September 26, 2023


Connecting Asian writers with global readers

Short Story: A palia for the mason by Shalini Ajay Singh

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This short story by Shalini Ajay Singh is the tale of an ordinary mason and how we remember his contribution to the nation for keeping a thousand soldiers alive.

The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself. ~Bertrand Russell

This is a beautiful city, come, burn it with me?

                 There’s no Appian Way, or “queen of the roads” in these mountains. Roads serve purposes in the mountains. They are not mere additions; lay for the sake of connectivity. Road systems often spring from un-illuminated forested canals and end in an infinitum. The desert outposts were the only lively monopoly on the white sands of timelessness in the remote lands of vast unknowns- K U T C H. Mountains of dunes and dune shaped mountains. 

Kutch lives by its crafts and bandhani, and with its diverse yet synergetic religious communities. Drought-prone, sparsely vegetated with temples, shrines and cactuses, flanked by the sea on one side, and White Rann, Sindh in Pakistan on the other, it is a land where ecclesiastical Maldharis stitch patterns by day and Sufi singers, yodel by night.

In a region which is inhabited by normalcy of the rural lucidity, foot soldiers and saviours live in one part of the town, which is bordering Pakistan, the settlement of Indomalayan realm and on the other side of the border live the welfare workers and resurrection architects of an era impacted by earthquakes and drought. The earthquake left many Kutchis more possessive of what defined them. Wars left some with the only emotion they could emote without shame- patriotism

                 The people wanted to be respected, recognized and exalted. Three reasons which merited the need for patriotism. 

Ahir, Muthwa, Jat, Rabaris, Sodhas and Jadejas, were the higher castes, while minorities streamlining the settlements were Mutva, Halepotra, Pathan, Raysipotra. They lived in different bhungas‘ (circular huts) but they made the same things- cholis, pouches, appliqué and needle works, weaved from the same loom and ate the same food. 

This is the story of an ordinary man. A hammer, a chisel, and few crowbars are how we remember him. How he kept a thousand soldiers alive. How he kept them safe. How, when he died, he gave his son to the nation for the next keep. Bulla’s living was a living of noble dreams of serving the nation but the family and fate he came from, didn’t really provide him with an opportunity of joining the Army, his lifelong dream. And not just any Army but the Indian Army. An absolute matter of pride. Die, but with conviction. 

Bulla lived in a village, a cement and brick structure, harbouring him and his ruptured, dishevelled dreams to serve in the Indian army. The resettlements had a huge concentration of Ajrakh printers.  The colour gradation of sand in the evening on the salt marsh of the White Desert occupied the laps of women’s cholis with the same embroidery and landscape. Wattle and daub, lime plaster, reheated, recast, and redrawn country tiles and construction debris, Alang’s leftovers, maimed structures of sutures, low ceilings with braided wooden roofs, mud painted façades—were the seasoning of the kutchi settlements where we meet Bulla. Bulla harvested Kala cotton, an indigenous, organic, rain-fed crop, off-white in colour for most of his youth, which was ingurgitated in a fossilized time capsule of the post independence era. The fabric was textured with slubs, rubbed in dried dyes and scrubbed with henna. Like the tectonic disturbance of the planes where Bulla lived, his life was a shifting collisions of planes. Planes which he had seen from below. Planes which were alien. 

Economists have shown that heuristics and biases impede the ability of an individual to rationally assess his profession if he is multi talented and so was Bulla. Like a moko to his legacy, his cotton and bricks were everywhere around him, always beckoning. Bulla was short. He was stodgy. He could walk a few kilometers, with chest heaving, nostrils flaring and eyes squinting in the sun. He could hardly call himself a sports body. He was a home-body. He wore flower patterns and ajrakh. He was a believer though. He was a fighter, a survivor. Even before Partition, due to water shortages in Sindh, his 10 member family had moved over to Kutch and begun work. His father was a mason. His uncle was a mason and his grandfather was the king of Masons. They were a special kind though, you see. These masons had a specialty of making outposts. He was discarded from the selection procedure thrice and he saw his allegiance in serving the army as his only nirvana. Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious. He enveloped himself in a specialization which gave him ample astuteness to be around the army, live with them and be a part of the Indian battalion. Wars may be fought with weapons but they are won by men.

                Bulla packed Patra and dudhi na muthiya, some steamed delicacies, the same way as he used to when he used to leave for school. Now, he was leaving for his work. His first ever job. His father had died the day he had eaten the famous methi na gota for the very first time in 67 years, which were now banished from the Bulleya’s household. Bulla made amends with the stale patra’s and the shapeless muthiya’s. 

