Chapter 1- India 1959 –The Heartbreaking Proposal that would change her life forever.
She heard a rumor that she was to be married off to someone from Malaysia. Walking back home from school one day, Aruna was teased by her schoolmates and friends about this bit of news they had heard about her. A relative who attended the same school with her had mentioned it to a friend, who in turn told another friend and soon it became a hot topic of conversation for the whole school and without reservation, it had spread like wildfire to the whole housing colony where they lived.
The news surprised Aruna tremendously. Were they talking about her? If they were, she hadn’t heard of it, till then. And how was it that the relative was more informed about the proposal than she was? It was a life-changing matter for her and one that didn’t amuse her one bit, not to mention how everyone else knew about it even before she did. And who was this man she was supposed to get married to?
According to Aruna’s relative, the boy’s mother had spoken to her elder brother and asked for her hand in marriage. Her elder brother had agreed without hesitation since he thought it best in her interest to marry her off to a family of wealth and good reputation and have her migrate to a land of great opportunity that held a promising bright future. Moreover, their elder sister was married to a Malaysian and lived a happy, luxurious life there.
Malaysia - held in great esteem and renowned as a favorite destination for migrants because of its economic development and progress during an era that saw its inception as an independent Country, was a land of job opportunities and trade at that time.
Immigrants from India were flocking there to create a better future for themselves and their children and to settle down to make it their permanent home.
It was an honor to have someone ask for her hand in marriage especially someone from a promising land like Malaysia, her brother told Aruna when he finally spoke to her at length about the proposal of marriage. “Think about it Aruna, you will be living close to our elder sister who is living a life of wealth and prosperity and who has a wonderful man for a husband. I am sure the boy you are going to marry is the same,” her brother had consoled her that day, when he saw the stark fear of getting married reflect in her eyes.
He had a good job in the government sector, so she had nothing to worry about as she was assured of a good secure life, were his parting words to her before he left for work that day. Aruna didn’t really listen fully to what her brother said. She only listened to bits and pieces of his conversation with her and even that, very vaguely. She was still trying to come to terms with her proposal from a total stranger. She was not in any way interested to hear about the man she was due to be betrothed to, although common sense prevailed and she knew that it was in her best interest that she had a little knowledge about what “the boy” does and get to know something about his background.
She had cried bitterly after her brother left for work and decided to speak to him when he got back that evening about her reservations in marrying a totally unknown person, not to mention moving away from the rest of the family in India and quite shockingly giving up her education in favor of a good proposal. Aruna was sure that there would be other suitors like him who would ask for her hand in marriage at an appropriate time when she was ready to get married. She really couldn’t believe that it was happening to her. It was always someone else that she heard about, some other girl from another family whose marriage was arranged, so she was at a loss at how to accept a proposal when she was not ready to get married!
After dinner that night, she approached her brother a little warily about her reservations.
“Chetan, I don’t want to get married now. I don’t think it is the right time for me because I have not finished my degree yet. Not only that, I think I am a little too young to get married in the first place, and I don’t want to leave all of you here or leave India for that matter and move so far away to make another foreign land my home and that too, to get married to a total stranger. I am really scared about the whole thing.” As she laboriously finished her sentence, she felt tears sting her eyes.
Her brother listened while turning the pages of the newspaper he was reading, totally disinterested at her point of view in the matter. He saw her fidgeting a little while waiting for him to say something to her and put the papers down before continuing in a coaxing manner. “I have already agreed to the proposal Aruna and as you know when I give my word, I don’t like to go back on it. This is a chance of a lifetime for you. You must understand that I had your best interest at heart when I agreed to the proposal.
He saw the tears that Aruna tried hard to hold back, spill at that moment. Telling her gently not to cry, he continued, “Your elder sister and brother in law find the boy a very good match for you. They were approached first with the proposal by the boy’s mother in Malaysia before his mother came down to India to ask for your hand in marriage. I know you haven’t finished your studies, but then you can always continue after you get married, can’t you, if it means so much to you, not only that in India girls are married off to good suitors at your age. Age shouldn’t be an issue to you. And how do you know that you will not like the boy or like to live in a Country like Malaysia, if you haven’t met him or experienced living there? God has blessed you with a chance like this Aruna. You should be grateful and accept it in good faith. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can say or do to change my decision. All the arrangements have been made for you to leave to Malaysia soon.”
