Bewildering Stories

Builders in Assam

by Deep Bora

There is no story so Bewildering as reality. Well, of course: stories are our attempts to make sense of things. To Western readers, Deep’s struggles with his building contractor may have a familiar ring, and one sympathizes with Deep’s recourse to literature. The account could well have come straight out of a story of human colonization of a distant planet. And yet it has a realism and a kind of courtly charm that is, as you will see, distinctly Indian...

January 23, 2004

Hello Don,

I would like to thank you very much for having published "Chronicles of the future," concluding this issue of

I have been unable to write in reply to several of your letters mainly because I am constructing an extra room, you know... for extra space! I am primarily engaged the entire day with a mason, his learning son who thinks cement and sand mixture -- mortar -- is as easy as a pie and can be done up again like you can shape paper. They nearly spoilt the pillar beam.

Then there are the "assistants" who bring water when told to carry sand to the mixing area. They carry the shovel -- commonly termed as 'shabul' in their lingo when I ordered one of them to bring the spade. They climbed up a steel ladder up the water tank the day I told them to bring an extra bucket of water from the tap. They know the place to take a leak, all right.

I literally kick them up the butt to get my work done and later during the day when I serve them hot, steaming tea with snacks, they realise the master is not bad after all and it is all their fault. I pay them 80 bucks for a day's work with two times tea. They do not enjoy that pleasure when working with other such masters or employers! So they look up to me with gratefulness in their ignorant and dumb-looking eyes.

I try to call it a day at the end of eight hours every day knowing fully well that they will work a few extra hours at the same price -- Here, I pay the mason 140 bucks and his 'assistant' son a hundred chips.

You know... cement has got to be mixed with sand at the ratio of 1:5 % and that *@#$%^&* supplier of opc 53 grade -- the cement used for underwater construction has supplied 33 grade -- that cement primarily meant for overground and dry type of construction.

"It is okay, sir. You don't have to worry about the hardness of the cement! Just tell the mistry -- here, the mason -- to smash the hardened cement and it shall dissolve in the water mixture." The supplier quipped in. I think he literally saw stars of the unusual kind in "broad daylight" for my right hook was neat and his jaw... a boxer's dream. I did not need to indulge in an elevated side kick of the heel for his assistant for they found him squatting, shivering in the restaurant nearby.

The Area Manager, N.E. Region (North East) deputed by one of the several National cement companies fervently apologised to me over 'phone when I threatened him with dire consequences, including physical assault and demanded compensation for damages incurred due to faulty cement.

"Look here, this region of the world knows no law except that of the Indian Army. You may be new here, but the Indian Govt. terms this region as unsafe and Militant-infested. These militants call themselves the liberators of the oppressed masses. While I am no militant or terrorist nor do I have links with such people, by the time I get through to you, you'll shall have no other option but to... "

"Sir, I'm very sorry. I shall personally get the replacement cement bags inspected before despatch tomorrow morning."

"You'll what?"

"Er, ahem... I will personally inspect the cement bags in the warehouse before I send them to your house, sir."

"Look here, Mr. I am available only after 2 P.M. Drop in to my house with the cement bags!"

"I'll do that sir."

Little did he realise that I was inviting him for an evening coffee/tea session. Heh. A new Area Manager in the N.E. Region. First he dumps the worst bags to the dealers in the market then he assures of "getting the replacement bags inspected!' I told him in equally polite terms this was not New Delhi or Calcutta.

Interestingly, about the daily wage labourers -- they are "refugees" from erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, living in India in utter poverty and depend upon daily physical work for their daily needs -- almost 99% of them are Muslims and 98% amongst the 99% are illiterate and uneducated. They occupy the agricultural lands of Assam and have been doing so for nearly hundred years since. Urbanisation -- the process of society gradually transforming with the village people coming to the towns and cities -- now brings them to Guwahati in search of...

Leaving my intellectual work, my thesis and research aside (in the fourth dimension and related fields) I spend time with them trying to explain 'shabul' and spade are two different things. To the mistry's son, I explain why the exposed piece of iron rod from within the cement post which was erected yesterday is to be broken and dismantled today.

You know, Don, a boulder is broken into shattered stone chips -- as a matter of fact mountains of such boulders are shattered -- for the resultant stone chips are mixed 1:3:3% in ratio prior to construction...

With regards,


P. A. I have yet been unable to explain to them that spending 500 bucks a day on them is not bringing in results worth that amount. I am sure you understand.

January 31, 2004

It is for the first time in my life that I have experienced Muslim workers deciding to work a day prior to their Id festival -- it is Bakri Id -- bakri stands for goat or sheep in Hindi and Urdu. Under normal conditions they, the Muslims, do not work a day before commencement of Id or on the Id festival day and a day or two proceeding that. I asked them the reason for their keen agreeability to work half a day's worth when they were supposed to head for home early in the morning, catching the buses which would transport them to their villages.

"You see, sir..." the mason started. Evidently, he was accustomed to addressing superiors with a smart 'sir', that, too, in English. "We earn our daily bread and much as I would like to relax in the comfort of my home in the village, if I do not work every day, who is going to feed me? Who will pay me my wages? My family needs my earnings."

The mason was very clear and concise in his prerogatives. The formerly dumb peasant labourers -- now of course, intelligent enough after forty-five days and ten hours brawl every day, nodded in consonance.

Out of pity, if for nothing else, I poured them an extra round of tea this evening and assured them I would pay them for one day's work even if they quit at noon. "Make sure you'll be here by the fifth or latest sixth of February." They nodded in agreeability and I knew, rain or snow, frost or heat, they would be here latest by the 6th morning. Their words are their promise, particularly to those who do not cheat them.

I knew that nearly fifteen years ago when I mingled with them in the mountains and hills of the North East, doing business in Govt.-approved sites and jungles -- trading in logs... and bamboo for paper production in the largest paper mill in Asia, Jagiroad Paper Mill, Assam. My deputy, the camp manager, did not allow them to approach me in my camp located hundreds of feet higher than the site. Yet they managed to get close enough to me, they and the native tribal folk -- the Hills Tribes people of the land. More than the other employers, they found solace in this 'gentleman' who always wrote on rolls and sheets of paper whenever he found time.

Their inquisitive eyes still pry into my life, even now, attempting to unravel the ways and means of this Indian... Assamese gentleman who drives crazily into the jungles once every year. They of course decline to ride in my four-wheel jeep!

I have left jungle business for more than a decade now.

I once came across a mountain "British" graveyard inaugurated way back in the 1850's. One has got to drive beside it to reach further up and I always went on elephant back. You can only then understand just how powerful an elephant is. It simply rolls over the forty-five degree inclinations and pulls the bamboo shrubs with ease by its trunk. The same shrubs would tear one's hands if one would attempt to uproot them. Wow.


Thank you, Deep! We already knew your abilities as an author of fiction. But who could have made up a story like that? Now we have solid proof of your talent as a journalist. You have our every best wish for the successful completion of the construction project, and we hope to hear from you again soon.


Copyright © 2004 by Deep Bora and Bewildering Stories

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