Why are we scared of germs?

In a single line, Dettol scared the daylight out of us…nothing else happened.

Everything around us, the air, water, our food is teeming with microbes. Not just that, but we have them thriving in our hair, skin and mouths too…

We could not make curds, cheeses, idli-dosa or breads without microbes. We cannot even digest the food in our gut without them… and breaking down the bio-degradable stuff is impossible witout microbes too.

Microbes are not just our neighbors on this planet but also our companions… Their populations, ability to adapt, survive and thrive is unparalleled, making many researchers believe that the mankind is just another species living on this planet ruled by the microbes!

Some researchers also claim that The history of mankind is actually choreographed by the microbes! And if we look closely, at the epidemics and political tides that followed each one, could we refute that?!

We have been at war with the microbes for generations…. In the last two centuries we managed to get a glimpse of their omnipresent diversity, but we are nowhere close to defeating them, are we?!

Studying the microbial world confirmed many personal hygiene rules. Regular baths, washing hands after using toilet and before having meals, keeping food and water clean are the basics that mankind is learning in order to say healthy.

But we have not really internalized the good habits of social hygiene yet. While on the other hand we are frantic to terminate all the microbes from our life. “Be 100%sure to kill 99.9%germs”?! Really?!! They show it on the TV, under a microscope, wriggling germs on one side and a clean white stretch on another… Within just a matter of few years, this symbolic image buried a seed of fear, deep in our minds! Weird, green-yellow creatures sitting in a toilet, plotting to attack the inhabitant’s health, became representation of the microbes, the modern villains! And to defeat them, it was inevitable to use the most harmful chemicals found by the mankind as our ammunition…

We cannot see the microbial world with our naked eyes and we CANNOT annihilate them. Our antibiotics and disinfectants have no substantial effect on the germs, and the researchers know this now… So if we cannot defeat them, then now what?! Could we ask for their allegiance instead?!

Following the fundamental rules of hygiene, good food, along with regular exercise and generally ensuring a good resistance, these are the only things we can effectively ensure. No matter what amazing technology we come up with, ensuring a complete disconnect from the germs is not just impossible but laughable.

It is far more reasonable to allow the good microbes to live with us and let them balance out the bad germs for us. Our true defense lies in the diversity of microbes…

Our inherent immunity is a miraculous power. White blood cells can recognize a wide range of germs and hence we are capable of sending out the right protein to block the most of them if the need be. Once a certain pathogen is identified by the body, the chances of falling sick with that specific infection is almost null. So wider the diversity of germs introduced in moderation, stronger our defenses will be.

On the other hand there is no such thing as 100% germfree. It is a lie. Microbes grow resilient to our hazardous chemicals much faster than our own bodies. Quite obviously, these chemicals end up causing us more harm than to germs, and in the meanwhile, we have also weakened our immunity.

Living in fear of germs and going to the fanatic extremes of hygiene, is not a progressive mindset. It is in fact, superstitious and hence highly unscientific.

In the last few years, though talking to many people, and looking up the vast and yet incomplete information about the microbes, I am trying to draw up my own ‘microbe policy’. It has invaluable contributions by many crazy people, friends, philosophers, nomads and such. But since I am certain to attract a fair amount of bad repute for voicing my microbe policy, it seems wiser to keep them anonymous and safe!

Before explaining the Microbe Policy, I do owe you some explanations:

  1. It is a policy, flexible unlike the religion. So it changes from time to time and place to place, depending on the availability of resources and such things.
  2. I am no researcher or medical practitioner. So my views are NOT valid. I am only exercising my own fundamental freedom to make my personal hygiene decisions.
  3. This is MY policy and is used here only as an example. It is, quite obviously, not applicable to any other person. So make your own policy and stick to it, as long as it does not interfere with someone else’s policy of hygiene.
  4. And if you do not want to draw up your own policy, much better! Dettol, Lizol and such entities are doing that for you. Just follow them, it is, I promise, so much hassle-free! You can actually skip thinking!!

So…I travel a lot for work, and mostly in remote regions, faraway hamlets and villages. Bottled drinking water is available everywhere these days. But it does not feel very responsible of me, if I travel, leaving behind a trail of disposed plastic. I am personally, more scare of plastic than germs, believe me! So I carry my own metal bottle and refill it at local drinking water points, tea-stalls, bus-stands and other such known unhygienic places. I have been drinking unfiltered tap water at home for a few years now. We get a decent water supply and have had no complaints so far.

Eating out with unclean hands is quite common while traveling. But whenever I reach the destination, as a rule, I eat whatever is served locally. Apart from slight bloated tummy, on rare occasions I have never had any major illness.

In most villages across India, one is lovingly served locally grown, home cooked, clean, vegetarian food without any problem. Possibility of exposure to chemical pesticides and fertilizers is inversely proportional to the distance from the closest big city. So farther away the village, better the chances at getting organic food!

But since plastic waste in omnipresent, often villagers use it to fire up their chulhas. I definitely fear breads crisped on plastic embers.

Since I stopped using a vehicle to commute to a city job, I do not get up every day to ride through the smoke, contributing more smoke, cursing the traffic jams and insensitive jerks riding along…  Being deficient in the amount of inhaled vehicular exhaust smoke, I have lost my good old friend, common cold… Even a mild throat infection has become a rare surprise for someone like me who lived with annoying cough for weeks at times.

And even with all this, if once in a couple of years I do catch common cold, I do not feel bad about it. Instead of wasting time, thinking about which germs caught me where, I spend a couple of days resting leisurely, since, hey, I do not have to commute anywhere!

