Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Adhu Ellaam Oru Kaalam - Part 2

Rajam circled the tip of her finger over the fading scar that was now donned by her little daughter's arm. A scar caused in a moment of utter desperation ...
A warm tear welled up in her eye and streamed down her face, wetting the split oval on the sleeping child's arm. "Kozhi midhichu kunju shaagaadu"  her father would try to console her aching heart.

She hadn't much of an option at the time. Both her sons clutching onto her arms, her little girl perched around her waist with her tiny arms around her mother's neck, pressing deeper into Rajam's flesh, the cloth strap of a bag that hung from one shoulder. She had barely made it onto the ship when her daughter had broken out into a tantrum. "I want to walk with Anna, let me down , let me down" she had wailed, kicking her legs, trying to jump off Rajam's waist, forcing her to do what she never in her worst nightmare imagined she would. She sank her teeth into that tender arm that trustingly garlanded her neck. Her little one had whimpered with her mouth shut. In shock. In pain.

She ran her fingers through the boys' hair, wiping beads of glistening sweat off of their foreheads. "Will they ever see their father again?" The dark question hooded out of the deepest corner of her heart, where she had always tried so hard to bury it. She had to be hopeful in order to live on. She couldn't afford the luxury of hopelessness. Not now, not ever...
She had exhausted the one resource that gave her some solace every time she worried about how she would make it through the month. She had pawned her Thanga Oddiyanam, her close to last resort, and had hardly anything left of the proceeds . If only her trunks of silver had made it across the sea, at least the rest of the year would've been taken care of.

Rajam, along with her children, her father and little brother who was just  barely older than her elder son, were among the last to board the lofty ship - Jala Durga. The the vessel of hope, that promised to sail the children, women and the elderly to a safe haven, far from the then war ridden British colony of Burma; leaving in its wake a myriad broken hearts. After what seemed like a painfully long period of hiding underground in mud trenches at the sound of the siren, hoping they wouldn't be bitten by a poisonous reptile, putting out all the lights and spending night after night in pitch darkness, like the rest of the city, they (Rajam and her husband) were to move to a far off land that had been, at one time, home to their parents and now to them - India.
Her father had suggested  that she wear all her gold during their voyage for ease of safeguarding it. She had stood there, bedecked in all her gold like a bride, seeing her husband wave out what they both knew in their hearts was likely to be their last adieu. The irony ate into her being. Tears streamed down her face, her gut knotting up at the thought of the battle that lay ahead, a battle that she would have to face all alone, without her husband by her side. She glanced through the corner of her eye to see her trunks of silver on the boarding plank, and was relieved that they had made it onboard. Just then, the ship had sounded it's deafening horn as if marking the beginning of a battle. The boarding plank was hauled back into position sending her trunks of silver slithering off into the sea with a huge splash. She had looked on, helpless.
She had stood her ground on the deck, weighed down by her children, her luggage and a heavy heart, in spite of angry officials ordering her otherwise, till she had lost complete sight of her husband's face...taking in as much of it as possible. For she was sure she'd have to hold on to that image for the rest of her life.
"Abashagunamaa pesaadhe! Didn't Thangam's husband make it back to Kerala?" her father would say with fake optimism, trying to create hope for all to cling on to. But they all knew better...
It was known to be a ruthless journey from Burma to India by foot. Passing through unforgiving forests, a treacherous terrain, without food or drink for sustenance. The occasional bottle of Horlicks that the army helicopters dropped from above was fought over uncouthly by groups of otherwise united fellow travelers. Quick sands were known to have swallowed, without a warning, droves of unsuspecting men that took on the treacherous journey. The ground had to be dug up by sore hands for a glimpse of muddy water to quench their thirst... the sight and stench of death engulfing their senses.

It had been close to six months now with no sign or news of her husband. The thought of the obvious would choke her as she bit back tears every night, fearing they would give her secret hopelessness away. Her sons would have to grow up before their time, she thought recognizing the familiar pain of a forced adulthood that would be brought upon them.

She had half of the month ahead of her and the proceeds from the sale of her Oddiyanam would just about suffice. She touched her ear lobe as if reminding herself of her last resort- her Blue Jager diamond earrings. Her father had them specially made to order and had traveled all the way to India to pick them up for his Rajam's wedding. They had been tested for their Rashi- the luck they brought upon the family that owned them, as all diamonds were. For a quick second there she felt they had failed her. Growing up, her mother would narrate to her a fable of the diamonds that adorned the Goddess Kanyakumari's nose stud. They were known to emanate a beacon of light that brought lost sailors back home. Rajam found herself wondering for a moment if her Blue Jagers, in all their resplendence, would guide her long lost love back to her... and at once smirked at her child like optimism. Her head was beginning to hurt from her endless stream of thoughts. She turned the dull glow of her lantern out and forced her eyes shut as if shutting out her thoughts, drifting off to sleep.

At the break of dawn, Rajam dragged her exhausted being up from the jamakkaalam on the floor, and went about her morning chores with a melancholy that now had become her default state of being. She scrubbed the turmeric root onto the pumice and smeared some of the paste onto her taut legs. She felt her gut tighten. How different they had felt under his touch! She quickly snapped out of her reverie with a pang of guilt followed by intense grief. It had been a while since she had felt anything at all with this intensity. She poured a whole kodam of water on her head as if to wash away the intensity of her feelings. She managed to slip right back into her self created cocoon of numbness that had kept her sane all this while. Her bony index finger carefully shaping the kungumam into a neat circle onto her broad yellow forehead with the same melancholy she had begun her day with...

By afternoon, she had fed the family and  emptied all of the leftovers from lunch into a small bowl, while her father stretched himself out on the thinnai for a siesta. As much as she tried to cook just the right quantity given their penury at the time, she always ended up with some leftovers, even though it hardly compared to how much she was used to cooking back home. This was something that came to her naturally from seeing her mother do the same for years. They were used to cooking for the entire household including its servants and an uninvited guest or two who almost always showed up without a warning. "Periya kai di Rajam onakku" her friends would remark tinged with envy, a trait she was proud of and owed to her luxurious upbringing.

Her father called out to her to bring some leftovers for a beggar standing at the entrance. Thankful that she had something to give away in alms, she picked up the bowl of food and walked with slow deliberate steps toward the gate, numb even to the scorching ground under the soles of her feet. She stared blankly at her toes that peeped out from underneath her saree pleats like naughty children, with every step she took . At the gate, she stretched out her hand towards the beggar and was surprised to find that he he wasn't carrying a begging bowl. Mildly annoyed that she would now have to go back inside to find him a coconut shell to empty all the contents into, she slowly turned around... and froze. How could that be?  Had she really seen what she thought she had? Her heart pounded against her chest as she slowly turned around to see those pair of eyes again... her pair of eyes.... that she never ever imagined she'd see again. Now, the only part of his body that remained recognizable.
Her being frozen with shock...she let her knees buckle...dropping in front of him..... and finally broke down into a soft deep cry...of disbelief...of  joy...of pain ...of untold fears...of sheer relief...

PS: I am  putting this picture up for posterity: This was taken in Rangoon, just before the war broke out.
Anti clockwise  from top right: Rajam (Rajalakshmi), her husband (seated), her brother, her father, the older son, the little girl and the younger son (my maternal grandfather).

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