by the time they drove up to the plantation it was almost seven in the evening and the sun had set. the journey had been long and sunita was very tired, beside feeling a little cut off from it all, bereft. everybody had spoken a lot at the airport, her mother was the only one who hadn’t come to see them off. she was distraught, and had been breaking into bouts of weeping since the previous evening. this was the second time a daughter of hers was going away.
sunita could still hear the buzz of voices as her father and three uncles and all the aunts and cousins said many things. her elder sister had come down for the wedding and kept telling her to be brave, their youngest sister and two brothers added to the commotion. sunita smiled and said her goodbyes, then started walking toward the aeroplane. it was a viscount painted in white, silver, and dark blue, the colours of the indian airlines corporation. madhu chacha was a pilot and had told the crew she would be flying today, to take good care of her and of their son in law, subhash nair.
sunita felt tears come suddenly and blur her vision. son in law. her husband. she swallowed hard and moved her head to one side, wanting the tears to slide down the rim of her eyes and clear, she tried hard to see the wings logo on one side of the nose of the plane. ever since she was a child she had loved planes. the image of wings made her feel safe and it was exciting somehow.
a light touch on her elbow. it was subhash she’d known even without looking up or pausing. she couldn’t believe for a moment she was leaving all that was familiar, that was her home these past twenty two years, she was walking away from all that to go somewhere she had never been to and with a man whom she barely knew.
“we’re home,” subhash said, turning into a driveway and going down following its curve till they came up to the front of a single storied bungalow, its outline faintly visible in dark.
his voice sounded tired but there was something alive underneath. sunita started at the intrusion. they were here. he was grinning at her she could tell, even if she couldn’t see him clearly. there was a huge darkness all around, no lights anywhere, street lights had disappeared somewhere along the way, the headlights of the ambassador car had shone on an expanse of trees and shrubs, wire mesh fences, and the unpaved path in front, then parts of the house.
after a three hour flight to cochin, they had stopped for a quick tea and sandwich, before starting on the long drive down winding roads through endless villages and towns to the rubber plantation he owned on the slopes of the western ghats.
greenwood estate. post office teekoy. kottayam.
subhash had said his mother had chosen the name. both his parents had died in a plane crash when he was eighteen, he was an only child.
sunita tried to smile, though she knew she must be looking fairly tearful by then. the lights on the porch of the house came on. three men and a lady stood outside greeting them. sunita noticed the men wore white lungis with half sleeved bush shirts and the elderly lady wore a plain white saree with a thin green border.
“kutty, how’s everything?” subhash asked one of the men as he got out of the car and came around to open the door for sunita.
“sir, everything okay, sir!” kutty smiled and then turned to sunita with folded hands.
he was a dark large man with a big bushy moustache. sunita wondered how she was supposed to greet people in kerala.
“namaste, madam!” kutty said bowing slightly. the others followed suit. sunita wanted to start wailing. how would she live here among people she did not know? the lady stepped forward and smiled at her, telling her something in a language she didn’t understand.
“okay, anamma, madam will go and see her room, but she doesn’t speak malayalam, so try some english words, amma taught you a lot didn’t she, okay?” subhash said cheerily, then he put an arm around sunita’s shoulder and started taking her toward the shallow steps leading to the wide low verandah of the house.
at the foot of the steps, he grasped her right hand tightly in his left then skipped up the three steps and walked into the house with her.
subhash. he had said his father was a great admirer of netaji subhas chandra bose and so had named his son after him. sunita had been surprised. she had looked at the tall dark stranger she’d just met at nimmi aunty’s party with a blank stare. people in kerala, that state formed only two years ago in 1956, also knew of netaji? she had been born and raised in calcutta and here of course netaji was known to all, revered by many.
