edited: Friday, November 22, 2002
By Madhu Nambiar
Posted: Friday, November 22, 2002
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A construction material became popular in India's Kerala state, involved in skills.
As is felt in all branches of life, construction industry too witnessed many changes in the recent past. Even the onlookers closely watch structural and architectural designs. Quality conscious owners of proposed buildings started running after a varities of building materials that are introduced in the market accompanied by glossy advertisements in different media from time to time.
Until a couple of years ago, M.S. bars were largely used for steel reinforcement. Later, its place has been taken over by H.T. bars, and now epoxy coated steel of different colours, mainly blue and green. Tradition and modern pattern in construction met in some places without many clashes.
After remaining under construction for five years, time has come for the finishing works of my house. Some people advised me that it is the finishing stage one has to give more attention. Few others were corrected it by saying as foundation stage, where as there was no shortage of advice by few others by saying that personal attention is needed in all stages of building construction.
In olden days, flooring of average village homes in Kerala was done in smooth compaction of soil. After drying it, cow dung solution mixed with burnt coconut husks was applied as finishing coat. It was considered Eco- friendly.
Its place has slowly been taken over by cement plaster, mosaic chips, mosaic tiles, Cudappah stones (slate-like stone from Cudappah district in Andhra Pradesh) non-slippery ceramic tiles and marbles.
Although nobles were using imported and costly Italian marbles at their farmhouses since very long, marble has become popular among the lower middle class in the very recent past only.
Popular products for flooring during the last year were mosaic tiles, Cudappah stones and Rajasthan marbles. One can see signboards depicting “mosaic tiles, Cudappah stones, marbles and cement balustrades are sold here” in every city and town like ‘super market’. Many of the signboards highlight “RAJASTHAN MARBLES” in bold letters.
Preliminary meeting is held at the work site between the owner accompanied by close relatives and well wishers and the busy masonry foreman. Suggestions and advices are flooded in from all corners. Owner remained reluctant to accept those suggestions, as he had to look at his wallet very often when expensive suggestions are coming in.
After completion of all additions and subtractions, it is decided to provide Rajasthan marbles at the entrance steps, sit out and hand rails over the cement balustrades. For rooms, mosaic tiles and mosaic skirting, and for kitchen, store and work area Cudappah stones. Ceramic tiles for bathrooms and over kitchen slabs and for plinth protection cement plaster.
The masonry foreman who largely takes his part of the finishing work on labour contract takes the owner to the marble vendor. The foreman is given a warm welcome at the marble emporium. Behind him the owner, a ‘gulfian’ stands sincerely and obediently tightly holding his heavy moneybag in his shoulder.
Discussions are held between the vendor, who most often turns to be the owner of the marble shop, and the foreman, as the ‘gulfian’ is considered alien and unaware of the local practice.
The electrical, plumbing and painting foremen are no much difference than the masonry foreman. If the owner asks the vendor to quote the ‘last price’, the vendor will humorously say ‘oh, you are the real Gulfian’ – “the last price!” The last and least priced one in an ‘adipoli’ society.
Once the deal is concluded and money is paid, closed-door meeting is held between the vendor and the foreman for obvious reason. When the owner asks the foreman about their meeting, he would say, “I was asking the vendor to supply good quality material.”
In the yard there may be labourers resting under a canopy. Some times the masonry foreman will say “I can do the marble work, but I don’t have the tools. Anyway, you are providing marbles, so it is better to assign the marble work to the expert attached to the emporium.” Then the vendor will suggest hiring the expert, largely a Rajasthani, called ‘ustad’ attached to each marble emporium. Sensing that the owner may be able to communicate effectively in Hindi than them, the marble vendor and masonry foreman leaves the owner alone for discussion with the marble sub contractor, the ‘ustad’ , about the work and rate.
The ‘ustad’ wanted to talk in Malayalam where as the Gulfian wanted to talk in Hindi.
“What is your rate for marble work?”
“Eight rupees per square foot for laying and four rupees per square foot for polishing. Polishing will be ‘saada’ only. For mirror polish, it will cost more.”
The ‘Gulfian’ may hesitate for a while anticipating a discount. But, that is not practiced there. Realizing this, the marble sub contractor takes out his diary and read out the names of big projects where thousands of square feet of marbles were laid. Then he gesticulates “it is a small quantity”. “Well, the payment. 50% immediately after laying and 50% immediately after polishing. OK?”
“OK. But, no mirror polish. Only ‘saada’ polish”.
The following day, the marble ‘ustad’ comes to the Gulfian’s dream house with two of his team members - a craftsman and an assistant. After giving instructions to his team members he may retire to other sites where similar people were deployed.
‘Gulfian’ is no short of extending hospitality as he has extensively travelled and met peoples and cultures. The second day, while beginning the work, the craftsman who worked the previous day asks for money, as he wanted to go home the same day by a truck leaving for bringing marble.
“You have just began the work yesterday … OK, how much money do you want?”
“Three thousand rupees.”
“Three thousand! That is too much for a day’s work of two. Isn’t it?”
“But, didn’t you give the work on contract?”
