Saturday, April 21, 2007

Sathyavan and Savithri - Not fiction -

Seated in the open veranda of my parent's home in Chankanai in arid Jaffna province north of Ceylon, from where I could see the sub post office, within walking distance of the only bicycle repair shop, the fish market, church, a temple, the zinc-roofed cinema hall where shows are cancelled when it rains; far,far from the madding crowd of Colombo, I see boys after school jauntily in a pack, following girls on their way home. The boys in one hand books strapped by a cord, gesticulating with the other in boisterous banter, I could hear them; " Nice frock she is wearing" one would say, " She's the girl for you " another would comment. Sathyavan, Sathya as he was called, would sing aloud love songs from recent movies directing them to Savithri to the amusement of Savithri and her friends. This is how Sathya made his overtures to Savithri each day leisurely rambling behind her up to her house. Savithri encouraged Sathya by her coquettish smile looking back over her shoulder, coyly walking amidst the giggling gaggle of girls. " Sathya likes you Savi; that song is meant for you", her friends would tease her and Savi would protest, " no men, he is just being naughty." Savi welcomed the attention as she too liked Sathya.

Ponnamah observed all this through the holes in her cadjan fence. She did not like what she witnessed, a foreboding of impending calamity and a scandal that is sure to spin out of control she reckoned. She was convinced Savithri's parents should be forewarned. How could she do it? Being of a so called lower caste she had scant access to Savithri's home. And yet, the mother in her urged her on. So she mentioned it to the toddy tapper, the toddy tapper made it known to the dhoby and the dhoby passed it on to the barber who shaved and barbered Savithri's father in the open yard of his home. This is how neighborhood watch worked in these parts.

" What is this Savi I hear you are flirting with boys while returning from school?" The father inquired in a minatory tone.
" No Appah, I come only with girls." She replied obliquely.
" No I cannot have this. Even the slightest gossip will ruin your chances of marriage. Your brother Karnan will in future come to fetch you." The father decreed.

Not just female chastity but the appearence of chastity was the bed rock of this culture's code of honor. Girls were required to guard chastity like a miser his gold, like a brood hen her eggs. And so Karnan, twelve years old, would every day go to his sister's school and escort her home along with her friends. This posed a problem to Sathya. The friends conferred. Kullan the shrewed one said:
" Karnan I know loves Superman comics. I will win him over with a steady supply and you will be in good shape my friend,"

It worked. Sathya with his friends continued to walk behind Savi but avoided making amorous comments. Karnan became the messenger carrying letters beween the starry-eyed lovers. The purity, intensity, innocence and the pain of passion in their hearts were all poured out in these scented missives. Karnan would inform Sathya which temple festival Savi would attend and Sathya with his friends was there. If their eyes met just once, Sathya and Savi would go home thrilled to the soles of their feet. In public places, mothers and aunts kept unmarried girls on a leash - with their prying eyes. Their eyes like the beams of a lighthouse would sweep through the hall on and on looking out for recalcitrant urchins with errant motives. They were grounded in the dictum, " A watched pot does not boil over."

Sathya passed the university entance examination and went to Colombo, while Savi on completing the General Certificate Education Ordinary Level was removed from school. Sathya wrote once a week to Savi. The letters were sent to Kullan who was now working in an automobile repair shop and he would pass them on to Savi's brother for Savi. Sathya would spell out all that took place almost by the hour. His science lectures, his new friends , not one incident was missed. Savi would likewise account for her movements for the most part uneventful. Although they have to-date not spoken to each other, so graphic and detailed were they in their correspondence, the absence of face to face meeting in no way diminished their ardor. So frank were they in their outpourings that they even planned their lives together as husband and wife.

Sathya had now passed the final examination and was a graduate in science with a teporary teaching job in a nearby school. It was time to talk marriage the lovers agreed.

"How do I set about it?" Sathya inquired of his friend Kullan.
Kullan street smart and shrewd could be depended on.

" Look here Sathya" kullan counseled. " Under no circumstances should this affair appear to be a love match. That's a no-no. The whole thing will blow up. Savi's and Karnan's bone will be broken. We must make it look like a proposed marriage. I know a marriage broker. I will grease his palm and he will do the rest."

And so one day the broker went to Savi's house with the marriage proposal.

" Yes I would like to get my daughter married. Tell me more about the young man" The father demanded.

" He is a fine boy sir. Does not drink or smoke. A regular temple-goer. He is not greedy for a big dowry. All he wants is a good, modest, well brought up girl. I think your daughter fits the description. He has friends in Africa who are trying to get a job for him there. They are paid very well there you know." The broker then proceeded to fill the father in with details of the family background with casual emphasis of belonging to the right caste.

" I need time to think about it. Come next week" The father replied.
" In the meantime sir, why don't you give me your daughter's horoscope? I will check whether they match. The broker suggested. He took the horoscope with him.

