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!
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!