He was a man who had always smoked bundles of beedis while working the land. Krishnasamy would irrigate our fields without a word, pausing only to enjoy his smokes. When he was hungry, he would pinch windfall coconuts, chop them in two, and eat the moist insides on the sly. After work he would cut straight across the fields to Amarawathy, his ailing wife. She was one of our heart patients.
The men like Krishnasamy who irrigate the land are a breed of their own. With a civil engineer’s mind, they read the flow of the land and dig the channels. The raja channel is the aorta that branches into the thundu channels which subdivide into the kai channels.
Each two meter patch of earth is enclosed by a 9 inch wall of mud with an opening to the nearest waterway.
Krishnasamy was a master at directing water through this maze, opening each square paathi with a deft slice of his mametti, allowing the earth to flood till the grass was drunk, then closing the door of life and sending the water onwards.
As the morning burned into midday, an entire field of squares would come to green.
When the grass was high, Krishnasamy would crouch and enter the cave of green blades unafraid, ever mindful of scorpions and snakes. He would pay no attention to the heat, the intense itching caused by the fine spines of the grass and the salty sting of cuts. Weaker men would swear or quit; Krishnasamy just powered on.
Besides water, Krishnasamy had also spent years behind a team of white oxen, each one’s horns adorned with a fine brass chain. After the first rains of summer when April’s brick-like clay would yield to the plough, Krishnasamy would slice the earth upon itself, one line at a time. It was like turning down the sheets of a sun fresh bed, waiting for the rains and the sowing of seed.
I’ll never forget the day he was ploughing the weeds around one of our mango trees when a diamond-patterned Russel’s viper sank its fangs into the toe of his thick rubber sandal. Krishnasamy kicked it off, crushed the snake’s head, and continued as if he had just swatted a fly.
Then one day along the road, I saw a trail of wilted flowers leading to the place of the dead. The villagers told me that Krishnasamy had died of a stroke. Not very many garlands for him; he had never been a big man. Krishnasamy was buried in an unmarked grave, as were all those who had gone before.
Ten months after his passing, his wife came to see me in clinic. After checking her heart and writing her refills, she remarked with a sad little smile that they had always assumed she would be the first to go. We paused to laugh together, reminiscing about her husband’s coconut pinching, the lorry full of beedis he had puffed away, and how he had never complained about his life of toil.
The grass he tended is now watered by younger men.
The wise-eyed oxen are long gone.
The viper’s mango tree died from this year’s drought.
The earth remembers him no more.