Work schedules are usually a little too laid back in the villages. One does not have to stretch their physical and metal limits too much, if one is unwell. It is okay to rest and be nice to our own bodies…. Yes, I admit rural work-life comes with a little compromise on the finance department…

In my own house, soap-nut and lemon base vinegar suffices for pot-wash and laundry. Lentil flour, milk cream or coconut cream, or many other nicked ingredients from the kitchen make wonderful body wash. The same soapnut-lemon vinegar works as a shampoo for my hair.

I would not have my vinegar without the microbes, would I?!

It lathers wonderfully and washing it off does not affect the river where all the sewage ends up….

Coconut oil in warmer climates and mustard oil in colder climates gives great hair massage. Milk curds or eggs work as nourishing hair conditioners for my hair type, when I feel like pampering myself…

Curds, buttermilk, Idli-Dosa, yeast breads and many ferments are definitely in my food and beverage list, replenishing my own personal microbial diversity. Eating street food with unclean hands does happen once in a while, to add to everything.

Apart from all the madness, at home or any place I stay long term, washing feet and hands regularly is a meticulous practice. If the village has sufficient water, baths are welcome! If not, I have trained myself to not complain. Rural water issues run far too deep than my trivial bathing needs…

Eat local, seasonal fruits, vegetables and forest foods whenever available. Instead of eating wheat every day, finger millets like pearl millet (bajra), sorghum (jowar) or raagi mixed with rice make good flat breads, (bhakri).

Split pigeon pea (toor daal) is although most common part of daily protein portion of our diet, it has so many siblings! I have grown to prefer the red lentil (Masoor) and moong daals instead, initially for their non-political diverse food value… and now for their deliciousness!

Every year, onion prices rise once, that I believ is the wrong season to eat too much onion anyway. That time of the year is usually a forest veggie fest time.. so no reason to miss one ingredient.

No refined oil for cooking, we use locally pressed oil of preferably from one of the many oilseeds available. Why worship only one oilseed?! In effect, I do not feel nauseated by any oil smell and can eat happily through almost any food culture!

So basically, if we manage ‘diversity’ aspect, no one kind of germs gets over nourished. Wider the diversity of germs, healthier I live, is my observation.

And then, the stuff that is not edible for me is eaten up by the microbes in my compost pit. I get chilies, tomatoes or bitter gourds once in a while, as a return gift from them!

Microbes bless you!

Of course, not falling sick too often is ‘my’ achievement really. Our immunity is mysteriously efficient little system! I can at the most thank my ancestors for the genetic gifts and of course the microbes, for keeping me well.

With age and other reason I will naturally fall sick, but for sure I cannot blame microbes for that.

There are many more aspects of life where I would like to show the market bought chemicals out of the door and invite my beloved microbes to come and stay, but it is a slow task…. For eccentricities are new superstitions and just as unscientific…

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Hungry, Dirty, Cold and Loved….

Usually the conversation starts with, “where are you from?”

“Pune”

“..Meaning Mumbai, right?”

My imagination zooms back to the two monster-cities that are growing cancerously, almost into each other, Sigh, “Uh, yeah, close enough…”

“Are you here for a holiday?”

I definitely do not look like a jolly tourist, not with frizzed hair and smears of gober on my ragged cloths, “No. I work here.”

“What work?”

“I build”

“What is there in the hills to build?!” accompanied with laughter.

I silently look out for the direly awaited, late night bus to show up.

“Who are you travelling with?”

I feel like saying, “With myself” but I am not hungry or nasty today, so I say “Nobody.”

“How much do you get paid?”

“Nothing, so far… But with time, there will be something.” now really trying to sound polite.

“Are you from an NGO?”

“No.”

“…then?”

“I work for an Architect.”

A long awkward pause, while I do my best to ignore that top to toe scrutiny….

“…married?!”

“No.”

“How old are you?”

“Um… 27…”

I can almost catch them sigh this time, oh…there is no hope after all…

Mostly by end of this question they classify me solidly into some category and start feeling comfortable….almost sympathetic! Then the rapid fire round takes a turn into checking my ancestry up….

Often my skills at shamelessly sleeping through any bus journey save me from this endless interview. And with time I have learned that albeit strangers, most of them are simply good natured and curious about this strange woman travelling alone at night. Their questions, too probing and unnecessarily personal, actually harm me in no way, but might open a new world of possibilities that they have never even considered…. I have seen some of these random interviewers drift into a silent musing, trying to relate with me… mostly, they shrug the thought out with an anxious jerk and fall back into their comfortable, sympathetic zone!

But yes, I admit, there was a time when I used to fire up and fume inside, being judged by strangers like that… Once an over-smart, ten-year old looking me up and down, had asked his mother, “Is this how a spinster looks like?!” I had felt a jumble of emotions varying from violent rage to careless laughter and then, squirmy pity….

This is not about questioning the conventions… or rebelling for or against anything… that activist in me knows that there are far graver things than facebook relationship status, to fight against.

Relationships and their social contexts have become far too controversial and debatable issues lately, for poor me to even dare writing upon.

Do I wish to be in a relationship with anyone or not? If yes, then with whom and why?

To start with, does a relationship (let us call it matrimony, if it comforts) truly complete my life?

For those who bother to raise such questions, these are too personal choices to generalize broadly into socially acceptable frameworks that we live within…. This is about those who silently choose to live their lives by their own rules, without preaching others to do the same… without setting out to destroy the very fabric of our faiths and subsequent comforts.

With time, now I have come to a point where life has started weaving into a beautiful, melodic rhythm of its own. Although delightfully unpredictable like a dance sequence, life has continued to gift me with moments of grace, beauty, warm affection and lasting friendships…. It has brought me to believe that any day that has not been driven by the utmost love for life, is not lived at all.

