding was arranged. Busy with preparations and shopping for the wedding, Savithri temporarily forgot about the sorrows that were related to her quarrel with her brother. She also missed little tell-tale signs that all was not well with Swamy. The sudden onset of a stroke and then his subsequent death two days later were akin to shoving Savithri into a deep dark pit. Simply put, the death of Swamy was the beginning of Savithri’s end because as the young bride of Swamy she had not known enough to feel for him but as his widow, she slowly but surely crumbled due to his loss. 


Everything happened so suddenly that it would take Savithri a couple of years to accept what happened that day. She woke up as she always did at 5:30 in the morning, although there was no need to since Natarajan was no longer in school. But the years of habit had etched the practice in her mind and body permanently. As soon as she was up, she would make the coffee for the family before going into the bathroom for her shower, waking up Swamy with the sounds of splashing water in the bathroom. “Why can’t we start the day a little later,” he would grumble getting out of bed and her cheerful response was always the same, “You will be fine when I hand you your coffee.” On that day, Swamy had gone to his dry fruit store as he always had at about 9:30 in the morning, riding pillion behind his son, Natarajan. He had taken to doing that just recently, complaining that the traffic and the noise in burgeoning Singapore were too much for him. “Let my son take charge now,” he would say, smiling proudly at his son who had grown to be a strapping young man of 24. Natarajan looked a lot like his father did at that age, not particularly good looking or tall but very pleasant, and solid as a rock with a quiet determination that inspired faith and instilled courage. 


Swamy had come home early that day, at about 6:30 in the evening, complaining of a headache. “I just need some coffee from you and I will be fine, as you always say,” he had chuckled, a little weakly recalled Savithri, when she had asked, concerned by this break in habit. Father and son always returned together at 9:30 in the evening, after closing the shop. Unfortunately that day the coffee just didn’t do it. The minute he had taken a sip, he had thrown up violently, sending Savithri, literally scurrying to his side. She had held him, staggering a little under his rock-solid weight, stroking his back. Almost choking with fear, she had screamed for Meena, who was now about sixteen. Swamy had continued to throw up on the floor while clutching his chest. Meena, who had just returned from school and was putting her things away, had come scrambling, eyes wide with panic and alarm. Between the two of them, they had struggled to help the 180-pound man back into his favorite rattan chair by the window, pushing him back gently back so that he could rest his head. He was perspiring profusely and breathing heavily. Meena had run off to get water and a wet towel and when she had returned, Savithri had shoved some money in her hands and had asked her to take a trishaw to the shop and get Natarajan. She had also told her to tell him to get Dr. Shankar, their family doctor, on the way. A now visibly frightened and crying Meena had stumbled out completely dazed and unsure of what to do or in which direction to go. 


By the time Natarajan had arrived, some of their neighbors had already heard and were in the house, consoling Savithri who had refused to leave Swamy’s side. Swamy's eyes were closed and he was breathing heavily. Beads of sweat that kept appearing on his forehead and upper lip, ran down the sides of his face. Concerned neighbors kept mopping his face with cold water and 777 Eau de Cologne, the strong fragrance of which had merged with the stronger mentholated smells of the Singaporean cure-alls, Tiger Oil and Tiger Balm. Swamy’s forehead glistened with both. Mr. Tan, the wizened old Chinese Traditional Medicine practitioner who lived in the house across the street was rubbing medicinal oil on Swamy’s arms and legs. He was trying to explain to Savithri and the other neighbors in bazaar Malay what Dr. Shankar declared abruptly in English to Natarajan. “Your father has had a stroke.” Savithri whimpered as he talked to a pale Natarajan, while Meena stood watching, weeping profusely. Tiny Mrs. Tan, who rarely left the house, had hobbled over on her bound feet when she had heard from the other neighbors. She gently patted Savithri on her arm with her wrinkled hand and said something in Cantonese to Savithri. The language was lost on Savithri but the emotion was not. She had clung to Mrs. Tan’s hands and sobbed like a child. 


