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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The Grampari Affair Part I

I never wanted to get involved in this Grampari affair…. I had decided with full affirmation, to stop chasing the butterflies and take up a job in an architecture office, straight from morning ten to six in the evening, every day of the year….

***

I knew Renie since the Ecological Society Course. He worked somewhere in Panchgani. I got a chance to wander around with this geologist friend, while carrying out ecological surveys for Oikos. That is when I started inquiring more about his actual work.

He was working on Spring shed management project at Grampari, MRA in Panchgani. Of course this made no sense to me. So it was inevitable that, after resigning from Oikos, I should grab a bus straight to panchgani to visit this project.

It was absolutely casual visit. I anyway did not want to get involved with this Grampari affair….

The campus was abuzz with International Women’s Day event. Women Sarpanch and men assistant surpanch (Now, that’s exciting, isn’t it?!) had gathered there. Women’s participation in village administration has not improved merely by providing them reserved designations in Panchayat system. But here at Grampari these women public representatives got a chance to know the intricate laws, discuss their rights and responsibilities with legal experts and experienced social workers. With such exposure, I noticed, they were much more assertive and confident in their bearing.

Renie got me introduced to everyone at Grampari. I was already admiring ever smiling Jayashree Aunty, Dr Jared and Soumya. Who knew they were directors of Grampari?!

Some unknown people from another corner of the world come and stay in a village, helping my people to know, understand and conserve our environment, health and sanitation… that was invoking natural curiosity in my mind…

All sorts of crazy questions were shooting out, unrestrained by my usually recluse nature. In conclusion, that absolutely normal day ended with Jared offering me a job with Grampari. I was hastily nodding in agreement while refusing verbally!

Next week I was in panchgani to see the spring shed project being executed in the neighboring village of Godavli. (We’ll write another post on it!) There was no harm in just visiting…

I was anyway not getting involved in this Grampari affair!

We decided my work hours, time schedule and other such details that day. In next week I had signed a short term contract with Grampari. It is a two month contract with a clever clause of extension possible at the end of the term! I am going to refuse…

I am NOT going get involved in this Grampari affair!

This is how I started working from home. Helping with the documentation of Spring shed Protection Program is my primary task. With the help of ample visuals, sketches and drawings we are making a spring shed management handbook to be used in the Western Ghats or comparable ecosystems. Naturally, first I had to become watershed-literate!

That is how my Pune-Panchgani trips started. Now MSRTC is my second home. I know almost every conductor on Pune-Mahabaleshwar semi luxury bus route! Besides, I can write another whole post about my crazy co-passengers!

Every time I get down from the bus, I take a deep breath….. Inhaling entire Western Ghats, the forest, every eagle hovering over the valley, every stepped rice field and the wild crazy wind…

And I know, that it makes no sense hence forth to not get involved in this affair….

It is impossible to not smile when I walk up to the MRA campus. As if some chirpy, mad bird possesses me! I never know if I walk or fly up there!

Then follow endless discussions, work reviews, planning what to sketch next….  Sometimes we go off on a site inspection all day long. Although, calling it an inspection is nowhere near the actual experience! I carry cement bags on my head, dig with a pickaxe along with Jared and his assistant, “Ashok bhau”. Carrying batches of freshly mixed concrete, cleaning old stone built water tanks are as much part of my job description as sketching by the lily pond or providing a running translation between my boss and the villagers.

On another day I translated to and from English so much that by the end of the day I was speaking native Marathi with the boss and English with the villagers.  The whole village laughed at me… and then Tukaram Aba, one of the village elders called for a tea break!

***

Food and boarding facilities are excellent at MRA, so much that at times I find myself too pampered. Not having to cook is another bonus for me! Meal times are very special proceedings here. Initially I was too baffled to dine with so many strangers. Where to sit? What to eat? Who to talk with?

Basically understanding this institution and explaining it in a single blog post is impossible for me! But slowly the mealtimes became my greatest learning sessions. Strangers are not scary; they are just an unexplored opportunity to learn! I eat at a different table every day. Sometimes I dine with the interns who work at MRA, sometimes it is my bosses, MRA officials, guests, well-wishers, resident staff or volunteers….. a multicolor collage of people from across the world… people with different expertise, different backgrounds, different motivations…. All so different!

I started firing everyone with my endless questions. I remember once, the secretary of MRA sat with me, answering my rapid-fire, while his plate almost dried out. (Maybe that is why he avoided my table since then!)

With hundred or so dining at every mealtime, imagine the number of plates and cutlery to be washed! Hence, everyday one department of MRA helps in wash-up. I started to groove into this tradition of washing plates with songs and laughter as accompaniments! As a kid I always dreamed of washing dishes when I grew up…or at least grew up enough to reach over the sink! Who thought childhood aspirations could come true in such way!

Yona, one of the African interns hugged me for helping the interns with their wash up, on a specifically rush day… After a baffled moment, I too decided to wrap my soap sodden arms around her!

One of the cloudy evenings I have spent with this girl, who filled up the glass faced meditation center with her honeyed voice, singing some unknown chants…. It is impossible that God would miss her clear bell like song flowing into the valley…..

***

There is much more to share about this Grampari affair, maybe with pictures next time!

Little Silly thought….

Every day I am falling in love afresh, with you and your wonder filled world.

How could I not love each lush green leaf and every clear raindrop…. Every gush of wind flying up the valley and rushing rapids jumping carelessly off the cliffs….

They are all your moods and shades enwrapped around me. And I am a little seed germinating in your soft sweet earth….

However ethereal and formless you may be…. I have seen you in broad daylight, touched you in warm wet soil. I am drunk with your clear sweet rains….

And how could they say you did not exist, when I am holding on to this dream-life just to watch you exist in every cell….in every little bit of me…

Now that I have lost all the contests, given up chasing everything else….I see no other reason but you. I see not this world, but you. Every word I say has blossomed into a prayer that I must’ve offered you. My dazed chains of thoughts are nothing but fragrant garlands…already yours even before you arrive!

I am not conscious I know… But you are… all that exists, I exist not anyway! There is just little silly thought, slowly fading away… Who will welcome you…if I become you in the end?!

Crisp Winter…

It is crisp winter in the Indian subcontinent. And the Deccan plateau is covered as usual in its multicolored drape of deciduous forests. Here we do not have a single fall season. Every tree sheds its leaves at different time in winter. And the mountains always look covered in different colors all through the winter.

The air is crusty and cool. Though the sun heats up open meadows, there is pleasant cold shade under most of the trees. If you are tired hiking through the sunny countryside, the shady ovals marked under the trees call you to rest, occasionally dropping a solitary dried leaf in your lap….

Winter-scape of Sahyadri

The mornings and evenings stretch till mid day in winters… Except few hours of afternoon the weather is calling you out to run wild in sharp dry streaks of wintry air… You feel like running miles through solid curtains of morning fog hung in valleys, fighting with the chill. As sky grows brighter, sunlight comes to your help. The fogs scamper away and you can locate chirping bird far in the valley….

Then you wish to fly, to chirp, to sway on the treetops, just like the bird…

There is laughter in the air and inside you…. If you look down at yourself you see icy bright light in your body… The winter air lights you from within…. Like a bonfire night….under the deciduous tree, occasionally dropping a solitary dried leaf in your lap….

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