The Empire Estate

By Aditya Dev Sood

The empire estate Akbar Shah had come to meet us. I can still see him, his untucked shirt fluttering in the wind, long arms strung at his sides, careful words, he needed this job. My main work is the rough-cut stone, he said, like you have all over the facade. But I can also do tiling. I'll manage the labor but the blade will be yours. Gurinder and I couldn't see that we had any other go anyways. The last contractor had been a disaster, requiring minute instruction but then sulking on being told what to do. He'd taken his men and tools off the job finally, and sent one of his other malik-s over to us to try and get his account settled. We told Akbar he was on the job and that yes, the blades were ours. Was he squinting in the sun, or did his eyes betray Chengez Khan and Timurlane as ancestors? He said he was from Poonch, one of the most northern districts in Kashmir, fatefully falling on this side of the Line of Control. His bearing and manner seemed sincere, but his eyes danced and he seemed always to be restraining his mustache from breaking out into a sly grin. What a name he has, said Gurinder to me later, and we'd had to laugh.

We'd already been at this, what, three months? There were times it seemed like the biggest sculpture studio imaginable, but also days when wood would be fighting masonry, the electricity would fail, and then it would rain on the pieces of wood just polished and left to glint in the sun. Every other morning, it seemed, a whole side of my brain would cave in at these mundane, minute, coordinations that made up my business at Empire Estate, where I was renovating — gut-rehabbing — two adjacent row houses. This is why I'd hired Gurinder at the outset, a civil engineer who'd know how to manage all this stuff, and he gamely played the man of action, while I turned back to my Heidegger. I remember him once pulling live wires and closing them with his own hands in light rain, which requires the foolish courage of youth as well as insistent engineering will: this circuit will close, the damn lights will come on.

Akbar Shah was here to teach himself stone-tiling on our dime, but even he didn't pretend to know anything about grinding or polishing the stone he laid. For that we hired Kabir Shah and his brothers and nephews from Bihar. Channa Ram, the head-carpenter was from Punjab, but the rest of his team was also from Bihar. Banwari Lal, the painter-polisher was from Eastern Uttar Pradesh. Every time stone abutted wood, wall met floor, and Bihar met Kashmir, Gurinder and I would be called upon to mediate and dispense Solomonic wisdom, to get the teams back to work and this project back on track.

Our site office was our only office, and it was set up in one of the garages of this pair of row houses we were renovating. From across the driveway, through the glazed windows we'd installed earlier, the staccato pounding and intermittent whining of the site filled up our days. I had two straight edges strung from two drawing boards at one end, and in the center there was a low light-table, a charpai and some mudha-s for future clients to sit at. In the back was my approximation of an American workshop, including tools slung off the wall, a Dremel, and a Sears and Roebuck fret-saw that necessitated the large gray voltage converter on the floor. The scene was a set for dramatic acts of facture, but the heat, the context, and perhaps the weight of real artisans across the way, creating real value with skilled hands even when there was no electricity to power their tools, undermined my own will to faber.

At lunch and for hours in the middle day, when work was more or less proceeding apace, my conversations with Gurinder would take me far from Empire Estate. Beginning from the everyday sparks that routinely flew among our assorted teams of semi-skilled laborers, we would end up talking about religion and caste, post-colonial India, his relatives in Canada, his aspirations for the future. Gurinder wanted to be a sociologist, but saw no way to achieve this, given the engineering degree he had started out with.

Mrs. Kapur was here to inspect the site, and it was a test for all of us. Akbar Shah stood, coiled, next to his tradesman with the handheld diamond saw. A 200-watt bulb hung naked from the ceiling of the small bathroom. Freshly laid, these were 'Indo-Italian' marble tiles, that I'd procured myself from East Delhi. Something about their wan aspiration to Italian marble had appealed to me. Their white surface was sallow, not quite shiny, and their 'Italian' streak was something more like a rusty line of earth waving hesitantly across and through them. One could love them, one would have to know how.

Akbar had been here since the early hours of the morning, supervising the work. Their edges aligned well, up and down. Gurinder and I have no complaints, I told Mrs. Kapur.

We came back downstairs to the garage and had a Coke in its shaded, air-conditioned space. We flipped through some magazines of Italian interiors that Mrs. Kapur had brought. What do you think of this for the kitchen, she asked me, turning the glossy my way to show voluptuous white curves accented with chrome edging and detailing.

Gurinder and I both smiled at the thought of our motley crew reproducing this magazine fantasy. This was made in an Italian or maybe Indonesian factory, I said, with skilled labor working with precision tools. Since we're working with artisans maybe we should try to choose a design language in which they can excel?

Mrs. Kapur nodded and smiled, that's why I hope you'll come up with something really brilliant, Aditya, that no one else could have. She seemed distracted for a minute, but then stood up. We'll have to change that marble in the bathroom. I think it's really not up to the mark. Let's go with makrana white as in the lower bathroom. Can we do that?

I looked to Gurinder. Sure, he said, sure, we can do that. The plaster wouldn't have set. I'll tell Akbar right now. He ran out to stop the construction and Mrs. Kapur gave me another two lakhs in cash before leaving.

By now, I'd figured out that construction management didn't have to be a full-time job. If I organized my meetings right, I could spend a couple of hours on site in the morning, do a cross-check in the evening and have pretty much the whole middle of the day free. Free to do what? I made notes of events and cultural programming in the city, and showed up for plays at Kamani, openings at Triveni, films at IIC, and pretty much any other public exposition and disquisition that could distract and divert me from site.

