My mother, wife and daughter watched me with admiration. I gave the detailed estimate back to the engineer after making necessary corrections.
I knew where to cut, how to save a penny.
It was after all a small facelift to my 35-year-old house. All I wanted was to slap on a library at the top, pull out a room into a hall, a touch there, a brush stroke here. No need to spend big money on that.
“But sir,” Sreekesh, our engineer asked after poring over his estimate which I worked on for days to cut down the cost, “How will you go to your library?”
“Through the first floor,” I answered.
“Impossible now.” Impossible? “You scored off the only staircase that leads to the library on the top floor.”
“You also have struck off the balcony from the list. But that doesn’t bring down the cost, sir. Balcony means open space. Nothing there. So no expenditure. And here, please take a look, sir. You say, you don’t need these walls. I don’t think it is a good idea to have an open toilet in the library. You can’t concentrate on your book, when somebody is in there. And you can’t concentrate in your toilet as well when someone is in the library, with no walls to separate the different activities.”
A minute later I saw the whole discussion taken over by my wife and mother.
“Acha, come with me. Let us play Harry Potter,” my daughter Ammu prodded my shoulder from behind.
“Can’t you see I am seriously discussing,” I admonished her and tried in vain to wriggle into the serious conversation going on among the engineer, my wife and my mother.
After half an hour I joined Ammu.
The workers started rolling in within a week. I gathered them all on the terrace on the first day.
“This is cement.” I said.
“Yes sir,” the workers replied.
“And this is metal”.
They nodded again.
“And these are bricks. But hollow bricks are quite different,” I smiled. “Hmm…Now you can go back to work.”
I wanted to give them an impression that I knew it all and I was going to be really really tough with them with all this knowledge.
Along with the floor tiles came something we didn’t order. CITU, INTUC, BMS workers.
“Rs. 10000/-!!! Are you mad! Tell me how much you ask for a single packet,” I asked flipping out a calculator from my pocket, like a sten-gun.
“25/-”, one of them replied.
“Ok, that is reasonable. Don’t expect anything more. Let me check how much I should give you, then.” I crunched the keys of my calculator leaving my family, neighbours and strangers all agape.
They say mothers are the first to pick the faint notes of their children crying however indistinct they come. Or else how could my amma pick that faint cry which I stifled in my throat, at the end of my calculations!
“What is the matter, Manu? “How much did you get with the calculator?” my mother asked.
“Rs. 12000/-” I replied.
Amma gave me the fiercest look since I was born.
Another day, they brought more packages. I was once again sandwiched between the union workers and my family.
“Wait, wait, wait. Don’t touch it until you agree to my condition. No bargaining. I’ll give you only 600/-. That’s all. You may go if you don’t want it.”
All arguments fell flat. Nobody spoke. Nobody moved. There was an eerie silence all around. What were they going to do? Going to punch me? I knew 600/- was too dirt cheap a sum to pay for the gigantic size of the items that had to be unloaded from the lorry.
Then suddenly my eyes caught a movement on my left, where the tallest of the union members was standing. I screamed quickly: “Ok, 800/-. That is final.” Once again I saw them all dumbstruck.
It took some more time before they got back to their senses. They shuffled in silence, brought down all the packages from the lorry. I saw their eyes wet.
“What a fool you are,” whispered my neighbour.
“Those are gypsum boards, quite weightless. They never expected more than a 100 from you. Look, how surprised they are.”
My friends, since that incident the union workers of my locality would never utter a word before I spoke. “Let Manu sir tell the rate,” they say. They are afraid that they would quote only a lesser rate and spoil a fortune.
Continue Reading: Scenes from a Renovation site: Part 2