At nightfall, there was no change in Swamy’s condition and the neighbors left one by one, promising to return the next day. The dining table was filled with untouched food and drink from everyone. Savithri had not moved from her husband’s side, sitting like a statue, simply watching, afraid that even blinking might make her miss the minutest movement. Dr. Shankar, who had given Swamy an injection, sat close to him, monitoring his condition while Natarajan sat at his father’s desk, aimless and afraid. There was nothing he could do and say but there were many things that he wanted to say to his father, who had held him by the hand and taught him everything he knew, in that consistently patient and reassuring voice. He had never heard his father raise his voice or lose his temper. Natarajan was sure that even now, the only thoughts that would dominate in his semi-conscious mind would be how Savithri would manage. He could feel his father asking him to ensure that Savithri wanted for nothing. Natarajan could not remember a single day when his mother had cried or had been unhappy about something that Swamy had done. 


At about midnight, Savithri was very certain that Swamy had called out to her and she would insist for many years to come that she had heard him clearly. “He called out to me, I heard him just before he passed on,” she would say. No one had the heart to suggest that it could have been the release of his last breath. Swamy passed away without ever regaining consciousness, at midnight, on the 5th day of the month of May in 1957. But even as he died, he ensured that he would leave his beloved Savi in the care of the only other man who would give his life for her, Rangan. 


Rangan had come bursting into the house just at midnight, a few minutes before Swamy breathed his last. As the families were estranged, no one had thought of contacting him but in any case, he and his wife had gone to Saras’ relative’s home in Changi for the day. They had only heard at about 9 o’clock in the night and had immediately started for home. Savithri let out a wail at the sight of her brother, who rushed to hold her. She crumbled in his arms just as she had as a child in Chandrashekarapuram, whenever she was in pain. It took Rangan all his strength and fortitude to console his sister, who was crushed more than she had been at their mother’s death. Actually, it took all his strength and courage to pull himself together. He felt like he had lost a parent all over again.


In the weeks after the funeral, Savithri simply sat on Swamy’s rattan chair by the window limply watching an endless stream of pedestrians, bicycles, trishaws, and street vendors pushing along their carts of fruit, plastic goods, and steaming buns or noodles. Nothing made an impression or even registered in her mind. She sat wondering if the years of habit, his habit of grumbling at having to wake up early and her habit of soothing his early morning petulance had masked signs of illness or fatigue. Had she missed it? Could she have been more observant? Had she failed as a wife? 


Savithri gently pushed away a graying strand of hair that lightly bothered her left cheek and felt the warmth of her tears on her cheek as she did this. It felt strange because it had been many years since there had been a need to cry, not since Nagu’s death. She had not even cried when Rangan had turned against her. Her mother had been right in her choice of Swamy; life had been good for Savithri. “Actually, he was Seetha mami’s choice,” thought Savithri cynically. 


Savithri never quite got over her husband’s death although superficially she seemed to pull through and get back into the rhythm of life. The only positive thing that happened to her was that she got her brother back. All the anger and the hurt that Rangan had felt simply went with Swamy’s passing. It was almost like a wave had washed over him and left him renewed and refreshed. He simply went back to being the ever attentive brother who took charge of everything for which Swamy was responsible. In the years after Swamy’s death, Rangan focused almost all his energies on making up for the years when he was estranged from his sister, being a father to Natarajan and even a grandfather to Natarajan’s child. His focus on Savithri’s well-being and family was perhaps the reason why he was the only one who noticed that his sister had forever lost every vestige of her old self. She was more restrained, more pensive and rarely smiling, just like their mother. 


More often than not, she merely shrugged and the corners of her mouth would simply lift a little, giving the vaguest semblance of a smile, not unlike Meenakshi. It was now that he began to notice that Savithri was beginning to look like their mother, even in the way she wore her hair before Meenakshi had shaved her head. Savithri did not shave her head as their mother had done as they were in a different place and time but she took to wearing widows’ colors like whites, creams, and dull browns, refusing to listen to Rangan and Saras, or even Natarajan about wearing brighter colors. She would simply shake her head gently and respond, “Those times have passed. I like this now. It is your wife’s turn now Natarajan, to wear these pretty colors. I am saving all of this for her,” she would say carefully putting away the colorful and expensive sarees that Swamy had bought for her, often asking his friends and business contacts to buy them for him from India. 


