The first person to publicly pinch his ear as a form of punishment had been his kindergarten teacher by the name of Mrs. Pinto. The exact crime that had brought this about is now lost to memory but he clearly remembers the terror and pain he had felt. As he sat sniffling in his little wooden chair later, he had gingerly touched his still stinging left ear. “Poor little thing!” he had said to both his ear and to himself and had squeezed out some more tears just for drama’s sake.
His thick hair is black and honestly so. It defies his forty three years. The few white hairs exist to his eyes only. The hair always has a nice healthy sheen, even late into evenings. He credits this to the three drops of coconut oil that he rubs into his hair daily after his morning bath. After combing his hair carefully and neatly in front of the bathroom mirror, he likes to pat it down to perfection. Humming softly, he examines his overall appearance, turning his head this way and that, the last act of his pre-breakfast rituals.
Besides being a man incapable of violence, Mr. Krishnan is also a man of peace. He doesn’t feel proud or manly when he loses his temper and raises his voice. He just feels he is being a bit of a beast responding to a bit of beastliness. But on his fortieth birthday, he had found out that sometimes in Bombay, violence can puncture the noblest of personal philosophies. It had been a crisp early-December morning. He had taken the day off to enjoy a leisurely birthday at home. Dressed casually, he had taken the car to buy some spices, turmeric powder and a clutch of coriander leaves for the feast his wife was preparing. He had bought what he needed and was walking towards his parked car when the morning calm was split by a scream. Turning, he had seen an elderly Muslim gent sprawled on the floor getting repeatedly kicked by four young men standing over him. Later, as he tried to understand what had happened, he would realize what had filled him with fury. It wasn’t the leering arrogance of those young ruffians as they kicked a defenceless old man. It was their mocking words: You Muslim motherfucker, we’ll cut your beard and your balls off! Bastard Muslim! Something in him had snapped. He had realized later how great was his anger against the religious fanaticism of Bombay politics, against cunning powerbrokers manipulating and pitching entire communities against each other. He had charged forward, hit two of the youths before they knew what was happening. One of the other two had swung at him, hitting him on the shoulder. The fourth had landed one on target. Mr. Krishnan felt his lips, teeth and jaw taking a tremendous blow. The goons had scattered after this. The old man had got up, brushed himself off and simply walked away. Mr. Krishnan was left though with blood dripping onto his T-shirt. That evening, after blowing out the candles on his birthday cake, he had given off a smile minus one tooth.
In the city of Bombay, the distinct, smoky smell of burning wood is rare. But should his nose chance upon this scent, vivid but jumbled images of his parent’s native village in Kerala immediately spring to mind. Sun-splashed, swaying coconut trees, emerald-hued fields and hillsides, quaint market-places, equally quaint uncles and aunts, red-tiled roofs with their little chimneys giving off a kitchen’s worth of that smoky, wooden smell. Kerala and the season of summer sit side by side in his mind. His school vacations in the months of April and May had been the times that he and his parents took the long train journey to this, their native place. Even now, even after four hardworking decades in Bombay, his parents’ hearts still belong to this gentler, warmer-hearted land.
Sometimes, Mr. Krishnan jokes that the only useful thing he does nowadays with his fingers is to shake the hands of self-important senior executives of the corporation he works for. But if you were to get to know him better, he’ll tell you their real, their most satisfying role. Rice is his weakness. Large platefuls of white, steaming, boiled rice. Add to this a small river of sambar curry, surround it with two or three spicy vegetable preparations and a spot of dynamite mango pickle and you’d find Mr. Krishnan’s fingers move with a hunger of their own. The millions of times his fingers have delivered one tasty mouthful after another to his lips are the guilty parties, as his wife insists, behind Mr. Krishnan’s trouser-waist measurement being a good thirty-six inches.