Life of this 27, single woman, travelling architect is full and satisfying…. Filled with immense questions and challenges sometimes beyond her strength! There is color, glamour, beauty and humor along with mistakes, blunders, failures and massive goof ups!

They have said that I am wasting my life, that I am taking all the wrong decisions…. They have said that this path that I am choosing goes nowhere…. And I promise, this nowhere is so much more beautiful than anywhere! Through this chaotic, rattling bus journey of life, my closest ones have always stood by my silly decisions….

My exceptionally cool-headed father with his flawlessly practical advice, offered only when asked for…expecting me to make truthful and honest choices in life, and nothing more, in return of all the emotional and financial investments he has continued to make…

Friends of family and families of my friends, who have unexpectedly risen to help, guide and shelter me in the worst hours of life….

Teachers who have patiently watched me fumble over the easiest of lessons!

My best buddies who have watched me fall and get back to my feet… taught me to use phones and tracked my crazy travel itineraries… laughed at me and lightened up my gloomy moods!

Silent admirers who have defended and protected me, from a distance, without hurting my independent spirit….

I have always known how much courage it has cost them all to watch me struggle. I know how uncomfortable they have felt late at night, in their comfortable beds, when they knew I traveled, hungry, dirty and cold out there….

For me, they represent love like nothing and no one else…. They give me strength and hope for the great times…. many beautiful futures that we will be building together….

Along with women of exceptional courage and character, many of them are men of varying backgrounds and age groups. They have loved me in their own ways…. Accepted my fussing, hangry, eccentric way of loving them! And they have never offered me a humiliating choice that most women are often offered, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, between being an object and being everything else. And at every moment, if there was such a choice, they have laughed and nodded, as I chose wholeheartedly and in complete consciousness, to remain hungry, dirty, cold and loved as I am!

From the Radio Station III

I never imagined myself building a radio station and I am certain the radio people never thought they would have a cranky architect working with them, sometimes shoulder to shoulder and sometimes almost nose to nose!

It is, indeed, a curious mix of professions and cultures that they have conjured up here! Also the very concept of a community radio station, broadcasting from a remote Himalayan village, attracts a range of visitors.

Sushila Bhandari from Raidu village, near agastyamuni is one such intriguing lady. This gadhwali woman of immense courage, is fighting for her “jal, jungle aur jameen”, against not just the corporate, but the very government of Uttarakhand. Two months of imprisonment, paid murder attacks or bribes have failed to muffle her voice. Instead, she has learned to write hindi, during her two months imprisonment! Now she also writes poetry and sings the songs of hills and rivers, in her high pitched, pahadi voice….

***

C P Joshi from dwarhat is another frequent visitor and a valued advisor for the MKA trust. A good looking kumaoni poet, he is also a sensitive social worker allied with “Axay”, a TB eradication initiative.

In the day time, he would quietly smile and walk towards me, while I stand surrounded by my construction gang. And he would very defensively, but with pure curiosity, ask questions about earth construction. For a while I wondered why the defensiveness… and I did admit it to myself that I must look like a daunting warrior on a construction site that resembles a bustling warzone!

But in fact, I do love to answer his questions about various forms of earth construction. At the same time I keep it clear that the views we express are our own inferences and learning, and none is a universal law to be enforced on another… He smiles his mild, enigmatic smile and jumps to another question!

Once, after dinner, we all grownups and kids plopped on Joshi ji’s bed, listening to his kumaoni poetry. An informal “mehfil” Somehow descended upon us!

With him, I have started recollecting old Marathi poetry, after quite awhile… on the other hand, Joshi ji, very soon plans to build a house in dwarhat, a rammed earth structure that he will design for himself!

***

My lovely brick maker team of women has been saving up their payments with Vincent. They plan to take the payment right in the end, and invest that into building a new house in stone. They are going to hire my team of masons for the job!

The masons thoroughly enjoy their work. There is significant change in their expressions and body language. The awkward stress and constant suspicion has evaporated long ago, replaced with natural easy grace and a hint of pride…

There is often a faint smile on Jeetpal ji’s face, as he chisels the stone, with his tongue held out, in utter concentration, so much like a small kid! He laughs and cracks jokes… hums along, old pahadi jungle geet (forest song) playing on the radio, and all the time I watch him with great respect and love… feeling like a mother, who has managed to evoke and protect the child within him…

***

Winter rains in the hills are indeed a special thing. There is a vague distinction between rain, sleet and snow as we climb up, but that entire downpour is essential for the forests, rivers, humans and beasts to thrive.

But for the adobe spread out in the field, drying in sun, this rain was very unfriendly. After a week or two of bright dazzling sunshine, suddenly one morning, we have an overcast sky, rumbling and threatening to wash away all our hard work. The whole team of workers rushes to the site early in the morning, moving dry bricks in shelter and covering the rest with massive plastic sheets. Then we all just sit sheltered by the tent, warming our bruised, frozen hands on an open fire of cheed pine twigs. Stories of man-eaters, bears and ghosts taste far better with rounds of chai.

It usually takes a couple of days for the weather to clear and for all of us to get back to the sunny outdoor work. But the chilly winter rains by then, have brought us all close together…. Bonded irreversibly now, we are a construction gang, driven by a special sense of comradeship.

***

The stone masonry in gadhwal, has such a robust and distinct character that we wish to expose it and flaunt it to the world! The crudeness of partially dressed stone and sleek lines of slate pieces, together create a rhythmic symphony of shapes and shades… no two stones in the masonry look alike and yet they all belong to the same astute composition.

