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The Carpenter’s Apprentice

Mohammad sat up with a jerk. Today! Today was the day that Ustad Pira, his master, had promised that he’d be allowed to help with the main scaffolding. Mohammad glanced at the sleeping figures of his family in the shadowy darkness of the room and then, slipping impatiently out of his bed into the chill of a winter dawn, he pushed aside the reed and cotton curtain that hung across the doorway and stepped out into the great open courtyard. Here, the dawn silence was broken by the sounds of animals shifting in their stalls; camels who had carried the red sandstone from Rajasthan, donkeys and horses who drew carts bringing marble from the mines at Makrana. Already, shrouded figures were moving through the clutter of the serai and in the quarter of the marble inlayers, he could see the glow of one or two fires. Women were already awake and busy preparing the midday meal that their husbands and children would carry to the site.

Mohammad hurried along the red sandstone cloister which, enclosed by screens and ragged curtains, served as home to the carpenters’ families who had lived in Mumtazabad for over ten years, lending their skills to the building of the Empress’s tomb. Mohammad had been only two years old when his family had come to live here and he knew of no other home, nor other way of life. His days were filled with the sound of hammering and sawing, as masons chipped away at the blocks of stone that arrived so regularly, and as sculptors carved floral motifs on the individually dressed stone slabs, and inlayers bent over their intricate work. He worked with the carpenters, doing odd jobs and running errands for the men who hammered away at the enormous scaffolding that enclosed the brick and stone skeleton that dominated the lives of the thousands of men, women and children who lived in Mumtazabad.

“It is to be the greatest, the most extraordinary building ever created by human hands, by the grace of God,” Mohan Lal, one of the chief inlayers, was fond of telling his apprentices. “The setting of each stone in every flower must be perfect. Each petal and each leaf must be as perfect as Taz Bibi, in whose memory we are working.”

To be continued next week —

Monisha Mukundan’s short story, The Carpenter’s Apprentice first appeared in the children’s magazine Target edited by Rosalind Wilson. It was later published in the short story collection, The Carpenter’s Apprentice, by Katha, a Delhi-based non-profit organisation and publishing house.

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