“although the maharaja of travancore was not too keen on it, we are a part of india you know! yes, mr bose was my father’s hero!” subhash had said with a light laugh. he had a gravelly voice and his vowels sounded different, a bit more rounded, almost as if he liked to linger on them. his skin gleamed, it reminded her of coffee, no milk added. his hair was cropped short but even then the curls managed to make an appearance, spreading tight and dense across his head. he was dressed formally in a crisp white cotton shirt and and a jacket of dark brown gaberdine. his teeth sparkled when he smiled. but even then on that first meeting, sunita had noticed mainly his eyes… and yes, his different voice, low, with a grain in it, it seemed to touch her skin. his eyes, they were brown, a good few shades lighter than his skin, they had a quicksilver quality, now light, now darkening, now glinting. she knew she had stared. she had also wondered how a man could have such long eyelashes.
sunita had never before felt any sort of feelings for a man, other than of course, for her father, uncles, grandfathers… family. girls were not supposed to look at men and imagine all sorts of things, she knew. as for husbands, one’s parents found them. she was meant to study, become a graduate, start on her post graduation if need be, and by and by, between family, extended family, friends, those in punjab and delhi, they would home in on a “boy” considered suitable and help set up an arranged marriage. she would be asked to meet him a couple of times and let her mother know if she were okay with the idea. if she liked the boy. this in itself was considered most progressive in many ways. and that is exactly how piya didi had got married. sunita never really thought of herself as the sort of person who could fall in love either, she was a fairly matter of fact girl who had completed her graduation with honours in history and was now studying law, first year. she thoroughly enjoyed raj kapoor nargis films, and being in calcutta she also watched suchitra uttam movies. suchitra was a beauty, sunita liked her sense of style. romance was interesting, but it was not for her, sunita was quite sure. and anyway, such things happened in films.
subhash was in calcutta on work and was staying with his maternal aunt, mrs sambhavan, who was nimmi aunty to practically everyone. she and her mother were good friends.
subhash had dropped in at their place the next evening. nimmi aunty had had a chat with her mother on the phone. subhash, she said, needed a little help with buying some things for his cousins in cochin, would sunita be able to take him shopping? nimmi aunty was clearly very fond of her nephew and the fact that he had studied physics in oxford thrilled her no end. mummy had liked subhash too, “very nice fellow, doesn’t have any south indian accent,” she had told her father, “he’s not fair, but not bad looking you know, and thank god, no moustache!”
they had gone to new market, then gariahat bazaar. while dropping her back, subhash had asked her if she would like to show him victoria memorial on sunday. sunita had frowned slightly. didn’t he have any friends in calcutta? and also, she hardly ever went out with young men like that, alone. he had said, it would be nice and maybe her younger sister would like to come along.
subhash had spent two weeks in calcutta. apart from victoria memorial, she had taken him to see the national library, the lake, and the old synagogues and churches in central calcutta. they had had tea and cakes at the famous cake shop flury’s on park street one evening. her sister had accompanied them on every occasion. meena was in class ten and had many observations on everything. subhash and she would chat amiably about films, books, calcuttta versus cochin, cricket, even physics. while eating the rum balls at flury’s, subhash had watched her for a while and said with absolute certainty, “you like this? oh you’ll love the fruit and rum cake mona aunty makes then.”
mona aunty was one of his mother’s five sisters who lived not far from his place. sunita had found herself wondering how she’d ever taste that cake sitting here in calcutta.
and when he left after a couple of weeks, she had been surprised at how much she missed his keen questions, his brisk, sometimes brusque, sounding straightforward talk, his open laughter. and yes, his eyes. she had gazed at him without saying anything as he had stood outside their home a moment longer than he usually did, the night before he left. she hadn’t known what she’d wanted to say. he had smiled slightly as he turned away with a smart, “sunita, thank you!”
thank you. that was all.
sunita had wondered if she would ever see him again. she had tried her best to concentrate on her law classes and not think of subhash. meena wouldn’t stop talking about him though, she was now quite sure she had to go to england to study medicine. every time mummy heard that she frowned. it was difficult enough her youngest daughter wanted a profession, now talk of going outside the country? sunita wished they would all keep quiet or bicker about something else.
the letter arrived seven days later. it was in an envelope. a beautiful plain white one made of a paper of heavy grammage, an embossed pattern all across.
it was a pleasure to meet you in calcutta this time. how are you? i hope your law classes are proving to be a bit more interesting than before. i do appreciate your taking the time to show me around your city. this was my first visit to that part of the country and naturally everything felt new and unfamiliar. however i enjoyed myself thanks to meena and yourself. how is she? she is a bright child, she will make a fine doctor some day i am sure.
