It was unusual for the men to be called this early on a Friday. It was barely noon, and the sun beat on the back of Harka’s neck as he laid a brick and smoothed down the cement on either side. The walls were going up at last. This was the part he’d been waiting for, his anticipation sharpened by the plans in the foreman’s hut that showed a white apartment block towering into the sky, windows shining in the sun.
Harka laid another brick as the whistle blew a third time. He’d finished the row and made sure the level was perfect before shinning neatly down the bamboo scaffold and landing on the ground with a soft whump. Dried earth flew up around his trainers. He joined the crowd of men, flicking off his bandana and wringing it out. The drops of sweat rolled into small dusty pearls on the floor.
“Something’s up, I reckon.” The man beside Harka narrowed his eyes.
The foreman summoned each man in turn and handed him his pay, the assistant ticking off names from a clipboard. This was bad. Harka didn’t like it either and shifted from foot to foot.
He tried not to think and gazed instead at the supermarket opposite. That was the first building he’d worked on. He had come in when it was nearly finished, filling in the walls with bricks so that the brilliant blue and silver panels could be screwed into place. They reflected the sun back at him now. He caught a small movement on the roof: someone was looking down at them. He blinked and the figure disappeared.
It was nearly his turn. This wasn’t the biggest apartment block going up, but it was right in the middle of one of the richest neighbourhoods, and each apartment was enormous, not like some blocks where the apartments were packed in like a bee hive. Sometimes a new worker would speculate about how much one apartment would sell for, but the other men would just turn and carry on screwing in the pillars, refusing to be drawn into the conversation.
Whoever owned this building later, it belonged to the men for now. But especially it belonged to Harka. He’d been here since the beginning. Unlike some of the other masons he didn’t balk at the lowlier jobs. He’d itched to get into the dirt as he watched the contractor and the foreman standing in the middle of the plot looking at the plans. For weeks he carried load after load of black clay, pushing the barrow up the ramp from the foundations. He would emerge into the world at the end of the day slicked all over with grime, blinking like an underground animal. His wife scolded: you could get work as a mason on another site then come back to this one when it’s time. But Harka shrugged – how could he explain it to her? Sometimes he felt like staying on the site overnight like some of the other men did, roasting pieces of corn over a fire, cracking jokes about the foreman, slugging back the metal-sharp spirits.
But he went home every evening, walking fast to the room he had rented, going straight to the shared courtyard to sluice himself down with water from a bucket in the corner. Then he would go in search of his children. His daughter often sat in the window waiting for him, bunching the thin cotton curtain in her hand, leaving it a damp wrinkled rag as she hopped down. Barsha, he would tease her, are you waiting for the rains to start? It was an old joke, but it always made her smile.
Barsha was the rainy season. When the ground turned spongy and the rice shot up in emerald spears. Barsha had been born exactly six months after they had left the village, and one year after that a son, whom his wife Sabitri named Badal – clouds.
They’d left the village suddenly on a winter morning when there was no sun, and fog lingered in the ditches. All night they’d had to listen to the whistle and ding of bullets, of running feet, cries far and near. Rumours had clogged up the bazaar for days, and Harka tried not to hear as he worked on a cement outhouse for the head of the village council. Best not to think too much, Harka said to himself as he carried on mixing and pouring. The foundation had to set so he went home.
That night the smell of fear and burning pushed under the door and there were running feet, things falling. At midnight Sabitri and his mother hid in the big wooden trunk his wife had brought from her parent’s house. Harka had prised off the back the day before. He pushed it up against the wall with his wife and mother curled inside and rearranged the pictures of gods and goddesses on top. Then he went and hid upstairs, crouching on a rafter as the smell of burning got stronger. He winced as the door burst inwards: the sharp splintering crack of the wood crept into his dreams for weeks afterwards.