Aruna sobbed loudly and ran to her room after hearing what her brother had to say to her. Before that, she tried pleading again with him not to send her away. She was only sixteen and she wanted to stay in India - her birthplace. She wanted to continue with her studies and she was not prepared to get married as yet. How could she leave her studies halfway? How could she be separated from the rest of her family members in India? She would miss them terribly and wouldn’t they miss her in return? She would especially miss her best friend Nila! They were supposed to graduate together, maybe even get married some day and live next to each other!
Even though she had an elder sister living in Malaysia, who was married to a rich businessman and enjoyed a flourishing life there, the thought of leaving India was nonetheless heartbreaking for Aruna. She didn’t want to go to Malaysia, no matter how appealing it was to the rest of her family members and relatives and she didn’t think herself lucky at all!
For days, the pain of knowing that everything had already been pre-arranged for her, clutched at her tender heart and she kept repeating all the reasons why she didn’t want to accept the proposal, first to her sister-in-law, then to her cousins and after that to her two other siblings. But all of them had nothing to say even though it concerned them terribly that she was so distraught and unhappy about the whole issue. They kept repeating that “she was lucky to get married to someone from Malaysia and not to worry, everything will be alright.”
Not to worry?? What were they thinking? She was sure that they didn’t and wouldn’t understand because they were not in her shoes.
The proposal didn’t appeal to her one bit and wasn’t that what was most important? Didn’t her feelings matter in any way? And in any case, she didn’t want to stay with her elder sister in Malaysia! And the worse of the matter was that, she had never met the man she was supposed to get married to! Why couldn’t anyone understand that! Everyone was being cruel to her without realizing it. How could she even think of living with a total stranger?
Her childhood and best friend, Nila was devastated when she heard the news that Aruna would be leaving India soon to settle down in Malaysia. Nila was dumbfounded that Aruna’s brother had totally disregarded Aruna’s feelings in the crucial matter. It was a traumatic thing for a girl to go through. They had both sat down in a quiet part of her house for hours and cried together. They couldn’t imagine being unable to be with each other every day. There had not been one day since the beginning of their friendship that they had been separated from each other. Their relationship was thicker than the relationship Aruna had with her siblings. Life won’t ever be the same for Nila and Aruna from that day onwards.
Her brother however, had first cajoled then when he saw that Aruna was adamantly refusing to accept his decision, he insisted that she accept the proposal and come to terms with the fact that soon she was leaving to Malaysia to get married. Didn’t her elder sister live a comfortably wealthy life there? It was his duty to get her married to someone who could look after her wellbeing, her brother repeatedly reassured her when he saw her distress and her tears. “I did what I promised our parents Aruna, to make sure that you are looked after well and that you get married to a good person, he elaborated,” trying to console her as much as he could, on the day she was boarding the ship that was to set sail to the Malaysian shores. Maybe in a way, he was trying to console himself too because Aruna noticed that his brave outlook belied a sad countenance.
Aruna shook her head tearfully and told her brother that she loved her life in India and was not interested in the proposal and would he reconsider his decision of sending her to Malaysia. It was still not too late for him to change his mind as the ship hadn’t left the port yet. But her brother stood his ground and told Aruna to accept her fate and destiny and be happy. Before he got off the ship, he told her that their elder sister and brother in law would be waiting for her at the port of arrival in Malaysia, so she had nothing to worry about when she arrived there, as she had family waiting to receive her.
Right after saying that, he left her standing on the deck, her tear-stained eyes still pleading with him not to send her away. As her brother walked away, he was himself ashen. It was devastating for him to see his younger sister leaving to another Country and so unhappy with a decision he thought he was right in making. Inwardly, he wished that he did not agree to the proposal.
Aruna had still clung on to an ounce of hope that morning, of changing her brother’s mind but nothing could convince him otherwise. Instead, her brother stood firm in his decision and told her that someday she would be grateful for this chance of a lifetime accorded her. There were numerous others who would jump at the chance and who were not as lucky as she was, he repeated encouragingly. She had stared blankly at him then. Wasn’t he understanding of how she felt at all? Didn’t he see that she was miserable leaving everyone in India?
