I didn’t notice him as we checked in at the reception, at a resort at Kudaal, in Konkan. He was standing behind us, waiting patiently for us to complete our formalities. It was only when the manager beckoned him saying, “Krishna, take their luggage to the cottage,” that I turned around and his eyes met mine. They were grey-green, like two lasers cutting through my skin and bones right up to the core to scan and capture what hid underneath. Taken unawares by the intensity of his gaze, I felt defenceless and exposed, but strangely, not violated. He scanned the rest of us too, as we stood still, immobilised by his scrutiny.
I couldn’t judge whether he was old or middle-aged. His wizened face had braved many seasons. It was as if he had seen all that there was to see and accumulated the wisdom of the world inside his being. Whatever he had been through had left his forehead creased and a criss-cross of lines on his face, which was more of a give-away of his journey than his palm. His skin formed three pairs of parentheses at the corners of his mouth, which made three folds when he pursed his lips. I smiled at him and he nodded back, not saying a word. I concluded that he was around sixty years of age but as he extended his hands to lift our luggage, I saw that he was sinewy and tough, like men way younger than he looked, whose bodies are tautened by hard labour and the youth they have on their side. His russet, reddish brown skin was stretched tight over his flesh. It glistened with his sweat. It was as if he was two people at the same time, what with age sitting on his face and youth surging through his blood. Not a muscle twitched on his face, but I could almost hear the turbulence raging inside him, waiting to streak his body.
He wore a weathered light blue cotton shirt, which had two bulging chest pockets, receptacles for tiny menu cards and other odd stuff, which I couldn’t see. He had folded his sleeves right up to his elbows, leaving his forearms bare and free to work without any obstruction. Below it, he wore a pair of once-white pyjamas, which rested ten inches above his ankles. He swung two of our hand bags over his shoulders and lifted two suitcases, one with each hand, with the deftness of a weightlifter. As he straightened up, the salt-pepper curls on his balding head bounced wildly. We followed him, Krishna of Konkan, half running to catch up with the man who hardly reached our shoulders, but whose strides covered incredible distance, in spite of the weight he carried.
Keeping the suitcases on the ground, he opened the cottage door with a pair of keys which hung around his neck on a thick red thread. As we settled in, I asked him, “Can we have some tea, please?” The clerk at the reception had informed us that Krishna was the one-point contact for all our needs. “Now?” he asked, irritated by my audacity to request a warm beverage when the kitchen had closed. It didn’t matter that I had reached the place after almost a 12-hour drive. I had heard about the abrasiveness of the Konkanis, but was at the receiving end of it for the first time. “No,” he said brusquely. “At 4.30 only,” he added with a finality that broke every rule of basic hospitality. I was left gaping, preparing myself for more than an hour’s wait for a simple hot beverage, which I would have prepared in my kitchen in a jiffy. It angered me to be at the mercy of a man who had no compassion for human beings with parched throats, and my holiday had only just begun!
Fifteen minutes later there was a knock on the door. I opened it to see Krishna standing with a tray holding three steaming cups of ginger tea. “I made it myself,” he said, as I took the tray from his hands and thanked him. He dismissed me with a wave of his hand and I admonished myself for judging him too soon. Later, as I sat on the swing outside the cottage, I saw him uncoil a long blue pipe, attach it to a tap in the adjoining garden, and open it to water the plants. Not a drop emerged. He looked at the mouth of the pipe for only a moment and began coiling the pipe with the equanimity of a sage. He returned with large buckets filled with water and splashed water on the plants with a plastic tumbler. Soon, the garden came to life, as drops of sunlit water danced on the foliage. He disappeared for some time and within minutes was running from cottage to cottage carrying trays holding cups of steaming hot tea, returning to collect the emptied cups. Later, he swept the paths leading to the cottages, and collected dried leaves and the garbage littered by uncivilised guests, into a wicker basket.