i look forward to hearing from you. i told mona aunty about the rum balls you so relish and she said you ought to try her fruit and rum cake. perhaps some day…
sunita had wanted to laugh. she had in fact smiled and felt weightless for an instant. like she was lifted off the ground, soaring. she had touched the fine onion skin paper of the letter, the bold strokes of black ink. she had missed subhash and not known exactly what to do about it.
of course, she had replied. and he had written back.
in early november, almost six months after he left, he had returned. in his last letter he had said, he wished to speak to her parents about them. sunita had felt shaken, practically giddy. talk about them? what was there to talk about?
he had said to her parents that he had grown to like her in the short span of time they had met and wished to marry her if they had no objection. he had furnished them with all sorts of details as to his family, his finances, his education, his years overseas, whatever they wished to know. he’d said, he could understand their worry and hesitations over him being from a completely different part of india, nowhere near punjab. but he’d assured them he would make her happy and hoped that was important.
when her father had said, this had never happened before in their family, how could they agree to a match from another community and that too from the south, people whose language even they didn’t understand, and what’s more, sunita would not have a large family to help her settle in, take care of her, subhash had kept quiet. he had requested however that her parents ask her once if she wished to marry him before turning down the proposal.
meena had hidden behind a door and reported the conversation verbatim. sunita had felt a strange warm melting sensation around her knees as the talk progressed. he wanted to marry her. bold black ink strokes… glinting brown eyes… gravelly voice… somewhere far away in a rubber plantation. what was a rubber plantation like?
she sat up in bed, startled. where was she?
sunita looked around a little lost. then she heard the sound. and it all came back.
that sound was the first thing she’d noticed when they had walked into the house the evening before.
subhash had taken her to the french windows at the far end of the room they had stepped into. it was black outside, but that rushing sound had filled her.
he had put his arms around and asked, “can you hear the stream, sunita? it flows through our estate… i hope you like it… never stops…”
sunita had found herself laying her head on his chest and hearing his heart beats over the rush of the stream. our estate, he’d said. she had liked the sound of that, even though she had no idea what a rubber estate looked like.
then, she had been so tired, she had almost slept off standing there.
she was alone in the room now. she recalled him taking her to the bedroom, she had changed quickly into her simple cotton nightie, she had not let her mother get those uncomfortable silk lingerie her sister so loved, and lain on the bed, waiting for him. he had gone to have a shower and she must have slept off.
her eyes fell on the neatly folded onion skin paper on the bedside table.
welcome to our home. i have to leave now i am afraid, work starts early on the estates, usually around 7 o’clock. i hope you are feeling rested, you were so tired last night i didn’t wake you up for dinner. you must be famished. anamma will have breakfast ready, do let her know if you’d like her to make something the way you like it. i should be back by 4 o’clock, i will take you around to meet some of our neighbours then. mona aunty is keen to meet you.
i have left a few things for you in the cupboard in the other bedroom. i thought you might like a room of your own as well.
love… subhash. sunita blushed. he had never said that to her. actually, now that she thought about it, she had never said it to herself either. she had never asked herself what exactly she felt for him. she missed him. she was happy when she thought of him, she waited for his letters. his voice had a smoothness, yet a rasp; and his irises were clear translucent. subhash, she liked his name. when her father had called her to his study and asked her if she wanted to marry subhash, she had looked at the faintly worried look on her parents’ faces and nodded slowly. she had no idea why, but yes, she did want to spend the rest of her life with him. it had felt a little unreal. no one that she knew of had married outside the community. yes, one of her mother’s third cousins had married a kashmiri girl, but then she had come to live with his family and become more punjabi in many ways than even her aunts in jalandhar were.
the hunger pangs came all of a sudden. sunita changed quickly and went into the kitchen looking for anamma and food. anamma beamed at her and said a lot of things in malayalam. all sunita understood were “breakfast”, “eat”, “passion fruit juice”.
there were fluffy white dosa like things on a plate. sunita pointed at them and raised her eyebrows with a smile.
