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….

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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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Himalayan pilgrimage part I: Dharmalaya

When I look back on my summer study travels, often it is the flavor and tenor of those places, the light and coziness of spaces, people, their pasts and so many interlinked stories, that fill my heart with some unknown affection, as though I have spread my roots into those places and people, as though they are very much part of my being…

Every day of my stay in Himachal, I woke up to the vision of Dhauladhar snow peaks. I thanked them every day for their mystical blessings that reached me through people, food and endless conversations.

The learning and growing of every pilgrim like me is made possible by these places and people. The smallest things in my routine life remind me of their smiling faces and I feel some warm and pleasant heartache.

I wish to narrate what happened on this Himalayan pilgrimage, and how it has altered me irreversibly… But I doubt if I can convey fully everything I have to say, while tides of love and joy burst against the walls of my heart, even at the thought of this journey… I am still too overwhelmed… Too touched to be able to find crisp words for everything… But I must write this now, with all this vulnerability still alive in me… And I hope that no matter how confused or ambiguous I may write, something will reach you just between those awkward lines.

There are three distinct legs of this journey that were staged through three different places in the Kangra District of Himachal Pradesh. The visions, experiences, challenges, and their solutions evolve into an overall flavor of first two places. It keeps climbing and intensifying with every passing day… coming together into an unexpected climax of the story in its last week — a beautiful closing note to a melodious song.

***

It starts way up in the awe-inspiring hills of the Dhauladhar range, winding through the half-asleep village of Bir, when we were dropped at the fringe of a pine wood to hike the last stretch up a hill to reach Dharmalaya. Walking up to the campus with all your baggage is the first gateway into the ‘Dharmalaya lifestyle’ that awaits us up top! And, there, the valley encircled with hills provides a literally breathtaking distraction!

That first vision of Himalayan peaks after so long… every time, it unfailingly takes you away from your urban presence. Your name, designations and credentials are all washed away. You become a being… a clean and simple unit of existence, cleansed and ready to live a life in the hills.

Dharmalaya is a place that functions as an opportunity for learning a sustainable lifestyle by practicing it. Although it is a campus still in the making, it already lives and grows, true to its fundamentals.

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The place staged some simple and obvious challenges that, surprisingly, I had never faced before. It feels differently alive when you work toward the naked, crude reality of survival and stand straight, holding your head high, looking up into the face of a lofty mountain, and smile…

And there were my personal attempts to overcome past records! It is astonishing how much one can accomplish even after crossing the known limits of physical or mental exhaustion. Exhaustion is possibly just an illusory barrier after all, beyond which lies the world of personal miracles!

Every evening, when I would let myself become aware of how tired I was, it felt absolutely the opposite! I felt eased, as if all my limbs were completely relaxed after such a long time! I realize that it was because they had worked well beyond their limit of exhaustion! I would watch sunburns and bruises on my arms and legs, and wonder why it did not hurt even in near-freezing cold wind. But my hands have known a worse pain: that of spotless, useless idleness… bruises rather feel better!

I would think of quiet, peaceful afternoons back home… times when I watched my clean and spotless hands, hurting inside, for I was hungry to know what I could do with those.

It gave me some violent pleasure to think of clean hands while I mixed and danced in cold mud, wiped wooden molds for another batch of adobes… or got funny, throbbing blisters after a day of sod cutting.

There have been long evenings back home when I used to sit motionless through meetings, feeling a dead, heavy fatigue in my legs, for I was dying to find out how far I could hike or run through wilderness with those legs, as I know every human is born to do! It gave me the same violent pleasure to think of those idle evenings while I actually went jumping over boulders through possibly some of world’s most pristine hills, feeling light, strong and so so alive! Village dogs often joined me and raced through the trees by my side, with a grave look of comradeship in their hairy, warm faces.

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Of course there were quiet moments here as well, when there was warm, buttery sunshine and I could stretch out under some random, beautiful oak tree, thinking about nothing too human… Simply balancing sun and shadow over my body, according to how cold or warm it felt that day… Or finding the most comfortable angle to rest my neck into the rough lovely tree trunk! And then somehow the hills would become silent for a long time.

I know I was not there on a holiday! There was architecture happening, taking shape among all of us. We were breaking through the most obvious assumptions in architectural practice and starting our thought process at the very beginning… Somewhere near the instinct of ‘shelter making’.

It frustrates the best of us when we realize that, in the course of sophistication, we have let our instincts rot for generations. We have no clue of how to survive! Most people remain unskilled in this way because they simply do not know there is something lacking. Our schools and colleges have ensured that we remain oblivious to reality. But when one realizes what is missing, it becomes a personal challenge to learn things, to do things by hand… and to know that the most beautiful attribute of human anatomy is its ability to learn and do and create — an ability that often remains untapped!