Six months passed before Rangan brought up the subject of Natarajan’s wedding. “Let’s go ahead with it since the process was started before…” he trailed off unwilling to say it and afraid that saying it would upset his sister whose emotional state was still very fragile. Savithri slowly turned to look at her brother and smiled wanly. “Yes, I have been thinking of it myself. He was very excited about getting his son married,” said Savithri.  “The bride’s family must be anxious.” 


Rangan and Saras took charge of all the preparations and hence some semblance of good cheer and happiness returned to both the households. Initially, it was difficult to coax Natarajan into agreeing to the wedding so soon after Swamy’s passing, especially since he had assumed the entire responsibility of his father’s business affairs. But his uncle, who was always close at hand, helped him. Having to put on a brave front for his mother was proving to be more than just stressful for Natarajan, who had doted on his father and depended on his quiet but steady guidance. 


Although the wedding was small, held in Rangan’s home and the guests were only close friends and family, the affair was grand with no expense spared for anything. The guests at the wedding would talk about it for weeks. In the days that led up to the wedding, Savithri seemed to come out of her shell a little. She asked that an invitation be sent to Mary and George as she wanted as many relatives as possible, to be close. Rangan who was initially reluctant gave in to his sister, whom he wanted to see happy again. He left out his daughter and son-in-law though, despite the fact that he knew that they were staying with Mary and George. However, Savithri, who knew that her brother had not forgiven his daughter, had Saras slip a letter for her daughter in the invitation. “You need to forgive your father for not inviting you. You can’t blame him because what you did was hurtful. However, I would like you to come, as I would like us all to be together at my son’s wedding. I am sure your father will be overjoyed when he sees you.” 


Mary’s arrival with her husband in Savithri’s home brought about a fresh wave of sadness in Savithri. The last time she had seen her aunt, her husband had been with her, teasing them about the way they gossiped about long lost and forgotten family members. Although Mary’s ties with her village were broken, she still remembered little details about her family in Kerala, which were always fascinating for Savithri. Savithri found these little nuggets of information endearing because it helped her to connect to her father’s family, of which she knew almost nothing. 


Mary was by nature reserved when it came to expressing her feelings. Her feelings and emotions were typically only obvious to George. He knew by the way she bit her lip that she was nervous or by the way she spoke faster than normal or by the way she breathed quickly that she was excited about something or by the way her face reddened and her eyes smoldered that she was annoyed. “What have I done now? Don’t look at me like that,” he would laugh when he knew he had done or said something unwittingly to annoy her. He also knew by the way she was completely silent that she was in pain. This time her pain was unmistakable even to Savithri by the way she hurried forward to tightly hold both Savithri’s hands in her own, the minute she entered the home, her large dark eyes expressing the emotions that she was too pained to voice. 


The closeness that she had shared with Mary in the early days in Penang, her only female blood relative in Malaya, suddenly descended on her, drawing her from the isolation that she had felt since Swamy’s death. Rangan was a sibling and he felt deeply for her but he was a man, and that too a businessman now. Soon after the funeral, he had taken Natarajan under his wing and seen to organizing Swamy’s business affairs. Saras was Rangan’s wife, her sister-in-law. She was close enough to Savithri as a sister-in-law, and both were fond of each other, but if Rangan were removed from the picture, their relationship would evaporate. It was with Mary that Savithri shared the kind of bond that induced her to simply break down and sob uncontrollably just at the sight of her. It was Mary who held a trembling, shaking Savithri as she whispered gentle reassurances while stroking her head and trying to calm her, just like Meenakshi would have. It was Mary who could still recall images of a teenaged, naïve, curious and hopeful Savithri traveling on the ship with her, towards a husband that she would eventually grow to love, but at that point respected as the man who had married her. It was Mary who realized that the happy, easy to amuse and passionate Savithri was forever gone. The woman that remained was the widow of Swamy.

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