Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Krishno - I

In 1936, Krishno was 16, and if only you could've seen him. He was athletic and looked dapper in a shirt and the trousers he'd had tailored that year. He spoke English like it was his to speak (thank you Radio BBC) - was often interpreter for when the English had bulletins for the village. He was a good son, and he helped run his family, making money off of the Britishers at the local cantonment. He'd run errands for them, some shadier than others, the rest sunnily English. At times, they'd send him to hunt down the district talukdar, or to tend to the Cantonment library. Other times, he'd take the white children over to the waterfall at the jungle's edge and play a game of footie with them. The younger officers - they took to him because he was also the Cantonment's supplier of all things smokeable.

Within a few months, Krishno learnt nuances about the British as a people that even the city-bred babus hadn't caught onto. He learnt their intonations, but stayed clear of the accent. He used colloquialisms sparingly so that they didn't think him just another johnny-come-lately (*the author has noted the irony here*).

Krishno absorbed subtleties of the tilts of head and the stiffened lip, of plain food and small talk, of the Country and the City, of lawns and schools, tennis and plimsolls, of the unmarried ladies back home and their mothers. The more he imbibed, the more curious he grew. The phirangs at the cantonment wouldn't mingle with just anybody, so over time, Krishno learnt how to hold up the right mirrors to his British acquaintances. This way, for the most part, they'd just be talking to themselves; they could revel in the impression they must've made on those around them. Krishno would be careful though not to show them so much of the mirror that they'd be embarrassed. Sometimes, they'd like the mirrors turned just so, to light up the spots where they stood. These were their moments of glory in the colonies, when even the most discerning native would doff his hat, had he one.

Lt. Col. Trebblewood had risen fast through the ranks. The senior Trebblewood had distinguished himself to the Queen by his services in Malta, setting up military schools that recruited several locals into the British National Army. At 22, Lt. Col. Trebblewood was still reaping the goodwill. He'd been posted that year to the 24 Parganas Cantonment on special assignment. Chief among his perquisites was the travel allowance provided to bring his mother, the widow Trebblewood, along. She was given her own lodgings at the Cantonment.

The Lt. Col.'s mother made her first sortie into the village the very day she arrived at the Cantonment. Parasol tucked under one arm, cheeks flushed from the effort under the unforgiving sun, she climbed the hillocks to the village. She had sneaked out of the cantonment, and so managed to be unaccompanied. Krishno was on his way back to the village himself, from Calcutta, where he'd been to visit his brother at school. He saw her ahead of him, still a distance from the village and caught up with her soon enough. He hadn't ever spoken to a British lady before and wasn't about to let the opportunity pass. Drawing up beside her, Krishno offered a drink of water and thought it quite a bargain in exchange for the conversation.

As they continued, village-bound, they got talking about public transport in the city, and how it left one soft in the middle. She was surprised to hear he'd lived his whole life in the village ("Well, how is it I can understand what you're saying?"). He showed her around the village, and eventually brought her home to dinner. She was taken by the food, simple fare, but wholesome in a most settling way. Later that evening, the lady Trebblewood asked to be walked back to the Cantonment. Krishno obliged. She insisted he visit often.

It was when she fell sick a few months later that Lt. Col. Trebblewood decided to have Krishno escort her back to England. By the time their liner docked, it was December, and Krishno saw both England and snow for the first time.

His first few months there were spent helping her settle back in. It came naturally to him, this care-giving. He looked after Lady Trebblewood delicately most days, but she was a hardy woman, and on the days she looked pink, they'd land up at watering holes where the older pubbers knew her. Krishno wasn't sure what to make of this at first. Surely Ladies didn't just walk into pubs, much less those ladies with titles, much much less those accompanied by brownies.

For Lady Trebblewood's friends, Krishno was an exotic treat. His skin, his hands, the calluses, the branched veins on his palms, his barefoot life - all of these were captivating. Ironic that in India, Krishno gained ground with the British when he took on the airs of the pawns at the cantonment, while here in London, each striking dissimilarity, each novel un-British experience from his old life lifted him from pedestal to higher pedestal in Lady Trebblewood's circles.

From among the friends that visited, two had daughters only slightly older than Krishno. When the girls heard from their mothers about this dapper brownie, they were beyond intrigued. London, in all its greyness, could soon become boring. The eligible men were serving abroad, and those that remained were strangely affected. These men were english, certainly, and bore every appurtenance, but perhaps that itself was the problem. Krishno on the other hand was a delectable misfit. Where he went, people stared. How held he his head that high, back that straight? Why was he lithe, why not underfed? How spoke he english? And the girls wondered how naughty it would be if they linked arms and walked down Knightsbridge? Their mothers were sure to hear of it. Oh, this'd show them!

Soon, quite blasphemously, Krishno began to receive invites to dinners and cottages by lakes. London's snow melted early that year.

**To be continued

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