When work moved from farm to city, from land to concrete, from hands to machine—in short, when the industrial revolution redefined the meaning of work for us—much was lost. Perhaps the greatest loss was the sense of cosmic wonder of interrelationship with the universe, with nature, with the stars and breezes and plants and animals that was integral to workers on the land. No paycheck can make up for that loss. – Matthew Fox’s The Reinvention of Work
If You Had to
If you had to make the quill
pen in the old way, stripping
the feathers, cutting the well,
splitting & shearing the tip
off clean; if you had to grind
the ink, holding the cake
straight against the stone,
circling until your wrist ached
to get the proper tone of black;
would you wonder, as you sat before the paper
what sort of poem was worthy of your labor?
– Samuel Green, The Grace of Necessity
Ah that immense joy when you just create magic with your hands, when you create a unique piece of art. Have you read about Campesino from Mexico. He was a basket maker and he made and sold beautiful Canastitas. “Each basket is unique, Senora. You must take a look at the colors and weaving”, he would say. They would turn him down, push him away ask him to reduce the price for the small basket and bargain till their throats turned hoarse. But it did not really matter to Campesino, did it, these daily trials. For him each of his little basket was his new little song the colors of which were inspired from a new butterfly that came visiting him in the evenings… the song would suffice.
… And once just like Campesino, people did make things, beautiful as they were, out of their own hands. Yes, a basket would take days, a wooden pigeon would come live and hoot after weeks of labor and a shawl would be ready only after the artisan had spent not less than 15 months working on it, closely embroidering on it the edges of the leaves that had fallen off the tree in autumn, each leaf special and different just like us. That’s how were the days spent and lives lived, amidst the joy of creation. In childhood I had read a beautiful story by Ruskin Bond – the Kite Maker – story of an old man who made some of the most beautiful kites, people in that city had ever seen.
The Kite Maker – Ruskin Bond
There was but one tree in the street known as Gali Ram Nathan ancient banyan that had grown through the cracks of an abandoned mosque—and little Ali’s kite had caught in its branches. The boy, barefoot and clad only in a torn shirt, ran along the cobbled stones of the narrow street to where his grandfather sat nodding dreamily in the sunshine of their back courtyard.
‘Grandfather shouted the boy. ‘My kite has gone!
The old man woke from his daydream with a start and, raising his head, displayed a beard that would have been white had it not been dyed red with mehendi leaves. ‘Did the twine break?’ he asked. to know that kite twine is not what it used to be. ‘No, Grandfather, the kite is stuck in the banyan tree.
The old man chuckled. ‘You have yet to learn how to fly a kite properly, my child. And I am too old to teach you, that’s the pity of it. But you shall have another.
He had just finished making a new kite from bamboo paper and thin silk, and it lay in the sun, firming up. It was a pale pink kite, with a small green tail. The old man handed it to Ali, and the boy raised himself on his toes and kissed his grandfather’s hollowed-out cheek.
I will not lose this one he said. ‘This kite will fly like a bird. And he turned on his heels and skipped out of the courtyard.
The old man remained dreaming in the sun. His kite shop was gone, the premises long since sold to a junk dealer; but he still made kites, for his own amusement and for the benefit of his grandson, Ali. Not many people bought kites these days. Adults disdained them, and children preferred to spend their money at the cinema. Moreover, there were not many open spaces left for the flying of kites. The city had swallowed up the open grassland that had stretched from the old fort’s walls to the river bank. But the old man remembered a time when grown men flew kites, and great battles were fought, the kites swerving and swooping in the sky, tangling with each other until the string of one was severed. Then the defeated but liberated kite would float away into the blue unknown. There was a good deal of betting, and money frequently changed hands. Kite-flying was then the sport of kings, and the old man remembered how the Nawab himself would come down to the riverside with his retinue to participate in this noble pastime. There was time, then, to spend an idle hour with a gay, dancing strip of paper. Now everyone hurried, in a heat of hope, and delicate things like kites and daydreams were trampled underfoot.
He, Mehmood the kitemaker, had in the prime of his life been well known throughout the city. Some of his more elaborate kites once sold for as much as three or four rupees each.
At the request of the Nawab he had once made a very special kind of kite, unlike any that had been seen in the district. It consisted of a series of small, very light paper disks trailing on a thin bamboo frame. To the end of each disk he fixed a sprig of grass, forming a balance on both sides. The surface of the foremost disk was slightly convex, and a fantastic face was painted on it, having two eyes made of small mirrors. The disks, decreasing in size from head to tail, assumed an undulatory form and gave the kite the appearance of a crawling serpent. It required great skill to raise this cumbersome device from the ground, and only Mehmood could manage it.