Aruna walked into the ship and went down to find her cabin dejectedly. Once inside her cabin, she put her luggage safely in the compartment and climbed back up onto the deck of the ship so that she could wave her family goodbye. As the ship sounded its horn signaling it is leaving the port, Aruna felt so frightened and alone. And as the ship moved away further and sailed into the sea, she started waving frantically at her family members. She saw her brother and her sister-in law standing next to her two siblings and the rest of her cousins waving back at her. She cried so hard till she couldn’t cry anymore.
As the ship left the port, she saw them turning to leave to head back home. Were they crying like she did, she wondered, feeling so sad that it hurt so badly. Watching their turning backs, them walking away from her, will always leave a lasting impression on her because of the inexplicable anguish that it caused her. Would she ever see them again? She wondered for the umpteenth time, fear clutching her heart. The child in her who felt so frightened and alone at that moment, thinking about the new life awaiting her in Malaysia, will never be the same person she was again. Will she ever recover from this ordeal, Aruna thought, sad and disillusioned with the way her life was taking a different chart from the one she had always imagined it to be? No, never! She will never, ever recover from an ordeal like this!
The journey to reach Malaysia would take a fortnight by ship – the only mode of transportation to the Country at that time. Aruna thought of the distance and time it would take for them to reach there and dreaded the long journey ahead of her. She was traveling alone but her brother had spoken to the captain of the ship to keep an eye on her and to make sure that she was safe while traveling on his ship. She saw the captain shake his head acknowledging what her brother said and assuring him that he would most definitely keep an eye out for her and not to worry. Right after saying that her brother put some money into the captain’s pocket, shook his hands and left the ship. He didn’t turn back to look at her and Aruna’s gaze on him never once wavered.
As the ship left the port to set sail on its long voyage, a part of Aruna died inside of her, as she silently said a tearful goodbye to her family, friends and her beloved India. Her best friend Nila hadn’t come to the port to bid her goodbye and it was such a heart-wrenching moment for Aruna as she visualized her friend, sadness written all over her face, standing and crying in a corner as they said their goodbyes to each other, just before Aruna left her house. Nila stood outside the verandah of her house and tearfully wished Aruna a safe journey. She would write to her, Nila promised in between tears. It didn’t make Aruna feel any better - her heart sank even further hearing those heartfelt words coming from her dear friend. Would she really? Would Nila really keep in touch with her, Aruna questioned, a part of her doubting her friend’s words. Distance always had a way of breaking up a relationship. Even best friends become disconnected sometimes.
Standing all alone on the deck, with a forlorn expression on her face, Aruna felt herself drown in the choppy waters of the sea below, as the ship began its long voyage to a distant land so foreign to her. There were so many questions running through her mind as it slowly sailed out to the sturdy waters of the deep blue sea. She was moving to a foreign land where she was resigned to start a new life with a man she hardly knew and it terrified her. She wondered nervously trying to imagine what awaited her at the other end of the horizon.
All Aruna could tell for the moment was that, what she faced at that moment of time was something that had forced her to fit into the role of an adult, a role she was not prepared to get into simply because she was not ready for it. It was an instant transformation that she went through, from a teenager into a woman who was going to be married soon.
Traveling by sea turned out to be quite a nightmare for Aruna. There were so many people on the ship and their presence nauseated her more than the voyage itself. For the first few days, she felt nauseous and vomited into the sea and was told by a friendly lady who befriended her on the ship, that her ailment was called seasickness. The ship’s movement and constant motion made her feel giddy and turned her insides out so that whenever she ate, she threw up almost immediately. Aruna felt sick most of the time and had no appetite to eat her food at all, she acknowledged. The lady had a homemade remedy for it that she wanted to share it with Aruna. Aruna gladly accepted it.
The kind lady had with her a bottle of unripe mango pickle that she had prepared herself, to take on the voyage with her and gave Aruna a spoonful of that to eat with plain rice. Aruna couldn’t stand the smell and taste of the food that was served from the menu on the ship. All the food she tasted made her want to throw up even more.