In the ashes of the next week his wife urged them to leave. She’d rather eat dust in the city, she said, than choke on her own fear every night here in the village. She dug their small savings out of a steel box sunk in the floor of their hut and they walked two days to the next village to get a bus to Kathmandu. Harka hadn’t even had time to take one last look at his land above the river, where he’d managed to coax a crop of winter wheat out of the stubborn soil. He wondered how they could have just walked out, leaving everything to the neighbours to look after – those neighbours who were staying. His mother knew what he was thinking and squeezed his hand in the darkness. Harka hadn’t even finished the outhouse. The foundations were there, just as he’d left them, but the chairman’s house was a blackened shell.
They arrived in Kathmandu off the bus, sick and swaying. It was too late to find the contact who’d said he could get them a cheap place to stay, so Harka rolled out their blanket on top of an overhead bridge, and they tried to sleep. His mother sat up all night rocking backwards and forwards, grasping Sabitri’s hand and chanting Hé Ram, Hé Ram.
Harka squinted up at the roof of the supermarket again, he was sure someone was there. It was the day the Ashoka supermarket was finished that Harka had first began his ritual. That day he had worked double time, until two or three in the morning on the building site that was floodlit into midday brilliance. At the end of his shift he’d had a sudden urge to climb the stairs onto the roof.
Harka had first washed his face and raked his fingers through his hair before mounting the stairs. As he reached the top and stepped out onto the flat roof the electricity failed and the lights below went out. Yet everything was still illuminated by the enormous full moon. He could see the neighbourhood beneath him, the tops of smaller buildings all around, a temple roof. Harka felt like he could see inside all the rooms all over Kathmandu. It struck him. Where he stood now, on top of this shining blue and white building under the night sky – he, Harka Bahadur, had made this. It was then that he knew he could survive in Kathmandu. After that Harka would always go up on the roof of every building he finished.
Harka was last in the line of men. He went forward and took his wages from the assistant. It was all there and extra besides. This wasn’t good. The foreman stood on a chair and cleared his throat with a phlegmy cough.
“You have worked here on this building for many months, and you’ve worked well.”
He sounds like a politician, Harka thought.
“But now we cannot give you work anymore. We have to ask you to leave.”
Harka, looking up at him, stuffed the money in his pocket.
“Sir – why?”
“Listen, I don’t know any more than this: the building has been cancelled.”
A wave of incomprehension ran through the crowd of men.
“Sir, please explain ‘cancelled’ – what does this mean?”
“Harka brother, I don’t know any more than that. Please don’t get excited. The contractor says all work is to stop. Everything. The bank owns the building now.”
“So should we knock it down before we leave then, Sir?”
The foreman said nothing and retreated wearily into his hut.
Harka felt wavery and cold in his stomach. What happened to a building that was cancelled? Would they leave it just like this, with its insides showing, never filling in the walls, leaving it half-formed? Oh, this just wasn’t right.
The men gathered in angry clumps, not knowing what to do next. Harka sank down at the side of the site, resting his head on his knees. A few minutes later he rocked back on his heels and looked up at the open zig-zag of staircases going to the top of the building. Without walls it would always look like the exposed backbone of a dead animal.
So it was now or never, then. Maybe they wouldn’t let him back onto the site tomorrow. Harka got wearily to his feet and washed his face and hands in the pump at the edge of the site. He re-tied his bandana and mounted the stairs to the roof.
Harka trudged up the stairs, the knot of disappointment in his stomach pulling tighter as he went up. Who were these people, rich enough to start a building like this, to put it all in motion, but too stupid to see it through? If he could just meet them, even once, he would set them straight.
The building was five storeys high, smaller than the Ashoka. Harka walked around the perimeter of the roof, until he reached the same spot again. He stood on the edge of the parapet and looked down. The sun was still high and the air shimmered. The men had started trickling out of the gate, shoulders slumped. He looked around the roof again, feeling the grit under his shoes. He’d heard there would be a lawn up here when it was finished.
Harka smiled. It was obvious. You couldn’t just erase something like this from the landscape, cancel it and say that’s that. He jogged down the steps to the ground floor, certain that come morning, or very soon after, he would be called back to the site. Work would begin once more.
With a light heart Harka went home to see his children, buying a large fish on the way with the day’s extra wages.