February 4, 2003

d.i.y? why not!

where we lived, ramji’s shop was just around the corner.

it was a very noisy place, and his workers smoked beedis while they went about their jobs. they seemed bound by a silent sort of unity, almost self-disciplined with vests yellowing due to sweat and dust. they had lunch and tea breaks like everyone else, and occasionally when they laughed you’d spot a gold tooth in their paan-and-tobacco-stained mouth. on a hook by the shop-entrance, they hung their clean shirts before they began work. at the end of the day they wore them on and went home. they spoke in a language you would perhaps understand if you were from their region in central india, sometimes they spoke hindi to make it easier for you. but ramji, he could even understand english. secretly, i think he could even speak it well. because it helped him in his business, and of course he’d know best when to use the language.

you’d be told to be careful if you wanted to step into his shop, and almost always, you’d hear a distinct “hanzi sahabzi!” (meaning a respectful way of saying ‘yes sir, here i come sir!’) over the noise around you, with ramji himself rushing out to meet you. his desk would be cluttered with some rough line-drawings, playing-card-size pieces of coloured plywood, and sometimes a calculator. when he was not with a client, most often you’d find a pencil stuck behind his ear, and a naked 40-watt bulb oscillating over his table. even during daytime, his shop was not very bright, which is why his workers sometimes had to take their work outside. the neighbouring shops — a library, an STD/PCO-cum-photocopier, a pharmacy — did not seem to mind though…after all, they too were hard-working people.

everyone was happy with his work, and even if there were any complaints, ramji saw that it was taken care of at the earliest. when it came to collecting his fees for the job, he sometimes quoted a higher price, almost shy, but humbly stating why. when his clients bargained, he then lowered his quote to please them a little. but this was, mind you, only if he liked the particular client too, and if he was certain the latter would return to him.

…like my father. achchan often brought ramji home if he wanted to have something made. most often, ramji would also have an appointment with someone else in our four-storey society. that way, he was a busy man. sometimes he’d send his worker ahead, and my sister and i would inspect his tools. if the work lasted for days, we’d often pry open the toolbag in the evening after he left, saw an imaginary piece of wood, and pretend to be a carpenter like him.

this sunday, i finally got to be one myself!

our kitchen needed a new floor since the old vinyl tiles seemed to be coming apart… and praveen‘s earnest efforts to put them back with some vinyl-glue only worsened the mess.

both of us had always wanted to have a wooden floor to go with our indian tastes (the english carpeted floors only seem restricting to me, because every other furniture in the room then depends on the colour of the carpet). besides, wood proved to be a more neutral base too.

thanks to the impending house-prices crash, last week we almost decided to sell our home. we’d settle all our loans, make all the profit we could accumulate if that is, it wasn’t too late yet, shift into a rented accommodation, and then wait for the prices to really come down again, before we bought another house again.

selling a house you’re just growing fond of is not easy though, and while we waited to arrive at a final decision, we thought it was the best time to re-do the kitchen. we discovered it was indeed the best time, because the stores were offering a massive discount on wooden laminates.

had it been india perhaps i would have instantly turned to ramji to have them installed. but in a nation of d.i.y, we thought we’d do like the britons too. it was fun…

–>it took us two visits to the store just to understand what we really required, and how much.
–>once home, i had to clean the floor thoroughly and make sure the old tile corners were not sticking out.
–>next, we laid the (foam) underlay across the entire floor…this would level the floor in normal cases for the laminates that would follow on top (i say ‘normal’ because ours is the most uneven floor i’ve ever walked on)
–>we laid the wood laminates next to each other and snap! interlocked them with each other, just like that.
–>and now for the final skirting to cover the sides of the floor…

sometime after we began, we got stuck.

it took us over five and a half hours of installing, hammering it into place, removing and then re-installing, vertically, horizontally, to figure out something was not right. the laminates were about a metre-long each…and laying them continuously on our already uneven floor, prevented them from locking into each other. after a while, praveen suddenly laughed “pure physics”! he then decided to saw the laminates in half… this was to ‘stagger’ them at alternate rows, and soon they began to click into place again. i was told i really wasn’t any help in fitting the pieces since they required strength. hmph!

after a hot coffee and dosa break, i looked around for other interesting things to do. praveen let me try sawing the laminates, and it wasn’t bad at all! i thought of how my sister too would love to have a go at this, and how once i pleaded and took a brush from one of the painters in our house when my mom was not looking, and managed to paint half a wall without being caught!

i wondered if we really have to be so dependent on labour in india. of course, people like ramji and the others would do a better job, but why not try doing stuff ourselves, at least once?

not long ago at my previous job, i’d seen an ex-colleague take a futon apart as though it were a piece of cardboard. i was amazed at how easily she could manipulate it as if she had been doing it all her life, and now i could see why.

another european culture: d.i.y

why? perhaps because labour is too expensive in european countries. besides, india’s large population demands employment in the form of ‘private’ carpenters, painters, plumbers, electricians and the like.

diy culture in europe is encouraged by stores like b&q, wickes, homebase and others. and also by lifestyle television programmes like housecall, home front, and changing rooms, where the tv crew enters a house that requires a serious facelift, and with simple tools and props lying around the house, show the viewers how easy it is to do it themselves too. (more)

in fact, there is also a programme for some of those diy disasters. which means it is really okay if you do happen to go wrong!

our kitchen experiment was very satisfying. we were working together as family, for our own home. we also took turns working, which was fun…even now as i write this i’m waiting for the wood-glue to get working on the ‘skirting’, so i can fix it all around the room. the initial hiccups we faced also made us confident in some way, because as we discovered, the solution was in the problem itself.

when i searched the web later, i couldn’t find similar diy stores in india that could perhaps help people think of how they can create furniture projects for their homes themselves, without having to pay the ramjis of the area through their nose.

what i did come across though, told me that the day is not too far off either…

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