Most people, who prefer the formal, strict masonry of fine dressed stone, fail to see the poetry in gadhwali masonry. I had a fair bit of problem, trying to see, what makes gadhwali masonry, so wrong in their perspective. Our visual senses are enslaved by now. We like all things to look alike… we want all kids to be dressed in uniforms and all women to look like movie stars. We want all roads to look the same and all places to become cities…. Just like that, we want all stones to look strictly alike. Every time someone asks why I refuse to use neat dressed stone, I ask them, why they want all the stone to look alike… and I am still waiting for an answer.

***

While I am pouring my blood, brain and sweat into the construction work, instead of making me feeble and desensitized, it is making me, more alive, lot more sensitive and aware…. In spite of all the brain boggling problems and surprising solutions… yet, there are moments that allow me to trace a beautiful Himalayan vulture soaring over my head, in graceful, lazy circles…. At times I stay back at the construction site, just to witness the sky that looks blue fading into orange, so much like a flycatcher’s belly, preceded by a sunset bathed in gold and copper glitter of stone dust around me….
Sometimes, long after those dramatic sunsets, I sit there, planning the next phases of construction. Hungry and tired, I step out from the studio, to find my construction site, drenched in melting silver moonlight…  Fresh, wet adobe glisten softly, and the stone masonry glows as if lit from within … It is irresistible to keep my hands off the rhythmic rough and smooth texture of the stone wall…. On a biting cold winter night, I let my fingertips trace the crevices of ice-like stones… like some magical self-lit objects!

At any time of the day or night, these hills never fail to take my breath away…

***

Although I am sure, my mum never planned it deliberately, I wonder sometimes, if she hoped, growing up in a house with Sanskrit plays and poetry scattered around, along with Hemmingway, will leave its imprint on me…. Before arriving in gadhwal, I carried a strange image of this land… for me it was the land of Kalidas’ poetry… the land where I presumed, Kumarsambhavam must have taken a verbal form. And with that bias, I keep stumbling upon places that, in my mind, match exactly to the setting of various events in the Shiva-Parvati story. It feels as if the gods and goddesses would simply drift in front of me, from behind that ancient banjh (oak) tree, if I truly willed them to appear…

But they do not, nor does the famous man-eater of gadhwal. I hear stories of men and women right from our neighboring villages, mauled by wild bears and snatched away by the panthers… but those beautiful beasts somehow never cross my paths. Although I know these wise ones must be prowling in the dark, quite too close by, camouflaged more by my absence of mind than their stealth… So I keep my curiosity reigned in and usually abide by the rules of village life, that forbid me to walk home, after dark, unaccompanied by a man. I religiously believe that a hungry beast would definitely be distracted by the more flavorsome option of devouring a man, and would spare this inconsequential woman to go home!

One day I will also write about the ghosts of gadhwal, but right now, it is indeed too late at night to think of bodiless voices following us along treacherous forest paths! But I promise, if someday the said feminine forest spirit truly chooses to confront me, I will sincerely ask her forgiveness on behalf of the mankind and promise to protect her beautiful green veil, for as long as I live…. I think she will be a smart forest spirit who will bless me genially.

***

There is something about half done earth masonry that looks like a warm promise of future… For some reason or the other, I keep walking and leaping over its dusty ledges, watching the walls risen and complete in my mind.

My gang once warned me not to do that too often, for it might offend the spirit of this building. They were anyway certain that just like the masons, who work too closely with the masonry, I too am possessed by the “devtaa”. There is indeed a tiny “deoli” temple, topped with brightly colored flags, next to the construction site. Every time we start a fresh phase of construction, our masons offer flowers, sweets and some incense to the deity staying in there….

I think the “devtaa” knows that I totally love being possessed by him! He is not a scary one, who gets offended so easily. I wonder if he laughs at me, if he likes me too…

From the Radio Station… II

Namaste ji,

Never thought I’d be inclined to use hindi instead of Marathi ever, but she does have her own music after all. Now I even know numbers, decimal fractions, measurements in hindi. For example, एक सूत is 3mm. and पचानवे is 95. And of course there is नब्बे दशमलव आठ एफ एम meaning 90.8 FM that blows against my eardrums quite uncomfortably….

Apart from these numeric puzzles, there is this classic construction jargon in hindi that still catches me by surprise, like मुनिया was not a bird but a through-stone! चिनाई, लिपाई or पुताई were lot less scary additions to the vocabulary.

I admit the slight nausea and fear that I secretly feel deep in my stomach, leaving the friendly, familiar territories of himachal behind to come to the cold, seemingly unwelcoming gadhwal…. But every day I spent in himachal this time, I would call someone from the construction gang up in rudraprayag, just to ask how things were going.  On the day I was to leave for rudraprayag, I called them to ask if they wanted me to bring something, when I return…. And all that they wanted was milk in their chai! Every morning in himachal, I see two large thermos flasks filled with milk chai and it mildly nauseates me…. Cannot pinpoint when it happened, but I have started to prefer what they call, “लाल पानी”. Gadhwal, despite its ruthless, political crudity has started to rub off on me….

Since the day this project started, I have been making and serving chai for my construction gang. It started not out of any great virtue but simply because there was no one else to do it! But now, when I hand out wafting steel cups of chai, it feels as if the gang is my family… I am grateful that they accept me, and trust me enough to work with me…. and I think they know it too. Those two breaks of ten-fifteen minutes are our catching up times. We talk sometimes about grave things like sourcing materials, new brick bonds or the yet-unsolved-mystery of how we are going to get a roof on top of all this…..  Well, some other times, we just choose to grill one of us and laugh till we fall off our boulder seats…. But when I get up and start collecting all the cups, they know it is a non-verbal sign for, “Let’s get back to the work boys!” Most of them then pinch their beedee out and stick it behind their ear for later use.