Aruna felt so relieved that the sourness of the mango helped considerably to quell the bitterness that she felt in her mouth. The lady told her that she had picked unripe mangoes from her tree in her garden to make the pickle. She pickled it specially to eat on the ship to counter any sea sickness that she would have to endure on the days the queasiness took hold of her, while on the long journey. It was the perfect remedy for seasickness, she assured Aruna. Aruna agreed that it was and was thankful to the lady or otherwise, she wouldn’t have been able to eat anything on the ship. Not being able to eat anything would have made her really weak and tired and most definitely have made her voyage even more of a nightmare than it already was for her.
On her fifth day of sailing, Aruna felt a lot better and wasn’t so seasick anymore. She left her cabin sometime in the morning, and stood out on the deck to look out at the sea. For miles and miles at end, all she could see was the big vast expanse of dark blue waters. It glistened and shimmered highlighting the parts where the rays of the sun shined visibly on it. The sun was particularly blinding hot on that day and as she stood on the deck, she felt her skin burn due to the intensity of the heat. It didn’t take long before she walked back from standing at the edge of the railing and sat in a shaded area on the deck.
Since her cabin was really small and it made her feel claustrophobic, Aruna usually went up to the deck and spent most of her time out on the sprawling deck, walking around and looking out into the blue of the waters. There was virtually nothing else that she could do and she was not interested in mingling with the rest of the passengers on the ship. She was also not interested in playing any of the games in the Games Room or watch old movies and programs on a black and white television set there.
While out on the deck, there were days that she caught the sunrise, especially when she couldn’t sleep the night before and woke up in the wee hours of the morning, eager to greet the sun that was slowly wakening the sleeping world. On those days, she would sit expecting the sun to take her away to another faraway place in her mind, block all her misgivings and fear and let her exalt in its magnificence. But the sunrise was always something that she missed, not by her own doing though. It was because of the restlessness that she faced during the day that made her too tired and which subsequently resulted in her not waking up on time at the break of dawn, to catch its exquisite viewing.
However, to make up for missing the sunrise, every evening, without fail the magnificent sight of the gorgeous sun setting awaited her, its most ardent spectator, or was it the other way round and it was she who was seeking to capture the spectacular vision that never failed to amaze her?
Anyway, since she started on her voyage, there was not a day that Aruna missed watching the setting of the sun, whenever the weather permitted it. The first time she was witness to it, she believed that they were out to impress with their mesmerizing show of colors blending against the darkening sky, merging with the horizons of the sea, transforming the whole sky into a magical sphere of beauteous creation. She used to watch awestruck, till the last remnant of its blaze across the sky disappeared from sight.
There wasn’t much that she could do on the ship anyway, she had thought numerous times during her journey, some days really bored with the whole monotonous events of her days spent on the ship. She could read except that the only book she had brought along with her on the ship, had slipped from her hand and fallen into the waters on one of the days that she had her vomiting bout. She had completely forgotten that it was in her hands at that time.
Most of the passengers on the ship were men and so there wasn’t anyone that she could get close to or become good friends with. Aruna was overwhelmed by the number of people on the ship, especially the menfolk and in any case, she wouldn’t dare talk to a male passenger on the ship! The women had their own set of friends and did not really mingle much with her.
Anyway, they were much older to her and she was sure that even if they did try to make friends with her, they didn’t really have anything in common to talk about. The kind lady had informed her on one of the occasions they sat and spoke to each other out on the deck that the men were going to secure jobs in the plantation industry in Malaysia. Jobs were aplenty in that sector and the plantation owners were in dire need of laborers.
Aruna’s conversations with the lady who she referred to as Auntie almost always brought her to new awareness. Auntie was knowledgeable about so many things and especially about Malaysia, because she frequently traveled from India to Malaysia. Her husband worked in Malaysia while their children stayed back in India to finish their education. Auntie also informed her that she was waiting for her PR application to be approved. Then the whole family would move to Malaysia as permanent residents.
