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…

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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!