I am not going to quantify and spoil all the learning that happened to me… To be honest, I cannot measure the depth and intensity of changes that these lessons have brought and are continuing to bring. The lessons of life and architecture have blended together inseparably. I simply believe that they will seep into my being and express themselves as I encounter relevant situations in the design of life. Nobody knows where this learning may take me with time. Slowly, I am starting to appreciate the beauty of this ‘not-knowing’ — a fat achievement for someone who has been such a control freak for years!

There is meditative pleasure in doing things by hand, and it grows deeper and more compellingly addictive with time. For example, before using soil for making earth blocks, one needs to set aside the precious top soil layer, for it contains all the organic nutritive treasures of life. Cutting chunks of sod and replanting them as part of landscaping can, in fact, turn into a blissfully exhausting experience. It also teaches one to watch carefully, at the scale and amount of ecological damage that has to happen in course of building anything, even with the least processed forms of earth construction.

Earth is a highly instructive teacher when we stop being morons and allow her to lead the way. She teaches us to look at life carefully… to treasure it and, at the very least, to limit our destructive activities and find ways to heal life as much as we possibly can.

Every time we make a choice of saving or healing, we must also be prepared to put in additional time, human effort, skill and sensitivity, because acts of benignity cannot be purchased: they must be ‘done’. But somehow modern man often does not care about investing these trivial things into a building activity. He has built his systems such that they compel him to become more and more insensitive, unskilled, thoughtless, and yet surprisingly too busy to do things!

So, probably, we are a funny bunch of people trying to turn the wheel back, while the rest of the world is moving forward. But the increasing number of restless architects setting out to find hands-on work opportunities definitely means something. It hints at things we have lost with time — things that are human and possibly even trivial, but things we have started to miss in our daily lives. It is instinctive and apt for a human to want to go back to the basics and relearn those things. It is no more going back in time; it is not reversing the wheels of development. It is simply nurturing our roots to have better grip in the future.

Apart from making adobes and maintaining the existing building, we also had a design task to finish in two weeks’ time: We had to build a toilet, by hand, without using any industrially manufactured, purchased building material, and without using and help from outside.

Indeed, we did install a dry pit toilet with a bamboo enclosure at Dharmalaya, but only after two highly eventful weeks. It started out with long discussions, calculations, sketches, frustrating setbacks and redesigns. Through this, we architects discovered that none of us actually knew how to build!

So, we learned to select bamboo, clean their nodes and then cut the right lengths. We scavenged the hill slopes with our local thatch consultants, learning to select the right kind of grass for thatch roofing. And at the end, one sunny day, we had heaps of harvested grass — and no frame on which to tie it!

One needs something to tie bamboo joints together. Again, we ran to our local skill consultants and Rajinder bhaiyya showed us how, for generations, they have been making ropes out of the bark fibre of a specific tree that they call ‘dhaman’. After several frustrating and failed attempts at rope-making, finally our hands learned to roll the fibres into a rope! Rope-making is like a rhythmic dance that goes on into timelessness once we learn the motions well. I sat through a beautiful sunset, my eyes closed against the pleasant reddish-purple glow on the horizon, while my hands played with the bark fibres, rolling out seamless, neat spirals of rope. What a blessing it is to be alive!

There were several things happening around us in loosely connected dynamics: We were splitting bamboos, cutting bamboos, tying joints, falling, cutting ourselves, laughing into hysteria — and some of us snoring through the evening sessions!

One day, with outdoor work stalled by bad weather, we had fun with a new instrument: a glass cutter. Using this tool for cutting glass bottles was a quiet, precision task, and I had the warm glow of candle flame right by my side. All the cut bottles will be wrapped in reflective foils and embedded in earthen walls as tiny, glowing day lights.

There was a platter of tasks from which we could pick and choose, learning whatever we pleased! There were a thousand more things I could have learned, but I learned what I could gather in the time available and made a note to myself about things that I now know must be learned.

Dharmalaya is also a place where one learns to live as a community and participates in its daily chores. Unlike urban settings, no invisible cleaning staff comes here to maintain this place while we are oblivious to their presence, busy at work. We are our own janitors, cooks and housekeepers. Tasks as simple as chopping fruits and vegetables, cleaning the kitchen, dishwashing, and toilet cleaning have a very deep effect within us when we perform them with full attention. Chores were indeed highly contemplative opportunities to continue what we were striving to learn outdoors.

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One cannot drift through and remain untouched by the pristine hills and humble lifestyle at Dharmalaya. It is a hard life if not accepted with full understanding — as hard as reaching this place is!

Still, somehow it is much harder to leave this place, once we catch the rhythm of it. Yes, it has a heartbeat of its own that throbs in dung-plastered walls and in a solitary light beam stretched from the ceiling across the earth floor… a pulse that is the sum total of many hearts and hands that have shaped this place.

Himalayan Pilgrimage Part II: Sambhaavnaa

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