Shree Shakti Sawmill, Shakti Timber mart, Shree Lakshmi Wood works, Shree Maruthi Wood and Timber, Trojan plywood. The closer Channapatna becomes, the more of them line the road. Channapatna itself looks like pieces put together to form a town; a set of bare blocks which is a work in progress. Some pieces are pink, some are green, and then some still need to be shingled. I am here to meet a veteran artist, who practices the art of lacquerware and wooden toys. The threshold of his house is marked with lines of kolam. I knock thrice, and then when there is no answer, I rattle the latch for good measure. He opens the door in a lancet of black, wearing a dhoti and some stripes underneath it. A red vermilion dot in the centre of his forehead is encased in a circle of yellow powder, and it matches the border of his dhoti.
“I started when I was twelve.” He introduces, ushering me in, not wanting to beat around the bush. Part of it is because I am holding a diary as long as my forearm and struggling. The other reason is because he is in the middle of something; he holds a sharpened tool in one hand, and the fingers of the other are curved with an invisible object between them. There is a fug inside the house and with the sun, I can see wispy, smoky tendrils. Noticing the discrepancy for the first time today, he leaves the door open and flaps his hands around to disperse the air. I duck, trying to make it look like I was dusting some debris off my hair.
“I have been practicing this craft for fifty one years and apprenticed more than three hundred people,” he confides. His age, then, would be in the domain of the latter sixties. His name is K. Kenchaiah, and he runs his own handicraft business in a town that can trace the origin of this art to Persia. As he speaks, his hand opens in a mudra to reveal a spinning top that leaves blurs of its imprints. He stops it, turns it around and then spins it again; this time the crown strikes the ground. He is demonstrating that it works both ways, but I disagree. There is a reason that the spindle exists. My childhood was spent trying to convince my father that a top was not meant to be spun on its crown. He would nod his head seriously, and the moment I gave it over, he did it again. There is always more than one way to do something, he would say, trying to make a lesson out of it.
One of the tables has glasses, bottles of paint and browned water. An incomplete toy, half glossed, and the other half with a matte texture lies next to a pen-stand with red flecked paint brushes exploding out of it like a rocket. Kenchaiah pulls out a model of a orange-coral Hanuman frozen in leaps while carrying the Sanjeevani Mountain on his shoulder. It is adjustable, he says, pulling out a gilt painted gada and fitting it into a clenched fist, adjusting a mukuta on the head. He makes a movement, and the sculpture splits into two halves. I won an award for this, he tells me. Certificates frame the walls; some accolades are as old as 1979 and show him with a full head of black hair and a moustache that greys only a little bit. He picks out something else to show; a container designed as a birdhouse.
“You can put chocolates inside”, he says, opening and closing the lid to show me. The birds on the ledge flap with the movement. It is cushioned with newspaper, ready to be gifted.
“For Obama’s children,” He adds. His face splits into a smile, and he is only half joking. He helped to make the set of fifteen lacquerware toys presented to the President of the United States during his visit to New Delhi this year. He helped to make the Karnataka Tableau displayed at the twenty-fifteen Republic Day Parade; the Channapatna Toy float that won the third prize in the Tableaux category. He has won many awards for his work; in 2002 he was presented with a State Award for his contribution to the craft. The wall opposite the certificates has folded up steel railings and lengths of nylon forming a pallet. I suppose you don’t get this good without making some sacrifices.
There is a crunching, whirring sound and a yellow bulb lights itself above the blocked-in window. Kenchaiah gets to his feet and picks up a log from his worktable. The bars on the window act as a rack for his tools. He selects one with a fluted end and begins to chip away at the bark. When it is suitably tapered, he inserts the end into the lathe. He beckons me with a finger so that I can see how he does it. “Adjust maadi” he says. The log begins to turn round and round, so fast that I could mistake it as being static. Kenchaiah places the blade of a chisel against the wood, using it like a vegetable peeler, and peels away the rest of the bark as if it were a carrot stick. A cream, naked cylinder emerges from under the textured brown. I want to do that too; I imagine it would feel just like peeling off a dried skin of fevicol.
“Aale mara.” He says, smoothing the surface so that any consequent points are blunted. Ivory-wood. It is easy to see why; the colour is off-white, with the barest tint of yellow. Outside, a collection of logs become a part of sunlight and return it, blinding the eye.
