Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Royal Bengal Tiger!

The evenings here at Maheshpur are somewhat dull (an understatement) and I bide my time chatting with whoever is at hand. Common subjects are few and so conversations are about the mundane. Interactions with the children are however getting better with each passing day.
Dakshin Ray Ghot
Painted Terra-cotta

The book “Forest of Tigers” by Annu Jalais keeps my late evenings and nights (that is as long as the solar lamp allows me) occupied. This book is based on her research in the Sundarbans and delves into the myths and legends associated with “Dakshin Ray” – the Tiger, Bonobibi – the benevolent goddess of the forest and how the inhabitants perceive the issue of the tiger. The book is very well researched and insightful. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested.

The book inspired me to conduct a small experiment involving the children of the Ashram. I tried to find out how these boys perceive the tiger. When I asked them whether they had ever seen one, they answered in the negative. When I asked them if they had seen pictures, the answer was still in the negative. Their books do not have photographs or illustrations of a tiger and they have no access to magazines, journals, TV or internet. Therefore, their visual world is abysmally confined to the here and now!

I asked them if they have ever been told what a tiger looks like and could they describe that to me. They immediately recited what seemed like a class essay that began with “The Royal Bengal Tiger has black stripes on its body, has four legs, a tail and a fierce looking head and that they were dangerous, etc.” So I asked them whether they could make up an image of the tiger from these descriptions and make a drawing from their imagination… they readily agreed. The results were very amusing – they would even challenge the  “Dakshin Ray Ghot” in terms of simplicity! I am sharing a few of them with you.

Of all the drawings the one by Gopinath was the most amusing. His tiger had both stripes and spots – a hybrid creature like the ‘Tigons’ and ‘Litigons’ in the Calcutta Zoo! But what amazed me more was the fact that this boy was born blind (I was informed) and after a series of surgeries he can now see. His drawing is far more detailed than his peers who were born with perfect eyesight. This conundrum is almost always explained by the saying that we “look” but we don’t “see”. I had once read a book that dealt with this subject titled “Ways of Seeing” by John Berger. Again, a must read if you are interested in this kind of thing.

 Progress: Fourth Week

The “monta korlona” phase continued into Tuesday this week, but all seemed good by the end of it. A slurry of sand and cement was poured into the base of the bamboo columns and installed. Next the beams were placed and aligned. The diagonal anchors were fixed inside small cement vats called “meslas” and the bamboo supports were fixed. All this quick activity in succession generated a lot of interest among the people of this village. Many actually dropped in from other villages nearby to “inspect” and comment. I have never answered so many questions after my Higher Secondary examinations! Hope the pace of progress continues at this level. Prasun arrived on Friday to relieve me and to oversee things over the weekend and possibly answer more questions!

Canning Local Update

I was comfortably sitting in the compartment and two stations down the crowd started swelling. A young mother in gaudy clothes and even more gaudily dressed children came and stood near me. Seeing her difficulty in managing to balance with a child in her arms, I gave her my seat. She took it promptly and at the next station when the adjoining seat became empty her husband took it until I was dismayed to find that her whole noisy brood had taken up all the seats. Standing in a crowded train compartment has its way of manipulating you into various corners and spaces. Soon the jostling crowd had pushed me to a corner where a young woman dressed in a beautiful “Tangail” sari sat with what seemed a bag full of books. Hers was a face that stood out in the crowd. When I was surreptitiously appreciating this dusky Bengali beauty; she stood up as if to alight and offered me her seat. I gratefully sat down and realized that she had no intention of leaving. She stood in front of me and I asked her why she gave me her seat if she was not getting off. She said “You too gave up your seat! I noticed.”

You may draw your own conclusions…

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Of Pastoral Mood Swings

Everything was going as planned until Wednesday of the third week here at Maheshpur and then a storm suddenly hit us late at night. The change in the weather seemed to influence the minds of some of my team members. Though it was slushy underfoot, the weather could not be the prime reason for not wanting to work. This must be one of those inexplicable things that I have never been able to understand about the bucolic.  This reminds me of an explanation offered to me by a truant worker in Shantiniketan whose alibi for not coming to work was a simple “Megher jol holo tai monta korlona” (The clouds burst and I did not feel like it). I had put it down to the influence of the cultural climate of Shantiniketan. But, here in Maheshpur I have found no evidence of such a ‘poetic’ connection.