I find it peculiar, (although not frustrating anymore) that making adobe was a completely new task for them. The boys, including the masons, were quite lousy and even resistant. I am sorry, this not a gender bias! So I grabbed Uma didi from the radio station and went to the villages up near chota, asking women to come to work with me. Although most refused, two girls agreed to come the next day. We have been having a great time ever since, mixing soil and husk, stomping in the mix and lifting up moulds to watch soft fresh adobe glistening in feeble sun! Now Bobby and Rekha, age 23, are my master brick-makers with a team of four women to assist them. This brick gang finishes approximately 180 bricks every day. Their bricks look too neat, with straight edges and fine corners. I tried teasing Bobby once, “if you stop being so fussy about the finish, you can make over 200 bricks a day”, she raised her pretty eyes, her face stern and unsmiling, “you said we should make 150 bricks per day, I am making 180 bricks of better quality than you asked for, what is your problem?!” I have been eager for so many years, just to see that fiery gaze….

Every now and then I spend time with them to mix a batch of mud or to flip the drying adobe… I do make bricks with them for some time in the day but I can feel an impatient stare at the back of my head, while Bobby stands behind me, tapping her foot, waiting to get me out of her way!

Cutting stone is just out of my reach. I have neither the strength nor the aim required for it. One of my boys, Madan ji, is a pro at it. He “sees” stones! Knows where to strike a blow and with what strength, to reveal the beautiful heart of the boulder. In a few hours, he, with two helpers, leaves behind a trail of neatly stacked stones that look like most desirable “burfi”. I sit there marveling the white, angled planes of the stone, streaked with occasional blushes of pink or blue…. texture that feels smooth and rough at once… so beautiful! They all have concluded that I must be a nutcase, watching stone with such reverence!

They term this pretty white stone as, “ढुंगो”, and, “छपला” is a chunk of dark, fine-layered slate stone. These two, traditionally used in a combination, turn ordinary stone masonry into artistry. This stone chinai is a tough task. It is such a complex exercise in 3D visualization, combined with skill and strength that I spend hours watching my masons do it, like a classical performance! I am not yet eligible to attempt that either, considering I cannot hold a piece of stone in one hand, chisel it with another and think about how it will fit into the masonry course, all at once. So here, I am still at assistant’s level, standing beside my mason, Jeetpal ji, passing him a hammer, chisel or plumb as and when he needs it. He laughs and says I will have to start drinking milk, learn to lift stones and stand next to him for another two years before I can start doing stone masonry at all. That is not very encouraging….the drinking milk part, for sure!

While the girls were trained and set up with brick making, the men were still eyeing me doubtfully, wondering if I actually meant to build with “kacchi eet”. So one day Vincent, very graciously arranged us a projector facility in the studio. I picked out pictures of various Didi sites, taken at different stages of construction and we had a mud class for the entire construction gang. It is quite impossible to watch a Didi building and not feel the sense of being part of a magical world…. They asked questions and broke into discussions… explaining each other. All I had to do was nudge and hint at right places! It saved me from my mortal fear for public addresses of any kind, and had far better effect! The mud class spilled out with the boys standing in a huddle around the first batch of dried adobe. For a long time I stayed away, watching them. They played with bricks, befriended them and tried dry-stacking different brick bonds…. They nailed it quite too well, unlike nasty, insecure first year students with pencil black on their noses!

Next day, one of our highly doubtful stakeholders decided to act smart in front of the masons, frowning down at the dry stacked brick bonds, doubting endlessly in pahadi, if it will stand at all…. It was Jeetpal ji who coldly replied, “I have seen the pictures of how it is done. It can be built. I can do it.” and thus he smoked his beedi on, quite undisturbed! Mr. doubtful simply chose to walk out.

Gadhwalis are not as vibrantly animated and sentimental as I am, but deep under their rough, cold stone-like presence, there is a warm beating heart… Time to time, there come moments when I see their love and loyalty for me, expressed in most unexpected ways… I stand there, touched and quite speechless….

Apart from interning on every construction task, I also coordinate with a bunch of shop owners in the valley, who supply us with things like rice husk, used machine oil and hardware tidbits. Every time on entering the rudraprayag district, I go on a round of chai drinking in every shop on my dialing list, ensuring that my arrival is declared in the market. “Be ready with your phones gentlemen, I am going to call up and ask for the most bizarre stuff from your shelves!”

Another creepy element, at work, here, is how the valuation of things changes. The soil near our construction site had too less clay to hold a brick together. I was informed that there is a patch of forest near bhanaj village, where people traditionally mine soil for all construction purposes including lipaai… (Plastering is the word for you). The boys took me to the spot and it was indeed a beautiful grove with an ancient grandpa buras (rhododendron) tree in its center. There was a random cut in ground, bleeding perfect red soil that looked smooth, almost oozing, without a pebble. I am still not certain if it was a good idea to listen to the boys and agree to use that soil. But I stuffed my conscience away and figured out a proportion in which we could mix this magical soil to our soil and get an optimum clay ratio to make reasonable bricks.

And one day the sarpanch of bhanaj ordered a stay on our illegal mining activity in his territory. We paid the due fine and were informed that it had less to do with the law than with some personal enmity between a few influential locals. Although we were allowed to continue mining after paying the fine, I chose to not do it anymore. Anyway this “import” of soil from a serene grove was weighing truckloads on my conscience…. I promised myself to never do that again. Although I am also wondering why the use of locally available, natural building material is illegal? The only alternative they have left for cement based construction is to break the law?!