Every morning as he slips on his socks, he notices the deep scar on his left foot, at the tip of his big toe. When his little son had asked him about it one morning, this is the story he had revealed. In January comes Makar Sankranthi, the Indian festival of kites. It is the heady peak of the kite-flying season and if you are a boy of ten, you proudly show off the little cutmarks on your fingers from pulling on a countless ground-glass sharpened kite strings. He and his friends had operated in shifts during a typical kite-flying afternoon. Half of them would be on the building terrace, slicing away at rival kites in the sky. The other half would be posted on the road below, ready to catch the victims of these aerial battles and bring back the fallen kites as stolen or retrieved treasures. It was now the turn of his and three other boys to scoot around the neighbourhood, intercepting the lazy descent of a cut kite as it disappeared and reappeared between open sky, tree canopies and buildings. He thought of himself as the champion kite-collector and this afternoon, he intended to prove it again. “Look, run, get that, the red kite, run, RUN!” His friends were screaming from the terrace, “We cut one, the red one, RUN!” and they pointed in the direction of the falling kite. Even before the other boys moved, the champion (him, that is) had been off, sprinting towards what his mind calculated would be the landing area of the red kite. Over boundary walls, over open gutters, ducking past pedestrians, glancing up at the blue sky, watching that red kite float onwards but closer. Silhouetted tree-tops had flashed by overhead as he sped past, the sound of his panting and running filling his ears. He had turned a corner and there was that kite, bobbing about twenty feet off the ground, trailing behind a long tail of string. It was the string his fingers wanted. He was charging down that final stretch when he had felt his universe explode in pain. He had bashed his toe against a stupid outgrowing tree-root. Later on, after bandaging his badly cut toe, the doctor had asked him, “So did you all get that kite?” “Of course.” “Good boy!” the doctor had said.
Though his stomach has had its weak moments, Mr. Krishnan counts it as a trustworthy ally in his many business trips around India. As an earnest traveler, he has never been the one to protect his system from all but the sterile, overpriced hotel cuisine. In fact, he had gotten to really know the local culture and moods mostly through the hundreds upon hundreds of street-side delicacies that most Indian cities lay claim to as their own. This is why Mr. Krishnan felt so let down on a recent business conference in Rome. He didn’t know what or who to blame later on; the airline food, the hotel breakfast, the bland, cheese-rich Italian cooking or simply bad luck but he had spent a large part of two days staring at tiles in his hotel-room toilet, wondering whether this was indeed as the Romans did.
Mr. Krishnan’s early efforts at getting educated had mostly ended with his dad whacking him with a leather belt, along with a liberal use of the word, ‘Useless’. Like good South Indian parents, his too had fanatically believed that doing well at school was the only ticket that God had given good South Indian boys to achieve success. By being lazy despite being intelligent, he was doing the equivalent of murdering babies. Partly through this brainwashing and also due to falling in with a studious bunch in college, he had overnight transformed himself into a scholastic machine. He had eventually hit the jackpot by gaining admission into the elite Indian Institute of Technology. The evening of that memorable day, after his mother had made him speak to every uncle and aunt alive over the phone, his dad had casually come over to his side and said, “Well done” and had patted him on the back. He had been close to tears then.
The moment his eyes had fallen on Pralita, as Mr. Krishnan would admit later, he had known he was doomed. He had been on the brink of going to America for his Masters. He was the epitome of young Indian success. But in front of her, he had felt like an ugly, illiterate, bumbling coolie. She favoured expensive churidars, designer jeans and an unending supply of pretty tops and T-shirts. She spoke English with a westernized twang and knew her way around Bombay’s glitzy night-life. She was smart, composed and elegant always. He on the other hand wore the same pair of jeans for weeks on end, sported drab, faded shirts loosely tucked in at the waist and a pair of scuffed out rubber slippers. His night-life meant drinking cheap rum with his also-single friends. He hadn’t even known how to begin to woo her. He had got his chance the second time they met, at another house party. He knew that the one trump card he held was his academic pedigree. “Er, you know someone from IIT?” he had asked, hoping he could steer the talk towards himself. “What’s IIT?” she had asked, killing that line of conversation. Someone had brought up Fellini and to his astonishment, she had launched into a critique of Italian cinema. In the next few weeks, he had borrowed or bought any reading material remotely connected to European cinema he could find, as well as rented over 50 tapes which he saw during marathon viewings at night. At the next party, when he had squeezed next to her, he was all ready to impress the hell out of her. “So you like cough-cough Fellini, huh?” he had ventured. “Aren’t you that guy from IIT? Do you have a joint on you?” she had counter-asked. That night was followed by the whirlwind of courtship - restaurant meetings, movies, pub-hopping, parties, treks, long drives and all the while, he had gone from being a goofy scientist to being a man with a beautiful woman on his arm. When he had finally asked her to marry him, she had said, “Yes, but only if you throw away those jeans.”
He is now at his bedroom window now, sipping a cup of coffee. He is cheering the underarm cricket match noisily unfolding within the building compound below. His eyes are glued to every movement of his son. He shouts whenever the ball goes anywhere close to the boy. He admires the perfect and already athletic limbs of his son. That smooth, controlled, confident movement, that’s his mom’s gift to him. Those fine shoulders and upright back, surely they are the signs of a future leader of men. Just then, the boy trips and falls clumsily to the ground. “My boy!” Mr. Krishnan chuckles to himself.