The storm had broken a large branch of a flowering tree in the Ashram compound. This afforded the kids some amount of amusement – as “operation tree retrieval” was launched with gusto. The branch had fallen in the middle of the pond and the boys swam over to lug it to land. Their efforts were proving difficult and Haradhan Babu helped them tie it up with a rope and drag it to land.

That accomplished; the smaller branches were hacked off and each child bore a flower laden branch in an impromptu procession chanting “gachher dal, gachher dal” (tree branch, tree branch) mimicking the popular political exhortation “lal salaam, lal salaam”. The glee on their faces was enough to lighten up my day.

With all the two pronged and three pronged forks ready to take on the beams, not being able to install them was quite a shame. I rued the loss of photo ops. I had even decided on how to shoot them silhouetted against the sky like so many bamboo tridents. However, some workers chose to continue splitting bamboo for the basketry work of the dome. Should I be thankful for small consolations?

Walls of clay

With time on my hands I decided to explore the village and see how indigenous windows are designed and made of. Most houses had no window shutters.  A blank space in the mud wall with bamboo staves served as windows and the weather is kept out by stuffing all kinds of packets, cloth and plastic sheets in the gaps. These designs are dictated by economics. The luxury of designer houses is not theirs. Even the houses designed by government agencies ignore the basic right to dignified living. Why should aesthetics be the preserve of the rich? Going by the accounts and documentation available, it seems that this was not so to begin with.

What went wrong and when did this all go wrong? Who decided that the economically challenged should live in miserable surroundings? Who said aesthetics costs money? What stops a government employed designer or architect to create low-cost, affordable homes that look good or dignified? Or is there a larger agenda, some master scheme that I am not aware of?

House of Bamboo

While discussing these issues with some of my team members and brain storming on how we could design strong yet cheap windows, Binoy Biswas (head carpenter) suggested we construct them in bamboo. “If this is going to be a house made of bamboo, we should make everything with it” he said. This reminded me of a song by Andy Williams that went:

“Number 54, House with the bamboo door,
Bamboo roof and bamboo walls,
Even got a bamboo floor…”

Check out the song at this link:

Canning Local Update

My friend Laurent has commented that “I always felt safe in a crowded local train. "Daily passengers" are so disciplined and helpful! There is a whole technique of boarding and alighting, a complex geography of where to stand depending on how far is the destination and how dense is the crowd... And there have always been people who give us seats when we travel with the children! I only regret not knowing better Bengali, and missing so many tender, colourful stories...”

I do agree with him. Last week the auto driver Apiluddin Laskar - barely got me to the Canning station and there was a long queue at the ticket counter. I knew I would miss the 4:18 train when, a stranger pushed a ticket into my hands and said “Dada run with this…I have a return ticket that I don’t need” and vanished into the crowd. I got on the train with seconds to spare.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Canning Local

For as long as I can remember, the name “Canning Local” conjured up images of local trains disgorging thousands of people on already crowded railway station platforms. A vast majority of them travel from the hinterlands of 24 Parganas for work in Kolkata and its suburbs. They are what city people call ‘daily passengers’ although many city dwellers go the opposite way to suburban towns to work. The act of boarding a local train everyday is known as “daily passengery” – elevating this innocuous necessity to the status of almost a profession.

View from the local train: Kolkata to Canning. Picture courtesy: A Year In India (Blog by Jessica)

My initial forays into this district were accomplished riding in the ‘insulated’ and upholstered comfort of chauffer driven cars. I considered myself lucky for not having to travel on local trains – packed in like a sardine. I would see these trains pass by and shudder at the thought of having to travel that way on a regular basis. The few times that I had used this mode of travel in the past, left me with absolutely no desire to experience it again. I must confess that the concept of “Amra aar ora” (‘Us’ and ‘them’) must have had its genesis in some such urbane snobbery. This disconnect exists and will exist as long as economic disparities remain between the urban and the suburban.

The current project however does not allow me the luxury of hiring a car or driving down in my own trusted 25 year old jalopy. So, I had to do what one does in such a situation - every Monday morning at 7:50am I board the Canning local at Ballygunge station. I am surprised and amused with myself when I tell the taxi driver to hurry up…”sat ta ponchasher Canning local dhortay hobay!” (Sorry, a translation here will not convey the innuendos).

Once on the train, I start feeling the ‘disconnect’ with everything urban increasing with each passing minute. Every Friday I board the train at 4:18pm from Canning station to return to the city. I look forward to this about-an-hour journey, as every minute on it brings me closer to the comfort of my home and the feeling of ‘re-connect’ is unabashedly reassuring.