Anyhow, we found patches of fairly acceptable soil, on the slopes of our hill. Now I set out the portions to excavate, to make sure we do not excavate too much in one place. But every other evening, after the construction gang leaves, people from the villages nearby, sneak to the mining spots to scavenge a sack or two of now suddenly valuable community resource! Mr. doubtful is busy blaming me for initiating this soil theft business! Once we are done with soil, of course we will line and close the spots with stone. These are going to be nice cozy benches clustered along the pathway, where the radio station people can hold outdoor meetings or just spill out, on winter mornings for some sun and warmth… Simultaneously, I am sketching out a site restoration and landscape plan for the hill. Although not a part of the current proposal, it will be submitted to the MKA trust to decide if they wish to go ahead and do it or not.

After the soil bit was sorted, our suppliers ran out of rice husk. The rice harvesting season is getting over. Much of rice husk is bought by the people who keep packs of mules. Now that the radio station stepped into the game, rice husk prices rose higher and higher. Two days ago, I started to feel that it was crazy to buy rice husk at such increasingly high price. We have more than twenty-five hundred adobe with rice husk. We can make the rest without rice husk. Husk-ed bricks will be lined up inside, for their better acoustic performance, while the no-husk bricks will be used for the outer surface. Although I will miss that crisp smell of it, this is the end of buying husk.

By now, the number of people asking me, why I was not using any vertical steel reinforcement and RCC slab, has crossed a thousand. I am not losing my mind, because, these thousand people have watched our bricks and the confidence with which my masons work. Once a crazy visitor declared that I was wasting money making bricks. He could just look at the bricks and quote that each brick cost me 50 rupees. I was so happy to have finally found an opportunity to show off the economics of earth building! We did a loud math class across the field, concluding that each brick of custom size cost me 14 rupees, saving half of what a conventional small size burnt brick would have cost for the entire masonry work. He said a lot of things about his experience in building and left without saying a goodbye…. They have started questioning their assumptions. And that is all that I am after….

And of course, now the news of this bizarre construction site has reached every house in the valley. I get strangest people turning up at the site, asking for jobs! From wrinkled old women to young city-dressed boys on college break, I have, so far, managed to find a suitable work for most of them! Earth buildings are highly inclusive even in their employment range, aren’t they?!

There is still a long way to go. I know, a lot will happen, by the time we actually finish this job. I will learn a lot, laugh a lot… I know I will break down at times… and will pick myself up…. I dread to think about it, but I will make mistakes too… Who knows, where this road goes, but it is indeed a very beautiful winding road…. I am just glad to be walking along, without looking for a destination.

With love from Mandakini Valley,

PS: I do have some wonderful pictures to share, but only when I have better network access!

From the Radio Station…

Greetings from Cumsum, Old Delhi Railway Station,

Grounded here with a heavy backpack, several hours of waiting time and fairly goof internet connectivity, I have decided to be a good girl and write this blog post. Suddenly world feels imposingly well-connected, after few weeks spent in a mountain exile.

***guptkashi

So this time when I packed my bags and stood at the threshold, I asked her, “You really think I can do this? What if, I make mistakes?!”

She just smiled her bright child-like clear and yet knowing smile, “Just go and get to work. What matters in the long run is the experience you gain out of this. Learn from it and everything will be okay.”

This talisman and a few sketches on rough papers was all I had to back my courage up, as I left the warmly familiar territory of Himachal Pradesh to travel all the way to a tiny village, way up in Uttarakhand. Warning: Do not try to find, “Sena Gadsari” on the map of India; nobody down in the nearest market place seems to have heard the name of this village.

So, after a series of rickety rides, changing from one bus to another jeep and then one more, I reached the place where a trio from Bangalore, has been staying since past one year.

Saritha, Shweta and Vincent of, People’s Power Collective have started a community radio station with the gadhwali locals. Here, out of all the chaotic medley of cultural, linguistic and behavioral differences, a melody of dialogue has evolved.

All the programs of the radio are recorded in gadhwali-hindi, from the villages nearby. A desi treasure of songs, plays and jokes is broadcasted by the fabulously trained radio presenters of “Mandakini Ki Awaj”.

It was a very long journey for Manvinder ji Negi, who cradled a very big dream in such a tiny village. The radio has indeed reformed Manvinder ji and his wife, Uma didi.

With no electricity at night, in flickering light of a dusty oil lamp, I used to watch Uma didi, sitting by the chulha, making aloo ke parathe for us all… and I used to think about her day-time incarnations!

Uma didi, too engrossed in stringing a playlist together, not looking up from the laptop, holding her hand up, and gesturing us not to interrupt!

Uma didi. Sitting straight-backed in the middle of numerous buttons and wires of mind-boggling radio equipment, confidently presenting her program!

Uma didi, who had no voice beyond the kitchen walls, now is heard all through the valley! One radio changed this!

But very soon I realized that raising this radio station in a built form was not going to be as easy as writing it here… the biggest hurdles in every profession, being young and being a girl stood laughing shamelessly in front of me!

We have absolutely let our work culture rot away over decades. And now we, as a nation, have come a long way ahead in time, to blame everything on long gone era of the british rule! Hard work has no value in the market, and so does a given word. Those who work and those who get the work done are both equally unconcerned with the job at hand. Conquering the Himalayan peaks would have been easier than changing this dull hopeless work culture!

But somehow, everywhere I go, I encounter a fine weaved, invisible network of good natured people, who carefully take me forth… this time, two helpers at the construction site came to my rescue. Mahavir ji and Pramod ji brought in our mason, Jeetpal ji, a straight forward, skilled man of few words. Jeetpal ji hastily stuffs his beedee away when I approach, and calls me “Ji Sir”! He listens very attentively when I explain the design and his questions are practical, requiring me to think thoroughly. He gives me a secret joy of having been able to answer a fabulous question!