He selects a finer chisel and presses the tip against the grain, and a circular cross section separates out, shrinking until it is the size of a paisa. He varies the pressure and position of the blade to undulate the log making it bulge and cave in; making it voluptuous. A shower of white shavings soft enough to be chocolate sprays out. White and cream and yellow curls are everywhere; on the ground, on my face, sticking to his left breast like they are part of his skin. “Agarbatti stand.” He says, when I ask him what he is making. The surface of the wood is warm due to the lingering effects of friction. He pulls out a strip of vegetable dye, which looks like a piece of coloured wood, and it is hard enough to be. But when he puts it against the agarbatti stand, the heat melts it, and a rim of red appears and thickens. My mouth falls open in delight. It is like magic. I can see the circles of colour appearing one after the other, and deepening, thickening to form rings. He replaces red with green for the belly, and bands of olive begin to wrap themselves rapidly around the bulge. When he chooses black for the cross section of circle, just a touch of a millisecond transforms it into a painted pupil. The dye is a cousin of fast burning wax; it melts immediately and condenses immediately. The top of the strip is still gooey, and he extends a sliver from it like cheese from a pizza, and drops it into his mouth.
“Khayega bhi toh kuch nahi hoga.” He says to my curled lip, chewing and swallowing. Have, he invites. Have some. It’s just vegetable dye. So I extend a few fingers and pull out a dribble of green. It is not sticky at all and not entirely unpleasant to the tongue either. Our Adam’s apples bob together as the lathe whirrs.
Before motors were invented, toy making was a different art, all hand carven and hand melted. The form would be made by slicing pieces from a chunk and sandpaper would finish it off by softening the edges. The art is not dying, but adapting itself to time. Obama’s visit has only fuelled a demand for the lacquerware. But there are other arts which are unable to adapt for many reasons. One of the employees at the Museum of Folklore in Ramnagar is a member of a tribe called the Neel Garara Pada. This tribe is a community of singers; the tradition passed down from parent to child, and Mallaya volunteered to sing a song for me in Kannada. These past seven nights leading to Shivratri, it is all that he has been singing, he told me. The bhajan he chose- Manteswamy is much in the style of ‘you are like this, and you are so great that you did this’. His voice seemed in auto tune; as if there was a backing vocals track running parallel to his music. The only accompaniments he opted for were snapping fingers and a tapping foot to keep the beat. He was eager to sing, almost as if he doesn’t get enough chances to. Encouraged by my applause, he asked to sing another; this time, in praise of Nage Gowda, the man who set up this museum of folk art. He made up the verses impromptu and wove them into melody as he sang, and he sang like it was a song rehearsed over and over and committed to memory. This is part of his learning; much like a student of Carnatic music learns how to construct tanas out of thin air, but it takes years and years of practice, and at the end of the passageway if there is no reward to be reaped, then naturally the art will die out, except in the cases of the jingoistic. But folk art is important because it reminds of a journey – of traditions that our ancestors used to practice that means something else in the new world. Kolam, for example, is now known as a decorative pattern on the threshold of homes, often interlocking in a double infinity to keep evil spirits out of homes. However, it began as a way to feed insects and stop them from coming into the house-an act of charity, and the powder was rice-flour coloured with vegetable dye, much like the strip in Kenchaiah’s hands.
“Now” Kenchaiah says, “Watch this.” He unwraps a dried, skin coloured strip of Thale. Thale, I write down dutifully. “No, no,” he says. “Thale. It is Thale”, with an emphasis on the ‘L’ sound. The leaf was wound around the window bar. He folds it and holds it against the wood as if it were a whetstone. It is the leaf which is the difference between gloss and matte. Palm is also used to insulate-I briefly remember seeing a mound of coconuts covered with palm fronds on the way to Channapatna. Kenchaiah uses the leaf to smoothen and to lop away any offending pieces of dye that have blobbed on the side. He finishes by drilling a hole into the black, and uses a gouge to separate the finished piece from the rest of the raw log. With a thunk and a dusting of powder, it falls into the palm of his hand.
“Look.” He says. He reaches over for a packet of Om Shanti Om Flora Agarbatti and lights it. Instead of sticking up like a ramrod, the incense slants slightly on its stand. Already the tip has begun to crown and reduce with white ash. The pillar of cinder is breaking, and he thinks to touch it, but at the last moment pulls back his hand and uses his calling card instead; a fluorescent yellow with a length of green on the bottom. It reads: Sri Ganga Parameshwari Handicrafts, with his name and number on the corners. The edges begin to singe and distort as they come in contact with the ember.
