Monday, January 19, 2009

The Chimiti-man

It is hard to believe that when they built the C3's which we moved into around 1960, the assumption was that people would use wood for cooking fuel. The houses all had chimneys on the roof for the smoke from wood-burning stoves.

The company had started perhaps around 1957 or 58, and the township was rather new. The early 'settlers' who initially lived in Piplani, sometimes in houses bigger than they were entitled to, did not use wood, at least to my knowledge. We used kerosene stoves then. Cooking gas would become widely available in a couple of years and most people we knew switched to the convenience of that medium almost immediately. Perhaps, in some convoluted way the architect was building to hold on to the past rather than what was already on the horizon.

Needless to say the kitchen was poorly conceived and completely inappropriate for the new technology. It would need a complete reinvention to be usable. That however was easier said. If you needed any kind of repair, you had to go to the Civil department's field office which was responsible for your neighborhood. You filed a complaint, it went into a queue, and someday someone would show up to attend to it. It was no surprise that often the handyman, could not fix the problem because he did not have the right materials - The mason did not have cement, or the carpenter needed something which would need to be ordered. We were living Soviet life in the Indian heartland.

So when my father conceived this brilliant modification to the kitchen, it was way beyond the scope of maintenance, and not even in the purview of what was permissible. We got an early introduction to the second economy. When the official bureacracies came in the way, you could always rely on personal contacts to fulfill your needs.

We got to know Anna, through the small projects he did for us. There was a gap of about an inch under all the doors inside the house, more than wide enough for nocturnal visits from mice, snakes and geckos. We needed to put a cement barrier to block that gap. In the days when cement was always in short supply ( in fact it would remain so for several decades afterwords, creating a flourishing black market), this petty project took on the dimensions of a major remodeling effort. Even though, we did a lot of little projects ourselves, this was something we needed a mason for.

Anna, who worked in the Civil maintenance department, was from Tamilnadu - tall, dark and wiry. He spoke little Hindi, almost none in fact, and even if he had, I don't think that laconic man would have said much any way. Still somehow we managed to communicate with him, explaining mostly through gestures what we needed, and I think it was quite amazing, how in the end, we almost got what we wanted, or rather, we often settled on liking Anna's interpretation of whatever it was we had in mind. Anna, would mull over the project, run some estimates in his mind, and invariably tell us to wait till he had the 'chimiti' (Cement). And, sure enough some time later, he would show up with leftovers from other 'official' projects, or perhaps something he squirreled away.

I think he liked working on the remodeling projects my father came up with, for the word of the improvement would spread, and then the neighbors would want it too, and soon the entire neighborhood would be getting the same changes made. Word would then get to the Civil department, and they would make the modifications official, ending Anna's stream of side income. Till that happened, Anna was in great demand, and I am sure it streched his creativitiy to come up with all the materials he needed for those projects.

We never knew his real name - we just called him Anna. He had the authoritative bearing of a father figure any way. We never learned much about his personal life either, since language remained a barrier. Anna never learned to speak Hindi even after several years, and our Tamil vocabulary was pathetic at best.

But when it came to the language of projects and ideas, our conversations had achieved growing fluency over time. I think he must have liked us too in his own way. I am sure there was much he did not have to do.

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