Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The Hands That Build A Residential Complex

The mill that can be seen from my window is being demolished to make way for a commercial complex. The last three months have been an esoteric experience--seeing bricks, sand, dust, wood, stones and a JCB machine have been regularly spotted in the mill compound.

The sound of the drilling machine is full of rhythm and the carpenter's saw has a very melodious tune!! If I close my eyes, I well imagine the construction site to be a big musical show where a collage of drums, metals and cymbals play in harmony with harsh human sounds. At any hour, there are groups of people undertaking tasks like demolition, hammering nails, drawing blueprints and shovelling the course sand over a thin net filter. All around, hands covered in grime, cement, wood shavings move animatedly.. hands that are skilled, hard and sinewy. These hands hang off sturdy bodies of men who have migrated from different parts of the country.

The history of any city skyline is a story of the freedom of human migration, enterprise and skill. These 'outsiders' build our skyline, our four walls in which we plot, plan and ponder. Do these workers have an emotional connect with these structures? I posed this question to Niraj, the one who is handling the demolition work. He smiled and said, "Earlier, I had a strong bond with the structures but over time, I have learnt to disconnect once the work was completed. He draws parallels with giving away a daughter in marriage. You create, you nurture, you deck it up and then give it away to its rightful owner."

These workers are a breed of true nomads, bohemians with a set of tools and latent skills moving from one job to another. Some have no fixed address and these sites serve as their temporary homes. One of the masons, Prem, has been working for fifteen years at different construction sites and doesn't possess a home. He sets up a temporary home made with asbestos and aluminium sheets at each construction site with a portable bed and stove. Once the work is complete, he moves to another site. There are of course, a vast majority of labourers who rent small shanties, the only affordable dwelling, into which cram four or five workers to rest their bodies. Money earned is dispatched to their villages where a daughter is getting married, a family loan has to be repaid or a sick parent is being attended to.

Another fascinating insight is related to the fact that the very nature of their work inculcates them a blatant secular outlook. These workers build and repair religious structures too. There are a few Hindu masons from Rajasthan who have worked on the repair of several mosques in the city and a few Muslim labourers from Gujarat have helped to build temples. I probe deeper to find out if they approach these projects differently. On the contrary, while working on religious structures, they maintain utmost sanctity, do not litter or speak loudly and try to maintain decorum. "After all, we are building God's house," they proclaim unanimously.

The mill has already been razed and a new residential complex would be ready soon on the land where the mill once stood. The workers will move on once the complex is complete. The paint might wear off six months after the building will be complete, the polish will lighten with time, the hinges will inevitably gather rust, but these invisible hand imprints of the men who build a residential complex, will be there for eternity, outliving any human who resides in it. If only, we could spare a thought for such unsung heroes.

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