This very work gave me a great courage to work further. I would go down to the market alone and buy a truckload of building supplies! We broke boulders into aggregate with a hammer and unloaded truckloads of sand, passed pan of heavy wet concrete and learned to do fine local stone masonry, “chinai”, bent steel bars and tied reinforcement cage.

Every day, before the workers arrived, our engineer, Vincent would be ready at the site with me and we would leave the battlefield only after everyone else went home, all tools and equipment back in their place.

We all worked together as a construction gang, had our chai together…. One roti with a spoonful sabji on top, chased down with cool tap water, was our usual lunch, but nobody seemed to complain.

Apart from these there were other, more daunting challenges that Saritha had warned me about. The people from local partnering NGO of the radio are not completely convinced about building an earth structure. Having spent generations in houses built with stone and mud, now the gadhwalis too want a cement-concrete building just like those in the big cities. How to hold verbal arguments with them to explain why a scientifically built stone-mud building is far better than a cement one?!

Initially we had to stand firm, enduring their harsh antagonism.DSC_0115

They would not participate if I called a meeting to discuss the design, yet late at night, over dinner, there would be sudden arguments in the kitchen… voices would rise…. As Saritha often phrased, it was very difficult to stop others from being aggressive without being aggressive. I had to lead the conversation away from “whose fault it was” and make everyone focus on “how to strengthen mandakini ki awaj, through building”

One CANNOT feel hurt and get angry with them, no matter how harsh they may act, because deep inside, I am more hurt with the fact that their aesthetic judgment is shattered and ruined by my urban crowds…. It is not their fault!

But I had to leave this sensitive incarnation back in the kitchen when I stepped on the construction site. Here I had to ensure that the instructions were strictly followed, leaving no tolerance for discussions or negotiations of any sort. I learned to not entertain any rude questions or interruptions from the locals while my construction gang was standing there, awaiting my instructions.

Slowly everyone got accustomed to this discipline. Their antagonism faded further when they saw me not just acting smart but actually working with the men. Slowly their hands joined us when we were in need. Arguments in the kitchen got replaced by light humor and friendly discussions. One day we unanimously agreed that swaying bamboo clumps would look beautiful along the pathway! And my grand-ma’s Marathi “amti” prepared on chulha, met its applause in the kitchen.

On one side, we were finishing the construction tasks scheduled for this visit. The radio station that was born in Didi’s imagination is slowly raising its head above the ground…

In next two months, we will complete the building, with stones excavated from the foundation, abodes of locally mined soil, slate stones and wood.DSC_0298

Finished casting the plinth and I set out to celebrate with the rest of the radio team. Although, mirror polished, glittering shopping malls of Dehra seemed to mock us, after weeks spent with unpredictable load shedding spells, we decided to concentrate more on feeding ourselves well, before parting our ways for a short break.

Aimlessly wandering alone through Rishikesh, I took a dip on one of the ghats, spent evenings at the famous Ganga arati, watching tiny oil lights drifting gracefully in water…. sometimes I would stretch my evenings further, over sumptuous dinner while some Israeli travelers suddenly strummed their guitars at our usual haunt of café nirvana…. From soulful ganga arati to jazzy jam sessions, this is distinctive cultural diversity of Rishikesh.DSC_0408

I have been told often that there are bad people in world, but somehow nobody intruded my solitude even by staring, while I walked over the Lakshman jhoola, back to the hotel, alone, late at night. Again I would spend some time, standing at the roof terrace, watching ma ganga draped in silvery moonlight, flowing soft and soft against the backdrop of rugged Himalayan hills… There is something in that river and the mountain…. They just cannot remain plain simple, river and mountain…. They charm the very existence and then we cannot remain plain simple people…DSC_0406

If long, long ago, man had felt his soul vibrating on the banks of the Ganga, had flown with the river and risen with the mountain…. And called it being a hindu, then it has deep blue green tinge of that night, just as it has vibrant saffron of the dawn….

Now I am here, in the bustling staring city of Delhi, taking your leave to go home… to come back again with another story of building adventures….

Himalayan Pilgrimage part II: Sambhaavnaa

Himalayan Pilgrimage part I: Dharmalaya

The second leg of this pilgrimage moves from rugged hill top to a lovely playful stream-side village of Kandbadi, nestled in the valley. The campus of Sambhaavna Institute has drastically different flavor from dharmalaya, although much similar in the elementary philosophy behind its creation. Sambhaavnaa, a possibility, is an institute for training social activists.

An institutional campus entirely built in earth is one of its kind and stands as a flawless answer to those who think of earth construction as raw or crude way of building. Its suave and formal spaces are encased in adobe walls with a humble cow dung plaster finish, making a bold statement out of deliberate simplicity.

We, a bunch of interns were to spend two weeks there, the last two weeks of its construction schedule, to participate in final finishing and completion of the buildings. During this time we did various tasks in carpentry, landscaping, brick masonry and painting-polishing. Apart from the assigned tasks we were also free to dapple in other construction tasks that were being carried out around us.

The local pahadi workers were very warm and instructive. Having participated in Didi’s exceptional work culture, most of them had a bright, hopeful confidence. In case of women workers, it was mixed with certain amount of humble timidity. Somehow it made them glow. Their images are etched permanently in my mind…like some kind of inspiring visual…

For once in my life I was taking initiative to open a dialogue with them. Surprising to myself, I was not distant and antisocial! I loved talking to the women, while I mixed cow dung plasters with them and they perfected my plastering skills, quite ruthlessly!