“Yes, the work is given on contract and as per contract the first installment of payment of 50% is due only after completion of laying. Now, you have completed laying of only about 100 square feet, and that comes about eight hundred rupees.”
“Then what about moulding? It comes hundreds of running feet and the amount of moulding comes rupees thousands.”
“Moulding? What moulding? There was no talk about moulding.”
Immediately, silence erupted. The work is stopped.
“OK, you continue work. The work is given to Pappu. So, it is better to talk to him.”
Saying “I will bring Pappu now” he leaves.
After few hours, he returns with Pappu and few others.
There were neighbours started looking at the talks in Hindi.
“For moulding, the rate is extra and it is Rs.20 per running foot. Each step is moulded on all the three sides and at top and bottom. All the three sides of the sit out is also moulded similarly.”
“But, you didn’t say me anything about moulding. You only said, for laying eight rupees and for polishing four rupees.”
He takes out his diary again and starts reading out the names and telephone numbers of owners where he worked.
There comes a hue and cry. Neighbours started murmuring mockingly. Other workers involved in other finishing work stopped working and started hearing the arguments. They wish the marble sub contractor’s victory in the argument.
“I would have do this marble work too, but the owner wanted to give it to a specialist,” the masonry foreman come up at this stage to nag the owner.
“Well, a craftsman and a helper worked for a day. How much do you want for it?”
“Two thousand! Even in Gulf countries, one does not get thousand rupees a day. If you want on contract basis, you must comply with the contract terms. You did not say any thing about moulding.
Even this moulding is entertained; the rate of twenty rupees per running foot for a simple chopping is high. You have laid about 100 square feet over mere sand bed. Even if considering 100 square feet it comes only 800 rupees. I don’t want a hue and cry here. You take 1000 rupees and leave the place.”
It was what happened in my case.
The issue was solved some how. After a few days, in my absence, he started coming to my home to demand money.
In Rajasthan Marble issue, few people tried to fish in the troubled water, but they were not succeeded.
“Your Rajasthan Marble has unnecessarily gave us head ache,” said elders at my home.
“So what? Can’t we write an article on Rajasthan Marbles?” I consoled them.
Recollecting the names the ‘ustad’ read out, I went to two three places where he reportedly worked and enquired further about his modus operandi and I could understand that wherever he worked, these types of problems were there.
It was his practice to take work on saying a rate of ‘aatt’ plus ‘chaar’ and fight on “moulding”, about which he keeps mum in the preliminary discussions. To avoid a dispute, most of the owners to whom marble seemed a new development would give whatever money were asked by the marble ‘ustad’. On the other hand, normally, he pays 100 rupees to the craftsman and 75 rupees to the helper. The rest will go to his pocket. It was the practice many other marble ‘ustads’ followed. Under carpet trade’s another face!
Marble Emporiums too get complaints from customers about the ‘ustads’ pricing policy. A policy of a sort of blackmailing. But, as the marble sale has no regular customers, vendors did not give much attention to the complaints. For them, Rajasthani ‘ustad’ with Rajasthan Marbles is considered prestigious, as far as their business is concerned. The ‘ustads’ attachment is on “no give, no take” basis.
One day, fed up with his frequent visit in my absence to demand money, I sent Pappu a telegram reading: “COMPLETE BALANCE WORK OR RETURN MONEY. TRESPASSING, SHOUTING ABUSE AND BLACKMAILING ARE PUNISHABLE OFFENCES UNDER IPC.” The telegram was sent to him at the Marble Emporium address where he was attached.
After a day or two of getting my telegram, Pappu was reported missing. Few people said I was behind his disappearance. Before his departure, they had seen him taking the telegram to one person to another, as it was the first time he got a telegram. Pappu came after a week. He had been to his native place on Diwali!
I remembered another episode. In 1978, when I was returning from Faridabad in Haryana, I wanted to mend my shoe. I went to a shoe mender near the Inter State Bus Terminal at Kashmiri gate in Delhi. The shoe mender asked me for 50 paise for piercing a nail. When it was mended, he asked me for six rupees.
“Six rupees! You asked for fifty paise.”
“Correct. That is for one nail. Look, here are 12 nails!”
The same day, I ate a cake with tea at the bus station. Based on the experience at the shoe mender and similar experience at a trading centre at Chandini Chowk, which is known as Chandini Chowk trade practice, I used to ask the price first. For the cake that I showed to the shopkeeper I was told fifty paise.
But, when it was eaten, he demanded three rupees. The cake I showed contained six thin slices and fifty paise was for a thin slice! Like showing the younger and marrying the elder!
Although the construction sector labour was not much organized, it was not easy to get the remaining marble works completed through the ‘ustads’ local counter parts.
Those who were ready to complete the work started demanding more money. They were seeing the ‘ustad’s frequent visits, his loud voice in Hindi, and demanding money. Some how, incurring more money, I got the work completed.
After a couple of weeks, I met Pappu at a bus stop. He was negotiating with a potential client. Seeing me, he said: “Saab, I have started fixing the rate for moulding before commencing the work.”
“That’s nice. It will help you to be in this field for long. After all, “slow and steady will win the race!” I said to him.