This journey is not without its high points. On one particular journey the train was extremely crowded and a young man standing in front of me jostled for space to get his cell phone out of his pocket – elbowing the person next to him, he manoeuvred himself to be able to make a call. He spoke in a loud voice to make himself heard above the ambient din; his pauses indicated that the person at the other end was speaking. I am sharing this amusing one-sided conversation…

Young Man (YM): “Hallo Madam? Yes it’s me – Khokon”.
YM: “I have arranged your gas connection.”
YM: “Yes Madam. It was difficult. But, I can do more than that.”
YM: “Madam? Now that I have done the needful…please do something for me”
YM: “I mean…um...if you don’t mind can I ask you something?”
YM: “Madam, do you have a boyfriend?”
(short pause)
YM: “Shit! She disconnected!”

Progress: Second Week 

In the meanwhile work on the “Olive Ridley Shelter” is progressing well. So far so good as they say. All the bamboo sections have been drilled, cut and pre-assembled as far as possible. The concrete anchors have been positioned and retainer walls are being erected. The Lime is slaking. Prasun Ghosh taught the local workers to handle FRP. They are elated to have learnt a new material.  Next week I hope to complete the structure up to the floor level. Hope there are no hitches in between.

Life at the ashram is peaceful as usual and the kids are not feeling shy any more. They have given me some very amusing drawings in return for the paper that I had handed out.  I hope to employ their talents to adorn the walls of the shelter.

Panta-Time Wisdom

Lunch break and everyone gets ready to leave…everyone, except Bablu Biswas. I tell him to leave and come back on time. I tell him that having lunch on time is good for him. He replies, “You are right Dada. But, don't worry. We work for food. The problem was created by God…he made a huge mistake by giving us a stomach!”

To me food is also entertainment and perceptions such as these gives me a guilt trip. Bablu, you are cruel!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Marks and Rituals

On a cool breezy morning at around 7am on the 31st of January, 2011, Laurent and I - assisted by three local workers marked out the plan for the foundations on the ground with chalk powder, strings and short bamboo stakes. In the dappled shade of a flowering mango tree the graphic resembled a ‘mandala’ design – it looked a complete work of art in itself. 

Artists are incorrigible!

A battered basket, an old slipper, a damaged rice winnower and a red 'gamchha' was all that was needed to ward off the evil eye and for conducting a ritual foundation ceremony known as “Bhit Puja”. All of these were tied to a bamboo pole, a red hibiscus adorning it and Prasanta Sardar the leader of the work team chanted a short mantra. I noted the absence of a Brahmin priest.  The process took less than ten minutes and a few ‘batashas’ (local sugar candies) later work started in earnest. 

Unlike every where else that I have worked in, locals here start work at 7am sharp and break at noon for lunch. They call it ‘panta’ time. Panta is watered rice which is usually a day old. Earlier they worked for minimal wages and panta. Nowadays, they may not be having panta, but the term has stuck. They are back again around 2pm and work till sundown.

To slake lime we bought ready made cement tubs called ‘mesla’ –used for fodder or to soak rice. Materials were sourced at Basanti Bazar about 6kms away. Transporting them to the site proved quite a challenge given the poor quality of the roads. However, these hurdles did not seem to deter the locals and soon enough we had a veritable collection of bricks, lime, sand and bamboo.

A tiny thatched hut was soon erected for the night watchman, which was instantly christened the Khoj Kolkata site office. In between all the activities of organizing the site, sourcing material, instructing the workers, arranging things in the room at the ashram, evening chats with Amal Babu, my spare time was spent in reading and the occasional game of carrom with the kids.

Living here in Maheshpur is an entirely different experience – devoid of what we consider basic amenities that life in a city provides, one has to contend with a lot of spare time and nothing much to do. Things that we have taken for granted seem like distant luxuries...and to top it all - no electricity, no internet. 

Haradhan Babu tells me that thatched roofing is expensive. They need to be re-done every year as over-use of chemical fertilizers has made the hay brittle. And how do they calculate the amount of hay needed? here is an example: a bundle of hay is called a 'muthi' which is about 6" in diameter.

20 Muthis = 1 Tarpa
4 Tarpas = 1 Pon
64 Pons = 1 Kahan

and 3 kahans are needed to thatch a roof measuring 150sq.ft. Add labour charges, ropes, twine, 
transportation, and panta!

...and there you are!