Building with local materials

At the end of the day’s work on Sep 2, as I was driving away, I stopped to take a look at the space created in a day. I was standing at a point half a kilometre away, which is 8′ lower in elevation. There it stood blending smoothly with the environment and with becoming grace, even hiding the concrete strong-room.

Enjoying the coolness of thatched spaces is a forgotten pleasure. When a man of means wants to stay cool today, he aspires for an air-conditioner – even in small towns. When I was young and Chennai had independent houses, open terraces invariably sported a matted structure, often thatched. Now these are rare even in villages. Once most every village had lakes with reeds in them fit for thatching. Villages bragged of their material and workmen. When I went looking, thatchers were scarce to find.

Raju and Kutty clocked many kilometres and finally found the trade just about alive in Kazhapakkam, about 25 km away. The last marshy kilometer to the lake can be reached only by a tractor. It was close to 9pm of a very long day when Raju and Kutty -who went without lunch- returned to the site with a load of 4,000 bundles piled menacingly high on a trailer. Incredibly, on the trailer rolling like a ship at sea, there were also four thatchers riding . It is a condition of the contract we provide all the meals. Kutty’s household was given a catering contract. Raju kindly agreed to camp at the site to keep the men company. They wouldn’t commit how long it might take to finish the job. They had also demanded Rs.200 per day per person, a high wage indeed, even in these times. We guessed it might take four days but it took 7. I was willing to go the distance, because I have known and loved thatched roofs in the last 25 years.

They would rise early morning and get busy. The first three days were spent unbundling the harvested reeds, carding out the unusable strands and tie the rest into small bundles that can be tossed up to thatchers on the roof. This seemed interminable. On the second day, we brought in two local people as well. Then they declared they’d need at least another 1,000 bundles. Raju and Kutty made another horror run to the lake. The project was slowly becoming an unending story with no plot.

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