“appam,” came the answer on a return smile. then anamma pushed forward a gravy like dish toward her. it was a bengal channa curry, sunita discovered. she tore a piece of appam and dipped it in the smooth brown gravy and took her first bite. before she knew it, she’d had several appams and almost finished off the chickpea curry.
sunita tried the banana jam on hot toast, passion fruit juice, fresh water melon and finally she had a cup of tea. anamma showed her the tin of tea leaves. it was darjeeling. the old lady gesticulated and tried to tell her something but it was impossible to understand.
when the loneliness came it caught her by surprise. she could feel a sense of despair rising. what had she done? how would she manage here? she knew no one, she understood nothing. and the place was so secluded, so far away from everything. there was nothing here for miles around. only plantation.
she missed her mother, she wished she could hear meena’s prattle, or even her brothers and their nonstop fights.
she walked over to the french windows and looked out. before her stood row upon row of tall slender trees. rubber trees, yes they must be that. the bark was light and the branching started high above, the trees grew on a slope. sunita peered and there way down below she could see a sliver of something glinting. it was the stream.
it seemed to call her.
she felt her feet move and she was running she realised. her red silk saree was getting in the way. mummy had said she should wear nice bright sarees for a few days, after all she was newly married and so what if there was no mother in law at home, one had to follow the customs.
sunita clutched her saree on either side and hitched it up, and kept running. she went out of the house, turned to her left and almost without even seeing where the path lay, she rushed down between the trees, down the slope, toward the water, toward the sound. the sound that he had said never stops.
a young, fine boned, slim girl, her loosely made plait swinging down to her hips, the free end of her red saree riding the wind opening out like a wing as she flew down, down the stone steps along the gradient, her feet fleet and impatient, her breath hastened, a nameless energy propelling her…
the green all around stayed still.
when she reached the brook’s edge, she stopped at last. she was still breathing fast, her mind in disarray. she closed her eyes and sank down on the ground. the sound was right by her ear. louder, fresher, bigger.
she thrust out an arm and touched the water. never stops. he had said, never stops.
they spent their wedding night at nimmy aunty’s place. aunty had decorated the room with lots of flowers, on the bed, on the windows, everywhere there were rajanigandha streamers. rose petals were strewn all around. candles flickered in the corners. she had said, after all the bride was punjabi, her wedding night should be the way she had always dreamed it would be.
sunita sat still on the bed wondering what exactly was expected of her. piya didi had nudged her hard a few times, hurting her, and then winked at her repeatedly while leaving. meena thankfully had been talking to subhash so he hadn’t noticed her other sister’s antics.
after locking the door, subhash walked quietly up to sunita and smiled, then he sat down on the bed beside her and without preamble pulled her into his arms. sunita felt herself go warm all over, then begin to tremble. this was the first time in her life that a man was holding her like this. despite all the movies she had watched and liked, she really was not prepared for this… especially the gentleness. he stroked her shoulders and back lightly, he leaned down and pecked her on her cheek. even as sunita thought, he kissed me, he was helping her lie down. then he covered her with the bright pink satin quilt mummy had given them and got up.
he went and lay down on the other side of the bed and pulled his end of the quilt over himself. she heard him settling in and with a crisp “good night, mrs nair!” he turned on his side and went to sleep.
sunita smiled involuntarily. she had to admit she was also a bit disappointed.
it was almost 3 o’clock. she got up from the stream’s edge and made her way up. the leaves of the rubber trees were moving in the wafting breeze, the slightest whisper in the air. she looked up at the tree tops and let the sun catch her eyes… she had never seen so many trees before it seemed to her.
when she reached the front of the house, she sat on a moss covered step. she had no idea where it went. the quiet enveloped her, had she ever been surrounded by nature so completely?
the garden around the front had an informal air, but it was lush and vibrant with quaint hidden away arbours, elegant terraces, groves here and there. flowers grew on shrubs, trees, neatly arranged beds, on the wall where the earth had been cut and the ground leveled to make space for the bungalow.
obviously there was a good gardener here. but had she ever seen flowers like these? what were those pale pure blue blooms on the creeper? and what was that large pink lily like flower? sunita touched the soft, thick petals.
