Karthi wondered why Krishnan, her brother-in-law, younger to Velappan by five years, had kept his distance while they were at the temple and never joined the family in paying their obeisance to the deity.
Velappan and Karthi were eagerly received by Velappan’s younger sister Kunjamma Teacher, who was resplendent herself in the silk saree her brother had bought for her from Madras on his way back from Singapore. She had just become a primary school teacher and, therefore, was a source of pride in the family where, except for her and Velappan, nobody was employed in the formal sense. Though Krishnan, a year older to Kunjamma, had attended the Sanskrit school, he had never bothered to find a job which he could have easily obtained and he had not taken seriously Velappan’s offer to take him to Singapore to work in the plantation. He was particularly interested in business and Velappan had sent him some money from Singapore and with it, he had set up a small provision store in Vallikavu, a couple of kilometers south of Puthupally.
Kunjamma had the honour of welcoming her brother and his bride because their mother had died young and the responsibility, therefore, was hers. She lit the copper lamp, now polished to a golden sheen and filled with neatly arranged cotton wicks with their tails swimming in coconut oil. She took the tray of flowers in the midst of which rested another miniature lamp, painted an imaginary circle of divine protection in front of the couple and then handed the bigger lamp to the bride who took it and walked into the house that would be hers for the rest of her life.
Manjadithara, the ancestral home which Velappan’s grandfather had built, was a traditional ettu-kettu in the midst of a three acre plot of land. The south-western fringe was taken over by the snake-grove and the rest of it full of coconut palms, betel vines, jack-fruit, various types of mango trees ranging from the large Moovandans to the Kilichundans and neat rows of tapioca which was a staple along with rice-gruel in the household. The Manjadi seeds in the snake-grove had given the house its name. The court-yards, two of them within the house, let in fresh air and light and when the monsoon came about, you could sit for hours on the verandah watching it pitter-patter and change from a slight sunlight-spiked drizzle to an almost vengeance-wreaking grey beast, coming down in fistfuls and just going on and on. They always say when the Thulom rain comes down, you can’t make any plans to go out anywhere because it never deigns to stop, playing a cat-and-mouse game with your patience.
When Velappan entered their bedroom that night, Karthi was sitting in one corner of the bed and when she looked up, he knew she had been weeping silently. He went and sat near her, took her hand in his and asked her what the matter was. Karthi was silent for a while and then turned and asked him imploringly, “Malu and Ambika, will they be all right…….they must be crying now, my little ones. They can’t sleep without me, they never have.”
She started to cry again, racking. Velappan hugged her and in midst of her sobs, she asked as an afterthought, “Did they have their food? They like it when I feed them with my hands. Malu prefers her fried fish very crisp.”
Velappan thought for a while and then said consolingly, “It is not your fault, Karthi. How much ever we may believe our love to be selfless, it is in the order of things that we all get attached to what we love. And, sooner or later, there comes a time when we have to let things go. Not letting go is a mistake. That will kill us, little by little. Your sisters will learn to look after themselves and you can be sure you will be proud of them, one day.”
Velappan felt himself choke in between on his own words. He understood the point of not saying anything more and he just let her hold on to him. She cried for a long time that night and Velappan let her sleep. He caressed her abundant long hair and then her face, fair and relaxed in the lamp-light, with dried streaks of tears that had run down her face. Her hands were both firmly clasped around Velappan’s left arm as her form rose and fell slowly in rhythm with her gentle breaths. Like a meek little lamb seeking refuge, she had tucked up her knees and was lying on her side, her face almost nestling in Velappan’s chest. Velappan slept off sometime later in the night listening to the Thulom rain come down in torrents and begin its sustained conversation with the thatched roof.
The next day, a telegram arrived from Mr.Wilkins asking Velappan to start immediately for Singapore. There was no reason assigned, as a matter of fact, and Velappan knew he had to comply with it. Karthi, tearful now for a different reason, helped him pack amidst constant reminders from Velappan that he would try to be back as soon as possible and that everything would be all right.
It was the October of 1941 and twenty-nine year old Velappan, newly married, was on a steamer on his way back to Singapore much against his wishes. The week-old censored newspapers they got to read on the steamer told them how the Japs were on the rampage in China and were now knocking on the doors of the Malayan Peninsula, north of Singapore. Singapore had just been fortified, a couple of years before, to meet any eventuality that might arise out of the sea that surrounded it. It was expected that the primary invasion would emanate from the North.
Least of all, Velappan and Karthi were yet to consummate their marriage.