The father excited, taking two steps at a time, dashed to his wife in the kitchen. " Kunjoo there is a proposal for Savi. Fine boy. Good caste. He is getting a job in Africa. No smoking. No drinking. Not interested in big dowry. This is luck by chance kunjoo."

The wife always to the point inquired, " What did you say to the broker?"
" I did not want to show I was thrilled. I said I needed time to think about it,"
" Now not a word to your sister Kunjoo. Next thing the who;e village will be talking about it. Go and discreetly check on the famiy and caste of this boy. If O.K. we can quickly have the registration and the wedding after a year when we have saved enough money."

The mother made the usual checks and found them to be satisfactory. The parents of Savi and Sathya exchanged courtsey visits and they were registered by a Notary in a quiet ceremony.

" Savi" said the father: " Sathya can come here to visit you. But until the wedding is over you cannot go out with him. We do not allow our girls to go out until they are properly married. Do you understand?"
Savithri looking at her toes nodded in assent.

Sathya, five-foot eight, wish bone slim, of fair complexion, wavy hair and sparkling eyes would come daily immediately after school, sit in the front veranda and talk to Savi. Savi wispy, willowy and well gtoomed, prancing all day like a young calf, humming her favorite tunes from the latest hits ( whistling by girls is tabooo) would have dolled up for Sathya's visit. Savi's mother would be seated all the while in the living room, ostensibly reading the news sheet " Thinakaran", out of sight but within ear shot. They continued to communicate their love through letters. This was the only vehicle by which they gave expression to their smoldering passion.

When Sathya went home one day after a visit to Savi there was a telegram from the principal of " Waterloo School for Boys and Girls" in Sierra Leone offering a job as teacher. If interested, he should proceed immediately it said. On his last visit to Savi, as Sathya was about to leave, her father said, " Savi, you could go up to the gate and wish Sathya " Good Bye." At the gate Sathya held Savi's hand and whispered: " I shall return in one year when your parents will be ready for the wedding, get married and we both can return to Sierra Leone. Until then we will write a letter a week giving all the news."

Savi and her parents began making feverish preparations for the wedding. Savi and her mother accompanied by an aunt went to India and purchased the koorai and other accoutrements. Relatives and friends of like caste jumped into the frenzy of preperations for the wedding with gusto. Arrangements were made to collect carpets, cooking utensils, lamps and lanterns for the wedding. Work on the pandal to accommodate the guests was to begin soon. Velan the expert in this field was informed. Relatives and neighbors hearing the glad tidings visited at all hours to express their joy. Savithri would rush from kitchen to guests gamboling in their company serving coffee, un-cooled Orange Barley soda from the opposite boutique. Her friends teased her and playfully taunted her. Savithri with the coyness becoming of a bride lapped it all up in good humor for she was convinced she was on the cusp of a new life of passion and connubial ecstasy.

In Sierra Leone, Sathya was met at the airport by the principal and his friend, Skanda who had arranged the job. A two bed room college flat was allocated to him. Like his compatriot teachers he bought a four year old Volkswagen car on a loan from Barclays Bank. He would remain indoors, prepare his school work and write to Savi all about Sierra Leone, the school, the habits and customs of the people, his car and his friends.

A few months went by. One Saturday Skanda along with other Ceylonese teachers visited Sathya and said to him; " Look here Sathya you cannot remain indoors all the time. Week-ends are for fun. We visit Tejan's bar and have a few beers. C'mon join us."
Reluctantly he went along. Khadijah, the daughter of the owner Tejan, was always at the service counter. An attractive ebullient girl, full of verve, bubbling with buoyant effervescence, she was the cynosure of all who frequented the bar. Khadijah was constantly surrounded by noisy, belligerent boys and was tired of them. She saw in Sathya a shy, respectful, good looking " Indian boy". Sathya found Kahadijah's loose and easy ways attractive. He admired the way she handled the tipsy patrons bouncing from one customer to the next pandering to their needs. Sathya began frequenting the bar alone. Waterloo, a tiny village approximately fifty miles from the capital Freetown, had very little to offer by way of entertainment. Transported across thousands of miles - from south asia - and transplanted in an alien land - west africa - the loneliness Sathya experienced was lacerating. In khadijah he found an accommodating companion with whom he could communicate free of native inhibitions.
He would wait till the bar closed and accompany her up to her house near-by. Khadijah's father noticing this increasing familiarity between them said to Khadijah : " Why do you dismiss your Indian friend at the gate? He could come in and have meals with us. Let me tell you this khadi, if you think he will marry you forget about it. Indians marry only Indians.
" Pa" Khadijah replied politely: " I think Satty is different from the others."
" Look here daughter, the only difference between two Indians is the name and that too seldom"