Aruna’s listened raptly, wondering why anyone would want to leave their motherland and move to another Country. However, Auntie did not always come up on the deck during the day. At the time when Aruna was plagued with seasickness, Auntie came around to see her almost every day but soon after that, Aruna rarely had a chance to speak to her or keep company with her. On the occasions that she did, it was usually during the evening hours when the weather was much cooler and even that was infrequent.
Since she was traveling alone, Aruna guessed that Auntie spent most of her time sleeping or relaxing in her cabin. “That is the only way to pass time quickly and not feel so sick on the ship,” Auntie once told Aruna, when in passing Aruna asked her why she didn’t come up to the deck as often as she did before. Aruna didn’t blame her one bit. The voyage was an almost torturous journey to undertake. There was nothing to really look forward to except visions of endless waters from beyond and all around. Unless one had an affinity to sailing, the voyage by ship to any destination was more of a dreaded one because of it long and arduous length of time.
As she sat, deep in thought, Aruna suddenly heard muffled sounds coming from the lower deck of the ship. It started getting a little louder and then she realized that the sounds were from two people arguing and shouting at each other. Her curiosity aroused, she got up to see what the commotion was all about, and as she walked down the steps to the lower deck, she saw a man hurriedly putting some notes into a bag that was strewn on the deck.
There was another man lying close to him and he was bleeding from a deep wound on his side. The man on the floor was groaning, holding on to his side and looked like he was writhing in pain. Both the men had heard Aruna coming down the stairs because they looked up to see her standing on the staircase with a shocked expression on her face. The man with the bag stared at Aruna for a few minutes, shouted some expletives at the man on the floor and ran quickly away in the opposite direction with the bag.
Having witnessed something as serious as this would definitely put her in a dangerous position with the two men, Aruna thought quickly. Even through her muddled thoughts, she contemplated asking the man who was groaning in pain if he was alright, but was too afraid to do or say anything at that juncture. After a few minutes of moving restlessly on the floor, moaning in pain, Aruna saw him get up and without another glance at her direction, limp awkwardly towards the same direction as the one the other man had taken. Aruna only hoped that he wouldn’t die from the loss of blood from his wound as it was oozing down his body, leaving blotches of red spots on the floor of the deck while he was staggering away.
Aruna retraced her steps on the staircase in a daze, frightened out of her wits and sat down once again in the same place where had she sat earlier. She thought hard about what she had witnessed. It was a good thing the men did not say anything to her or shout at her or worse still come at her with a knife or something equally dangerous! She wondered quite anxiously if the one with the loot would come back looking for her. She did get to see both their faces clearly and they knew that she could recognize them if anything! In the midst of her confusion, Aruna wondered if the man with the wound would see a doctor. If he did, what would he say when the doctor questioned him how he got hurt so badly? She then decided that he would be too afraid to tell anyone about his wound and would most probably nurse it himself. She wondered if the wound, if unattended would kill him.
For a long time, Aruna sat in a state of shock on the deck, hugging herself and did not realize that tears were streaming down her cheeks until she was brought out of her traumatized state of being, by a group of women who were walking past her to go down to the lower deck. Would they notice the blood stains on the floor, she thought, momentarily? One of them who noticed her tear stained face stopped to ask her why she was crying. She didn’t reply and tried to manage a weak smile at her instead and so, when the woman realized that she was not going to get an answer from her, she shrugged and left with her group of friends.
The winds blowing against Aruna’s face that morning did nothing to lessen the heat of the day that permeated her body and made her sweat profusely. She sat there sobbing, her body shaking with her continuous non-stop tearing. She tasted the saltiness of the breeze and mingled with her tears, it brought back memories of India. She thought desolately about her family back home. She missed her brother and every member of her family. She missed her school and her friends and most of all she missed her best friend. She wondered how she would cope in Malaysia. What was in store for her there? The thought of living there scared her. Her brother had told her not to cry and to be brave and face her future with courage. How could she? She was sixteen and was in the prime of her teenage life. She wasn’t ready to get into the adult roles in her life as yet.
Aruna never did meet the two men after their brief encounter that day and for that, she couldn’t be more thankful. She supposed that they did not have the intention to seek her out and harm her in any way otherwise, they would have come looking for her. She never mentioned the incident to anyone either. She never felt the need to talk about the incident even to Auntie. She felt safe just keeping it all to herself.