When the floods came, everything in our house got washed away. People tell me that I should consider myself lucky that our house still remained standing; that I am lucky precisely because I don’t have to begin again from scratch. But I don’t know why it remained stationary instead of being uprooted. It is built on a cliff, many layers sandwiched unevenly together like cake. The lock of the bathroom door had fallen out and inexplicably wedged itself in the crevice between two wooden floorboards. I had to tug it out using my index finger as a lever; prying it out until I could pull it out. My husband was particularly disgruntled about that; it was new in a new door; doubly secure, and that way, our neighbours wouldn’t pop in and borrow it from time to time. It stayed where it was. When they asked to borrow one after, my husband’s face was filled with glee when he informed them that we had made changes in our lifestyle which would make it impossible. We don’t use them anymore, he told them. He draped a hand over my shoulder, trying to make the decision seem in unity. His hand felt heavy and uncomfortable, and I didn’t know how to move, what to say. I felt if I moved and his arm fell off, he would be hurt and insulted. Of course, he hadn’t thrown the old ones away. They lay locked into each other in a cloth bag under my bed. When a moon later, our neighbours’ carefully hoarded storage of grain and gold would be stolen, there would be a sliver of remorse on his face, rippling like water. He would try to come to terms with it by extending to them all the help that he could. He wouldn’t reveal the presence of the locks, but he would organize a union in which he would speak that in the face of so much uncertainty, we must function as a unit. That we only had each other. That morality was our only salvation. I didn’t know that I would remember his arm on my shoulder as the only evidence of such decisions. I would recall the event with such excruciating clarity, the way his fingers curled around my joint. Even though I hadn’t moved, I would remember leaning away from him, so only our hips touched, forming the letter ‘M’.
And then there was a switch that had, despite all odds, remained hanging, strung from an electrical cord on our roof. I was not in the house when the floods came. In fact, I wasn’t even in the village. I was in the city, trying to get my Aadhaar card made. I went for a day and stayed a week. The long lines of people just never ended, and I never moved forward. The officials insisted that families get their registration done together and it was equivalent to a genealogy tracing; people discovered cousins and aunts and uncles twice removed standing right next to them. And then there was me, standing alone. Static. I did not feel very kindly towards my husband; when the camp had come from the valley for a day, he was at home. He could have called me from the fields below, but he didn’t and never offered an explanation about it. When I returned home, weary and lonely, I found that he had built a makeshift tent for our neighbours. The inside of the walls were damp and frightening, the only thing that was alive was the switch. It swung with the wind and coincided with the rush of blood in my veins. Left from right, left to right, always oscillating in the same arc. At night, as we slept on a thin shawl, the switch looked like a sliver of moon that had been left behind.
When he became president of the union, he would often be away, meeting people, talking with them. Somehow, I thought the floods would be a new start. That everything would be washed clean and scoured thoroughly with sand, and we could begin again. But I would walk in the same greased footpath, defining it, deepening it, until the grooves became well worn. I would walk on tiptoe, my feet never really touching the ground; neither here, nor there, but somewhere in between.
So one day, I decide to walk on my toes. Not the pad, but on the soft skin under the nail. I tie a rope around the base of my throat and link it to a hook in the ceiling. My husband walks in on me struggling to construct steps on strips of feet, and letting out a roar, he barrels into me, and we collapse into the ground in a tent of fabric and limbs. I try to explain to him that I am trying to feel what it is like to walk cushioned on air. He holds my head instead, and looks into my eyes; looking for dilated pupils, for the smell of burans on my breath. . My dupatta has knotted itself into my hair, and he pulls it back. I think that he is going to hit me in anger- and he has never hit me before- but he begins to rub the top of my head in a circular manner that he feels will comfort me; murmuring that it will all become better. I am not thinking about him though. I am not even thinking about myself. I am thinking about the sea, oddly. I have never been, but we had a neighbour, Sanjay, who worked as a waiter in Mumbai. In a pot where there ought to be tulsi, he had embedded Fibonacci spirals, halves of a bivalve molluscan shell and cowrie shells. The first time I saw them, I asked if they were the bones of an animal that he has eaten. He threw his head back and laughed sunnily. Dear child, he said, his thumb rubbing my lower lip. Dear child. And he gave me a spiny, spiral one to keep, which got lost in the flood. Sometimes, I imagine walking down to the river bed and sifting through all the residue and objects; wondering what I am looking for that has been lost.