“Krishnamama,” I called out. “Have you had your tea?” He looked up, surprised by my overture. Then, contemplating whether or not to answer, he waved his hand to indicate that he hadn’t. “Oh, but you must be so hungry. You’ve been working non-stop. Take a break,” I said. He looked away, hoisted the basket over his head and headed towards a large garbage bin. I couldn’t focus on the book I was reading. It was getting dark. Soon, I would be ordering dinner but I couldn’t take my mind off this human machine that chugged along with no fuel to recharge it. When he came with the dinner, he looked freshly bathed and had changed his clothes. Placing the tray on the table, he looked at me and smiled. “When will you eat?” I asked. “Later, when all the work is done,” he replied. “Krishnamama, we are early risers. Will you serve us tea at six tomorrow morning?” I asked a trifle hesitantly. “Six?” he roared. “A man needs his sleep,” he said. “Okay, I understand. Whenever you can,” I said apologetically, guilty that I had expected a tired man to wake up at the crack of dawn. I abandoned my plan to go for a morning walk in the thickets that surrounded the resort.
At 5.45 am, the next morning, I was woken up by a loud knock on the door. There he was, Krishna, his eyes sparkling, the night having erased every trace of weariness from his face. I smiled, overwhelmed by his considerateness, amused by his oscillation between defiance and submission. In the evening, my family and I returned after a short drive, with hot bhajjis. Krishna was nowhere in sight. The greens were moist, the paths were clean. Then, I saw smoke rise from behind a bush and the strong smell of tobacco hit my nostrils. I could see the smoker’s shadow on the ground, the crazy curls, the jutting chin, the bulbous nose, in profile. It was Krishna enjoying a quiet moment with himself, the bidi his sole companion. I waited for him to take the last puff and stub out the bidi. “Krishnamama,” I called. “Come, join us.” He emerged from behind the bushes, surveyed the scene, a bunch of tourists sitting cross-legged on the floor, with a mound of bhajjis spread on a sheet of newspaper in front of them. Slowly, he walked towards us.
He sat on haunches, as I offered him the bhajjis, picked a few and started chomping on them noisily, savouring every bite. He ate so fast, I could see that he had braved hunger pangs all evening while completing his chores. “Nobody asks,” he said. “Nobody. You are the first one,” he said, almost choking. “Have more Krishnamama,” I offered. “My son, Keshav, he loves bhajjis. He lives with my wife, a hundred kilometres away. He’s studying. He’s in the tenth standard this year. I want him to be a big man. Not work like a donkey all day.” “You work really hard, Krishnamama. I haven’t seen you rest.” “What else can I do? How do I kill time? Someday, Keshav will relieve me. Saheb is good. Who else would have given me work?” he said. “Tai, at the end of the day, I have to just rest my head on the pillow and the next minute, I am dead to the world,” I remembered his words, as I tossed and turned in bed that night.
We were to check out the next morning. I tipped Krishna generously. “Buy something for Keshav,” I said. As we sat in the car, he said, “Tai, phone number.” “No, how can I give you my phone number?” I said in jest, as I wrote it down on a piece of paper and gave it to him. It was June, when the phone rang, one afternoon. “Tai, it’s me, Krishna,” the voice said. “Krishna, what a surprise!” I exclaimed. “Hope everything is okay,” I said. “Tai, Keshav has passed his SSC exam. He’s scored 85 per cent,” he informed me, his voice filled with pride. “That’s wonderful. Please congratulate him on my behalf. I’m touched that you’ve called,” I said, thrilled at the promise of a better life for Krishna. “Tai, I knew that you would be happy. Please tell Dada also,” he said. “I will tell the whole world, Krishna. This is great news,” I said, as I ended the call.
I haven’t seen Krishna for years now. I don’t know if I ever will. Maybe, his son has managed to erase the lines from his face. Maybe, the storms raging inside his body have been stilled. Maybe he was younger than I thought he was. Maybe he’s aged since. For all his troubles, I still envied Krishna. He had the one gift that eludes so many of us. Krishna of Konkan slept soundly at night.