Meanwhile Sathya's letter writing became sporadic and sparse in content. Letters from Savithri's letters were lying around the flat unopened. Savi grew depressed and very lean. Savi's father communicated this to Sathyavan's father, Thasan. Thasan wrote a letter to the principal of " Waterloo School for Boys and Girls" inquiring about his son's health, informing him of his concern over his silence. The principal aware of what was going on paid no heed to the letter. Savi's depression grew worse. Sathya's mother on her visit to see her daughter-in-law was moved by her condition. She went home and said to her husband: " Send a telegram to Sathya that I am very ill. Doctors do not give much time."
Mothers know intuitively that this special arrow in their quiver never misses its mark. The umbilical attachment between mother and child is never severed. Sathya on receiving the telegram got special permission to travel and arrived at the Palali airport north of Ceylon. In a matter of days he was married to Savi. Two days after the wedding the couple departed for Sierra Leone. Sathya had to pay for his wife's air fare.

On the day Sathya arrived at the flat pointing to the larger of the two rooms he said ," Henceforth that will be your room and I will be occupying the other."
" Why do we have to sleep in separate rooms?" Savi wanted to know.
" I work 'till very late and my hours are irregular. That's why" he replied.

From the time they arrived at their flat in Sierra Leone Sathya had nothing to do with his wife. Savithri never left the flat. He forbade his friends visiting his home. " She's not quite right there machan" he would say touching his head with his index finger. Sathya continued to spend all his nocturnal hours with Khadijah, coming home only to sleep and that too seldom. Savithri could not communicate with her parents. She did not have the money, the means or the wherewithal to mail her letters. Letters from her parents were addressed to Sathya's school which he destroyed.

Growing up like a nun in a cloistered home, Savithri was now condemned to loneliness and neglect within the confines of the flat, living her life only in romantic imagination. As dream like days turned into nights and, sleepless nights changed to dawn conjoined by misery, her mind was afflicted. Unglued from its mooring, her mind was adrift like a cork on the ocean. Her unkempt appearence, her un-groomed hair now like a floor mop, the far away look in her eyes, glazed and un-shining, confirmed a mind adrift. Like Ophelia in Hamlet she began to ramble and sing snatches of songs. When Sathya left for school Savithri in her night clothes hanging on her unevenly would sit mute at the entrance of the building or shamble in the yard laughing without reason.

This soon became an embarassment to the other Ceylonese teachers in the school. So one day Sathya's friend Skanda and two other Ceylonese teachers took Sathya to a bar away from Tejan's and implored that he make-up with Savi and it was time he broke-up with Khadijah. Sathya shouted:
" I was tricked into this marriage. I do not want to have anything to do with her."
He thus confirmed his giddy infatuation for Khadijah and his visceral indifference towards Savithri.
" Yes I love Khadi. you are wasting your time." Sathya was inflexible.
" In that case send her back Sathya. This is an embarassment to all of us. Can't you see her mind is affected ? " Skanda pleaded.
" She was already crazy when I married her, Skanda. I do not mind her being sent back but I have no money for her passage. I am already in debt paying for her passage here."
" This has become the talk of the town Sathya. What we will do is this. We will send the hat round, collect enough money for her passage. You pay us back when you are able to do so." Skanda proposed.

This was agreed. A colection was initiated. Tejan made a significant contribution. Sathya and Skanda took Savithri to the Lungi air port and, soliciting the assistance of a flight assistant, saw her off on the British Caledonian Airways.

Sathya never returned to Ceylon. Like retreating soldiers he cut the wires and destroyed the bridges behind him. Like a slithering snake that sheds its skin, Sathyavan shuffled off to Khadijah to begin a new life. He now lives with Khadijah with their three children. ( The writer met them on his third visit to Sierra Leone.)

And what became of Savithri? She who was made to sacrifice at the altar of social conformity and conventional morality,the tactile happiness of the moment,the palpable pleasure of the present - for society's promise of future rewards, a promise which was never honored.

In the deep, dark pitiful cavern of her tormented mind she began to hear voices and the decibel of discordant notes, the clanging and banging grew louder and louder. Minutes appeared to her like hours and hours, a never ending day. Her heart could no longer carry the weight of sadness, of disappointment in a dream that never even once saw the light of day.

And so one day when her parents were away attending a wedding, driven by a deranged mind and a heart impaled, torn and rent asunder by grief, Savithri took her life by swallowing a potion of the local arsenic, " Polidol"

The parents of Savithri and friends of Savithri's parents wonder, sadly, to this day, is murder committed only by wielding a weapon.

Thus ended star-crossed, the love and the life of a once starry-eyed lover, still in full bloom. As the poet Thomas Gray in his elegy so eminently and with prescience tells us:

" Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness in the desert air."

Inspired by a true story. By K.B. Chandra Raj