But my husband brought a bangle for me on our wedding day. He slipped it over my bones as our clothes were being tied together. It is plastic and shiny around my wrist. It is supposed to be mud and baked with scaffolding of metal. It is supposed to have diamond shaped mirrors glued onto it, except the diamonds are oblong and yellow and painted on. This is logical, he said to me; that it would last longer. The mirrors wouldn’t fall because they were painted on, but I couldn’t help but think how ugly it was. Rimmed and bulging, a mockery of what he was supposed to get for me. It wasn’t even glass. I tried to tell myself that he was a practical, down-to-earth man but all the time I was really feeling that this was not a decision that I had wanted to leap out of practicality. We had plenty of time for that; we lived hand to mouth from rice to roti in an unforgiving, contoured environment, and just once, I had hoped that someone would get me something just because. Every time he would visit the flea market, I would be unable to hide my eagerness; I thought that he would get me a sari or a little trinket. It could even be a small packet of cardamom that I could put into tea and serve to the women.
“Did you get me anything?” I asked eagerly, the first time we were apart.
“I told you, the market is out of my way.” He said, not unkindly, rubbing his hair and flinging his coat to a corner.
But nevertheless, I would rub the bangle around my wrist each morning, wondering if today was the day I could take it off. I didn’t have to wear it anymore; I am no longer a newlywed, but if he got me something I would feel justified in locking it away.
One evening, the sky is a mess of torn strips of cloud. I walk two hours down the valley to make a phone call. The telephone is almost broken, its base is a plastic square with rounded edges, and each part is connected with the other. Often, when I am waiting for the connection, I play a game with myself; I imagine the number of ways that the lines cannot meet each other. Today, I hand a few rupees to the whiskered man at the counter and begin to dial. The clouds have begun to roll and growl. The phone rings once, twice. On the seventh ring, someone picks up, but I put down the receiver instantly, the clank lost in a surge of thunder. As I shuffle outside, the man kindly slides a few steel circles over the counter. “The connection is bad in the weather. Wait for some time. Call your husband after the sky clears a bit,” he says, and I don’t correct him. He points to a warm, dry stool which is cushioned with brown jute sacking. It smells like chemicals and marigold biscuit and condensed milk. Like hay and grass. It is a warm, inviting smell, and it reminds me of summers spent in orchards and fields, milking cows and herding goats. Chewing blades of straw while watching a murder of crows fly into the sun. I want to stay, but I don’t know when my husband will be back. He might be back today; braving rain and thunder and wicked, slippery slopes to get home to me, and I must be there to receive him.
But he is away for a month. I get a word of mouth letter from a friend of a friend of an assistant who tells me that he will be back as soon as possible. So while he roams the districts aiming to become a candidate for the local political party, I keep house, pluck tiny green apricots from trees and rub the red line under my bangle. The years are telling; and the groove that it has worn into my skin is becoming black and purple.
He returns on a purple evening, flinging his coat into a corner. When he speaks no words to me, I go through his satchel; looking for something that he has put away for me and forgotten about. Perhaps an egg shaped pinecone, or a wildflower pressed dry between pages of a notebook. I find, instead, a single earring, diamond shaped and decorated with a mosaic of glass and mirrors. One side textured, and the other side smooth brass. And I do not confront him about it. Rather, a weight lifts off my shoulders, and I slip off the bangle, locking it away. I feel I have achieved a high mark after an exam. From the day on, I endeavour to be the most dutiful wife. This is our begin-again. This is our clean slate.
But many moons later, in the presence of our neighbours, when he inquires if I want anything, I find myself asking for the other earring. Yes, I say. Diamond shaped. One side a mosaic, the other side brass plated. But he does not hear, or he stops listening when I start making my demands known. He is too busy rolling out a glossy piece of paper and nailing it to the wall of our house. It is a picture of him, arms folded, and wearing white in a background of orange and green. Both of him is beaming at me, waiting for me to say something. Our neighbours are beaming at me. My husband and I have been homonyms for so long. We have been living in different sentences, and this is our conjunction. This our begin-again. But I want the earring, I find myself repeating. I want the diamond shaped earring with a mosaic on it.