This morning Akbar Shah and Gurinder were making kuccha markings for the marble tiling on the living floor of the adjacent unit, belonging to Mr. Raja, our other client. The square makrana marble tiles were turned on their corner to allow an abstracted Persianate medallion to be developed in the center of the room in ochre Jaisalmer and black Cudappa stone. The tiles have come, said Gurinder. Akbar's two masons are here. We've got them blades. I want you to check the initial tile alignments. I looked down at the tips of the tiles against the living room windows, which created a series of triangles, trapezoids, and dovetail patterns that were picked up in black Cuduppa. I nodded back, looks like you're ready to go.

I was off for a lecture on the poetry of Rumi at the Iranian Cultural Center, after which I was going to pick up some lights for both houses from Khan Market. As I pulled back into Empire Estate that evening, I saw Mr. Raja's car. Akbar Shah and Gurinder were standing together outside as if in solidarity, but ashen. Gurinder put out his cigarette and told me one of the walls was crooked. See, we took the gunia from the front of the living room, and it was fine for the three walls, but not for the fourth, which was the long one stretching down the entire living and dining. Mr. Raja's just seen it and he's not happy.

I took a deep breath and went over to greet Mr. Raja. He nodded toward me but continued talking directly to my woodworking and electrical contractors. When he was finally done, he pointed back down to the edge of the floor and shook his head. You've ruined the whole room. Then he looked at Akbar Shah and asked him again to account for how the pattern for the entire room had gone awry. These two are over-educated idiots, but you're an artisan. You should have known better, he told him. Akbar Shah was standing tall and straight, relaxed but intent, his eyes carefully averted from Mr. Raja's. This seemed a good pose to adopt, and Gurinder and I quietly followed suit.

I convinced Mr. Raja to come back to the garage and gave him, basically, false assurances that we'd find a way to deal with the problem. I sought also to lead the conversation away from the day's debacle on to other designs and other rooms. We settled down in the garage, I ordered tea, and laid out some drawings for his family room, which had abundant cabinetry and woodwork. I explained how my drawings showed interlacing champ, sal and teak woods on the floor and then repeated that logic in the cabinetry in the corner of the room.

That's a great drawing, he said, but what do you need champ and sal for? There is the money for teak, use teak. The idea, I explained, was for the differing woods to have their own color and grain, and not to stain the wood artificially. We really should use three different kinds of wood.

Mr. Raja's upper lip was glistening with a light film of sweat and it was trembling very slightly. No house of mine will have champ and sal in the family room, he said. He got up and stepped out of the garage, and I worried for a minute that he was going to leave suddenly. But he came back with a briefcase, from which he removed an A4 envelope. Two-and-a-half, he said, as he handed the money to me. Please remember, you must show quality, otherwise what is the idea? I nodded with feeling, and shook his hand.

Never before or since have I ever felt so comfortable with so much money. It was not something I wanted or needed very much of, and it seemed to flow easily, from client briefcase through my salwar-kameez pockets through to contractors, or else to wholesale vendors in Chawri Bazar, who supplied pipes, locks, handles, sanitary wares, and every other item of hardware for building construction. Every two weeks, I might spend a whole day up in Old Delhi, roaming around in the sun, imagining sculptures and installations based on hardware and building materials only slightly more inventive than the stacks of goods and wares already on retail display all around me.

It was now after Diwali. Mr. Raja had wanted his house ready by then, but despite stepping up the pace of construction, only the living room floors had been polished and walls painted. Mr. Raja had held a havan there on Diwali morning, and all of us still working on the place were invited to attend. He gifted Gurinder and me a shirt length each, gave shawls to the head contractors, and boxes of sweets to their labor. Around that time, Gurinder told me Akbar Shah had asked for a meeting.

He came bearing sweets, which may have been jalebee-s, or else those sickly-sweet local laddoo-s. Gurinder and I sat on the charpai and Akbar Shah took a mudha. We called for tea. Gurinder seemed to be enjoying himself. He asked Akbar, what's the occasion, sir?

I'm going to German, said Akbar. Wow, I said. How come?

He told us he'd been approached by a recruiter many months ago, but that he'd spent his time getting his documents in order, and checking on the bonafides of the recruiting firm — all to make sure the sisterfuckers weren't going to take his money and dupe him. But he would be part of a team of twelve skilled laborers going to Germany together, of whom he knew and trusted more than a few. Once you went out there was no easy way to come back for a year, so he had to make sure he was going to be comfortable doing the work, that his earnings would be safe and that he would make it back safely.

What about your family, Gurinder asked. Akbar said that they would remain here in Delhi, with his main, at this he patted the air with both his hands, his main. His older brother, who seemed his main refuge and support here in Delhi, and who had come to the city before him. My daughter is nine, my son is four, he said, my home-woman will stay here with them. I'll bring my older brother to meet you. He'll take care of any of the remaining work on the second house. After Akbar had left, Gurinder and I continued sitting, as I took in the news. He'll be a gastarbeiter, I said, a guest-worker. But maybe he'll figure a way to stay, I wouldn't put it past him, and bring his family over as well.

There is one another news, said Gurinder. I'll be leaving in December. I'm going to Toronto to study Urban Planning. Now this was a shocker. Wow, that's really a lot of news… Congratulations. It'll be a combination of teaching and coursework, for at least four years, he said.

And what will you work on, I asked? Well, all this — he waved generally towards the row houses — people coming into the city to work, the people that employ them, where they go next. Migration, class, social tensions, the stuff that's been happening on site, basically.

So in ten or fifteen years you'll be a professor in Toronto… and Akbar Shah's daughter will end up registered for one of your classes! Gurinder guffawed, but he liked this idea. It could happen, he said, why not?

As I locked up for the day, I had a sudden and heavy impression of all the living rooms, family rooms and bathrooms that still lay ahead of me, which I'd now be working on alone.

Image: A sketch by the architect dating from the same period.