“good afternoon, madam,” it was kutty. he had materialised from somewhere.
sunita smiled looking confused.
“that is heliconia, madam, ” he said enthusiastically, his head shaking sideways as if he was saying no to something, “ginger flower, there are many types. this one sir subhash liking very much…”
he walked with her around the grounds, introducing her to plants she never ever had imagined she’d see. pepper vines. bread fruit tree. cardamom bushes… sunita stared mystified at the little pods growing at the base of a shrub, kutty said were fresh cardamoms. there were a couple of clove trees, many rose apple and guava trees, large plumes of hanuman kireedam flowers shone bright orange, butterflies with wing spans wider than her palm flitted around sunita. kutty pointed to a vine and said, “vanilla… fruit coming soon.” orchids, anthurium, hibiscus bright red, begonias in clusters of pale and dark pink, blue to mauve hydrangea, sunita felt a calm begin to seep into her.
kutty said he had to go and help with some work in the plant. she sat on the steps again. she must find the passion fruit tree tomorrow, she decided. a bird flew by, colours gleamed on its neck and breast. her eyes fell on the tree beside which she sat. it was a fairly nondescript one. not very tall, bushy, with small leaves in a dark polished green. there were several brown fruits hanging on the branches. what were they? they didn’t look like chikoo.
sunita plucked a fruit and examined it. it was not large and it looked quite ordinary, nothing special. the flesh seemed firm, she squeezed it between her palms and it cracked open. inside lay a brown seed, egg-shaped, hard, and smooth. but what caught her eye and left her breathless was the red lace that covered it, lying flush against the brown. she stared at it astounded, she had never seen anything like this before. a lace on a seed? an intricate and ornate filigree on a plain solid dome. it was delicate and fine yet its colour had fire in it, a deep saturated full colour. it seemed to hold the seed in a protective embrace, gentle but sure.
how perfect they looked together, sunita thought. as if neither could do without the other. hidden inside a nondescript shell so much beauty. what was it doing there? what was this thing called? again, she had no answer, but you had to believe in creation looking at it.
she lifted her hand and touched the lace. yes delicate… and beautiful, almost impossibly so. she thought of a man standing on the steps a little longer, his eyes unblinking. she felt a quiet touch on her elbow. she heard his unhurried breathing as he settled into the bed and said “goodnight, mrs nair!” before turning on his side and going to sleep. a rustle of onion skin paper, a hand catching hers tightly. and suddenly she seemed to understand what anamma was trying to say about the tea. he had bought it for her, he knew she liked darjeeling tea.
his voice had the familiar graze in it when he said, “nutmeg and mace, sunita… have you ever seen a nutmeg tree before?”
she looked up startled, but she felt she had known he’d find her here… right here by the tree, holding that unknown fruit in her hand, just like that.
jaiphal and javitri. nutmeg and mace.
mummy always said they were precious expensive spices and their fragrance added depth to a dish, but one had to be careful. put too much and it overpowers everything, spoils the taste.
sunita shook her head and said, “no… never.” she stepped closer to him and looked up at his face, his eyes.
he watched her without saying anything for a while, just a fraction of a second longer than usual.
“shall we go to mona aunty’s place? let’s see how good her fruit and rum cake is…” he said with a wide grin. his teeth were so white. his skin looked like coffee. the brown of his irises were lighter still in the sun. sunita reached out and held his hand as they walked toward the front door.
“subhash… i like the name,” she said. she wondered what he had left for her in the cupboard. she hoped it was something she could wear.
if you go to kottayam district in kerala and find yourself visiting a home of a friend in a rubber estate, you might here of the punjabi lady who married a malayali and has been living there happily for years. i don’t know her, but she may have triggered this story in my mind along with a million other things that filled my senses on a short stay up there recently. i had to write something i knew about all that i saw and felt. i hope you enjoyed the story of sunita and subhash, two people who may never have met and married, but they did. the year is 1958, indian airlines corporation flew viscounts and fokker friendships back then. even dakotas i think. and i was surprised to see the sprawling park by the sea in cochin, named after netaji subhash chandra bose. the visual is edited from a photograph of a nutmeg fruit someone cracked in half for me so i could see what lay inside.