                  The Ministry had been allotted a budget of Rs 7,223 crore. Read the black and white gazette. They were given the sum to make more walls, build more routes and outposts, which were severally less. The men working with zeal and high order of professionalism even in the uncongenial and extreme conditions on the mountainous borders, a need for the men on borders was the sole member of Bulla’s family. His father. Who was a 19th Raising Day functionary given the work of building outposts and so during the war and on bordering disputed lands. Nobody really talked about the sacrifice which he made when he died on a grizzly November night. He had been, as usual, singing and giving finishing touches to an outpost, the soldiers waiting on him, when he was fatally shot, 8 times in the chest and his body was never returned. Even in his death, he completed a full outpost and gave a warning signal to the soldiers half a kilometer behind him. There was nothing to return. But they did bring him home, a cloth which had the image of the Indian flag and a gun saluting his efforts, by ringing aloud on the kalamkari nights. Aggressive colonization of species, the soldiers and men with gun increased in numbers, even as the locals settled in the backdrop of instability and excitement.

Only after his father was shot, a word upon an outpost had never been touched before, and the dangerous suitability or lack of- the job was now out in the open. The mayor came and paid his respects with five petalled rose flowers and a chunk of Gandhiji’s, to keep peace. The units at the frontier outposts had decided to raise the flag at half mast. The “mutations,” which were located every ten kilometers along the hilly Kutchi routes marked 2400 different outposts in total, too many to count but not many to remember. There were less bridges, tunnels and aqueducts. When the government decided to write a memory, on a Palia (cremated stone) because of the diminishing populace of mason workers who built outposts, he noted as to how Bulla’s father was the only mason which the borders had seen in the last 45 years. He left behind a legacy which was strong and remembrance of the past, which no one took notice of. Till now. A palia and an outpost, side by side, two symbolic animate story tellers, in the middle of the desert. Never before had a memory affixed on an intangible, omissible place like the desert and the ocean. Deserts and oceans had so much in common. One day it’s your turn, and all the stumbling words of consolation you ever said are said to you. You exist in time, but you belong to eternity.

               Bulla’s father’s legacy, his inspiration, did not die with him. It lives among the thousands of Indians who are facing challenges every day, making a difference to their fellowmen, fighting battles and triumphing over the odds. His legacy lives on in so many of you who are conquering your own mountains. The way a mason shapes and polishes a stone, we are supposed to shape our character and make the world a better living place.

Such is patriotism, found in shapes and stones. “We waved flags but he hoisted stones.” said the Major to Bulla, on the celebration of his 2000th outpost, remembering Bulleya’s father.

“The stones are imperishable. They still smell like blood clots on the white sands”, said the colonel, swinging whiskey. A second later, a salient ‘vai’ (folklore) dripped in the air, reaching a never ending crescendo. As to pride versus honour, if you feel the need to defend it, it’s pride.  If you feel the need to demonstrate it, it’s an honour. Another thing that most of us die having failed at is becoming completely un-mourned.

              There was bakshish and many sweets which were distributed, each in the colour of a rainbow. When Bulla asked what a rainbow was, having never seen one in the desert, the Major took him out to the desert, pointed out to the Palia. He walked back, tears welling in his eyes, even as Bulla smiled and sat in front of the Palia. The freedom which was not bestowed was certainly achieved. A foreigner, who walked the desert area one night, left a note saying how the outpost near beriberi settlement saved his life in the dark. Every once in a while, a vulture would leave a piece of ajrakh, found after tearing open his prey, in the sun, on the ground, near the head. Like a kempt king cobra. Sometimes many travelers clicked a photo or two, years later. They would piss, spit and even sleep on the outposts. These outposts served many purposes. It withstood all hell. All storms and dunes. Sometimes for months, the top layer of sand from the ground would push itself in every imaginable direction around the outpost in the habb (wind), obscuring visibility, sometimes drowning it in sand. Invisible yet, invincible. Like the stories of the desert storms and the haunted. With the tales of the ajrakh bhoot and the laughing widow, the outpost soon became a sordid tale of inherence and wear. It became old and more revered. 

                Bulla died sometime after the 3000th post and in the memory of Bulla, there was built a Palia which was as handsome as his cow and as tall as he.  During the cremation, the temperature of the furnace is extremely hot – hot enough to melt certain types of metals.                        

                 When Bulla died, Amalgam, Aluminum, Gold, Silver and Steel, which had not melted fully, were conserved and embedded in the Palia, making it the most expensive Palia. The Palia read:

I do not waste. I do not create. I am creation because I am whole. I am life. I am what I am because I beget the waste in me, even as I become.

                This is the story of an ordinary mason. A hammer, chisel, and crowbars are how we remember his contribution to the nation for keeping a thousand soldiers alive, building outposts. How, when he died, he gave his son to the nation for the next keep. Maybe that’s why his son was called Shukran


Shalini Ajay Singh is a published author (Prose poetry genre with an interest for Non-Fiction and Fiction writing) with an association with many publishers and authors as a book reviewer, editor and freelancer. She has published many legal and non legal articles and also worked with various media houses in her part time.

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