Everyone had heard of the ‘Dragon Kite’ that Mehmood had built, and word went round that it possessed supernatural powers. A large crowd assembled in the open to watch its first public launching in the presence of the Nawab. At the first attempt it refused to leave the ground. The disks made a plaintive, protesting sound, and the sun was trapped in the little mirrors, making of the kite a living, complaining creature. Then the wind came from the right direction, and the Dragon Kite soared into the sky, wriggling its way higher and higher, the sun still glinting in its devil-eyes. And when it went very high, it pulled fiercely on the twine, and Mehmood’s young sons had to help him with the reel. Still the kite pulled, determined to be free, to break loose, to live a life of its own. And eventually it did so. The twine snapped, the kite leaped away toward the sun, sailing on heavenward until it was lost to view. It was never found again, and Mehmood wondered afterwards if he made too vivid, too living a thing of the great kite. He did not make another like it. Instead he presented to the Nawab a musical kite, one that made a sound like a violin when it rose in the air.
Those were more leisurely, more spacious days. But the Nawab had died years ago, and his descendants were almost as poor as Mehmood himself. Kitemakers, like poets, once had their patrons; but no one knew Mehmood, simply because there were too many people in the Gali, and they could not be bothered with their neighbours.
When Mehmood was younger and had fallen sick, everyone in the neighbourhood had come to ask after his health; but now, when his days were drawing to a close, no one visited him. Most of his old friends were dead and his sons had grown up: one was working in a local garage and the other, who was in Pakistan at the time of the Partition, had not been able to rejoin his relatives.
The children who had bought kites from him ten years ago were now grown men, struggling for a living; they did not have time for the old man and his memories. They had grown up in a swiftly changing and competitive world, and they looked at the old kitemaker and the banyan tree with the same indifference.
Both were taken for granted—permanent fixtures that were of no concern to the raucous, sweating mass of humanity that surrounded them. No longer did people gather under the banyan tree to discuss their problems and their plans; only in the summer months did a few seek shelter from the fierce sun.
But there was the boy, his grandson. It was good that Mehmood’s son worked dose by, for it gladdened the old man’s heart to watch the small boy at play in the winter sunshine, growing under his eyes like a young and well-nourished sapling putting forth new leaves each day. There is a great affinity between trees and men. We grow at much the same pace, if we are not hurt or starved or cut down. In our youth we are resplendent creatures, and in our declining years we stoop a little, we remember, we stretch our brittle limbs in the sun, and then, with a sigh, we shed our last leaves.
Mehmood was like the banyan, his hands gnarled and twisted like the roots of the ancient tree. Ali was like the young mimosa planted at the end of the courtyard. In two years both he and the tree would acquire the strength and confidence of their early youth. The voices in the street grew fainter, and Mehmood wondered if he was going to fall asleep and dream, as he so often did, of a kite so beautiful and powerful that it would resemble the great white bird of the Hindus—Garuda, God Vishnu’s famous steed. He would like to make a wonderful new kite for little Ali. He had nothing else to leave the boy.
He heard Ali’s voice in the distance, but did not realize that the boy was calling him. The voice seemed to come from very far away. Ali was at the courtyard door, asking if his mother had as yet returned from the bazaar. When Mehmood did not answer, the boy came forward repeating his question. The sunlight was slanting across the old man’s head, and a small white butterfly rested on his flowing beard. Mehmood was silent; and when Ali put his small brown hand on the old man’s shoulder, he met with no response. The boy heard a faint sound, like the rubbing of marbles in his pocket.
Suddenly afraid, Ali turned and moved to the door, and then ran down the street shouting for his mother. The butterfly left the old man’s beard and flew to the mimosa tree, and a sudden gust of wind caught the torn kite and lifted it in the air, carrying it far above the struggling city into the blind blue sky.
Just like Ruskin Bond, Naomi Shihab Nye takes us with her to the Middle East to observe a man in his “stony corner” that makes brooms. His trade is unfamiliar to Americans who buy brooms made in factories. In her poem “The Man Who Makes Brooms”, she describes the maker of brooms –
Thumb over thumb, straw over straw,
he will not look at us.
In his stony corner there is barely room
for baskets and thread,
much less the weight of our faces
staring at him from the street.
What he has lost or not lost is his secret.
What is the secret that Samuel Green’s quill maker, Ruskin’s kite maker and Nye’s broom maker shared? John Stone says its the same secret that the little birds across many cultures sing: mindfulness, compassion, and understanding the word “enough.”
Oh yes, before I forget, in case you are interested to know more about Campesino and his beautiful baskets and what he did to a big business offer, you should read the play Campesino and his wife features in – The Basket Maker by Tom Pruiksma. A lovely play.