“Hold your brush confidently, with a firm grip” Saroj didi would instruct, “When you are uncertain about yourself, it shows in your plastering stroke.” She would watch me work, with her eyes narrowed and eyebrows scrunched, until I got it right, and then she would bless me with her dazzling smile!

The women would tease me and laugh with me! They even tried to teach me a pahadi folk song about how goddess Parvati got angry with Shiva and how he eventually convinced her to come back home!

They knew our differences and were astonishingly broadminded when it came to accepting me as one of their own! Late at night, I would sit on the kitchen floor with them, sharing chocolates after dinner, and they would ask me about my home, my family…and we used to wonder together, about our futures, under those warm kitchen lights.

I am not certain about how to define a family, but with them, I felt peacefully at home. I would like to think of the pahadi women as my family….

On the other hand, pahadi men were very closed and distant initially. It was a hard task to bring the senior masons to open up and share their wisdom. During my brick masonry schedule, they started me off as an unskilled worker, instructing me to pass the bricks and pans of fresh mixed mortar. After accepting that I was not going to get bored and walk away, they promoted me as the mason’s assistant. I would hand him the measuring tape, plumb or a spade as and when he needed it, without giving him a moment to ask for things! The old man, Jhonduji, was pleased by the end and allowed me to take his spade. I finished one course of the brick jali, all by myself, while he stood behind me, smoking his beedi, instructing me to correct the alignment of bricks, merely by his practiced visual judgment. Later we did several courses together and then he stopped,

“Just like us, old men, the masonry too needs rest, child.” He said with a smirk hidden away in his mustaches,

“The mortar in lower courses is weak right now. It will not take the weight of too many courses on top.”I nodded like an obedient student while he spoke on,

“Today we stop brickwork here and resume it tomorrow, when the lower courses will have had ample setting time.” I bade him good night and walked away, wondering how much more could the old man teach me, if I had months and years to work as his assistant!

But I had just one more day with Jhonduji and we spent it together, working and laughing over silly things. Now that I was one of his construction gang, he would not hesitate to sing in a hoarse voice, some pahadi folk song about naughty Krishna and his mates!

That evening I walked back from work, with bright eyes and flushed cheeks, happy and not a bit tired, absolutely certain that I belonged there. Standing on a cliff, overlooking a noisy, bubbling stream deep down in the gorge, glowing in moonlight, like a streak of molten silver… Wind in my face and rustling patch of pine trees behind me, I acknowledged to myself, that everything I had been struggling for was pointed at reaching that evening… earned after a day of doing things that meant a great deal to me!

Since then, I have rarely lost that exalted state of mind…. I keep opting for a life that leads to such moments at an exponentially increasing frequency! It is a hard life, and highly uncertain… but every bit worth living, just so that I can stand at the cliff and laugh out to the sky and to the earth…. Laugh in wild happiness and acceptance!

The last step of this internship was spent with Didi, an experience that gave me an insight into another course of life… a choice to live up to my values and virtues….. It gave me a chance to retrospect my life and know what I truly wanted from my life…

That one week of time is too precious and I have decided to not publish it now.

To sum the internship up, what I learned there about architecture and construction is no doubt, valuable, but this awakening is a priceless treasure to me…. It keeps me humble at heart, aware that I only know so much…. it nudges me to learn more, to experience more, to be more open minded and accepting… to be more sensitive and responsible…. Leading to many more moments of awakening!

The Mantra….

Why don’t we take a minute to just pause from our busy life and look at it? Look at the life we are living and ask ourselves, why do we do whatever that we are doing?
“Why…really…?” I asked myself and that one question changed my life, put me through hell… and brought me to the heaven…. The roller coaster ride of life is getting crazier day by day, but this is how that started.
Once upon a time I was a normal person, staying at home, studying in an architecture school aspiring to be a successful architect and earn a lot of money by doing that…. Now have no home. I build, and am not sure about the definition of a “successful architect”. I do not make much money, to be honest, I do not make any money…. So I must definitely not be successful. It saves me the trouble of living up to the tiara of success. It leaves me free to experiment and fail and regain my bearing, and most importantly, to learn things through that chaos!
How did that happen…. Well, years ago, I met a guru. He gave me a mantra. The mantra was not a statement, but a question,
“Why?” he asked… and left me with that.
Since then, I have lived with that mantra, and it has pulled me out of numb rut of dumb ordinary life…. It continues to awaken me, because he said, being awakened is not a steady state to be reached once and for all…. it is the most dynamic state of presence. The mantra takes away dark grays of indecision and uncertainty from my actions, sifts out the irrelevant and leaves me with a tranquil clarity and joy of doing things.
The mantra also puts me through the torture of knowing that I know nothing! It keeps me uncomfortably aware of the ambiguity in me…. of all other questions and unsolved mysteries…. Yet I ask “why” to myself every day, and find myself not knowing the answer sometimes. Then I have to stop, take a breath and think to myself. Sometimes I have to change my path, or sometimes if I find the answer, move ahead with greater conviction than before.
I am now equipped to break and remain free from my own inhibitions, well, most of the times! I am free in that sense… and owe my freedom, my changed life to the guru…. The one who, I am quite uncertain if truly exists or not… now, that is some question nibbling at my brain all through the nights….
I pray sometimes, “Let him exist” and sometimes I dread, “what if he really does exist?!” Maybe it shouldn’t matter to me. I have my magic mantra… and I have moved on in life, decided not to go looking for this shady character of my imagination.

P.S. All the characters in this blog, shady or cool, are of course born out of the author’s imagination simply to prove her stubborn point. Any resemblance to real life persons will naturally exist in readers imagination. So better throw the factual chaff and explore the magic mantra….