The Metamorphosis

Sabhyata Timsina | January 12, 2020

In Gairidhara, Kathmandu, a family sat down for lunch in their kitchen, overlooking a balcony that had been under construction for two months. Outside, on the terrace, a welder drilled into a maroon corrugated fibre sheet for an awning. His helper shouted instructions from below, biting his tongue every time his colleague missed his mark and created more holes for the monsoon rain to seep in.

The landlady stuck her head out of the window and told them how the roof was leaking from the many holes they’d left behind the previous time. “You’re just making things worse,” she said, returning to the dining table. Her husband turned to me and asked if I wanted tea. He didn’t want to deal with the workers. I refused the tea and followed one of the welders, who grabbed my hand and pulled me up a wall that led up to the terrace.

The terrace sat twenty feet above the ground. The metal frame that held the awning was hidden from the welder’s view, so he couldn’t see whether the holes he was drilling aligned with the frame below. His friend continued to direct him from below. He tried to be accurate: he brought a ladder, rolled out his measuring tape and shouted more instructions. The fragile metal ladder teetered as he stretched to get the measurements right.

A little later, their boss Krishna arrived. He was not pleased.  He threw an annoyed glance at his welder on the roof. “How will you fix the holes?”

The welder replied that he could cover the holes with asphalt tape. His friend looked down at his shoes. For Krishna, that was not enough. He wanted his welders to think preemptively, to anticipate errors. “There’s no way you would have made these mistakes if you’d measured properly,” he said. But like his other mantra, ‘safety first, work fast’, this one too seemed to fall a little short.

Inside a little glass enclosure with a door, I rummaged through tools and safety gear – aprons, safety goggles, gridded cutting mats – to find the correct gloves for welding. At Karkhana, my workplace in Gyaneshwor, we maintain a ‘makerspace’ where we teach children how to build hands-on projects. My mentor’s obsession with design and construction had rubbed off on me, but it was our combined interest in pedagogical research and finding better ways to learn that led me to start observing apprenticeships around our neighbourhood.

As an association of engineers, designers and educators, Karkhana shares an edgy relationship with the workers in construction – carpenters, welders, masons, painters – who enter our space. They are interrogated about their trade and, to their annoyance, given detailed designs and guidelines on how things should be done. Despite this, slip-ups, paint smudges, or even massive errors of judgment are commonplace. Such lapses are forgivable in the classroom, or even with our colleagues: mistakes are considered part of the learning experience. But why do we not hold carpenters and welders to the same standards? This question drove me to attempt an experiment in role-reversal. I followed Krishna and his welders, who are regularly employed by our office, to their workshop as a welding apprentice. I wanted to understand how they learn their skills, and whether I, as someone trained under a different pedagogic method, could adapt to them.

In Maligaun, to the east of Gairidhara, a middle-aged woman lived with her kids on the second floor of a decrepit house that stood behind a carelessly kept garden. The two floors below her were empty and barely visible through the overgrowth. Krishna had rented a portion of her garden; his firm, Shree Ramanath Grill and Rod Furniture, had a workshop and a small office built out of zinc sheets near the gate.

The landlady belonged to urban folklore: the quintessential mad landlady. The sprawling property was in a prime residential area, and she had been embroiled in battles with her dead husband’s family over the inheritance. She denied water supply to her tenants, and yelled for the rent daily. In keeping with her demands, the welders maintained a four-foot clearing between the gate and their working space so she could walk past freely. Only someone like Krishna could handle her. He would offer tea to her relatives when they came by, pay rent ahead of time, keep the place clean and apologize to his clients on her behalf. His six welders had neither the patience nor the tact of their boss. The landlady, a scrawny but firm body of bones and flesh beneath a kurta, and the welders, with their strong, sinewy forms, constantly threw slurs at each other. The welders responded to her verbal onslaughts with mock courtesy: “Do make space for Her Supreme Highness, she’s in a hurry.” It was hard to imagine how Krishna, a bespectacled, soft-spoken man who wore clumsily ironed shirts with trousers belted high on his waist, fit into such pandemonium. But he was the voice of reason. He had established an order – or tamed the disorder well enough – to sustain his business.

The narrow tin shack Krishna called his office was dimly lit. He spent his mornings there, quietly sifting through bills and orders. An annual calendar published by the Union of Grill and Steel Professionals was stuck on a wall; Krishna was a long-time member. His interest in politics was hard to miss, and frequently featured in conversations with his old clients. Beyond those conversations, he sometimes framed his life around political affairs. “I wouldn’t be stuck in this mess,” he said one day after his daily squabble with the landlady, “if Kul Man Ghising had been appointed a few months earlier than he was. I’d found a bigger space but the deal didn’t go through because there wasn’t enough electricity supply there to run a welding workshop.” Ghising, who had then been newly appointed as the chief executive officer of the Nepal Electricity Authority, had overhauled the electric power distribution system in 2016, significantly reducing power cuts in major cities.

Outside the office, his welders shuffled around, dodging and bumping into furniture waiting for repair: a mint-green porch swing, an aquarium frame, a classroom desk, and a stack of wrought-iron furniture no one had the time to attend to. Every time someone attempted to repair these castaways, Krishna ordered them to focus on other work. An old porch swing wasn’t worth the time that could be spent on building frames for homes in new apartment complexes like Orchid or Lotus. Most of the welding happened under the working shed. A large table had thickened over the years with little bumps of molten metal that had cooled. The tools, and the nuts and bolts, were displayed on wooden shelves like in a museum, worn out and gathering dust.

Shree Ramanath Grill and Rod Furniture had had many homes before it set down roots in Maligaun nineteen years previously. The soil in front of the work shed had turned blood-red with rust, and specks of buried cutter wheels and tobacco wrappers littered the ground. On some days, the entire space exploded with the energy of focused welders, their hustling boss, and the crazed landlady. A few visitors broke this routine, like the cook from the eatery next door who had his knife sharpened once a week. Clients came in vans and dropped off their broken furniture. Some old customers chatted with Krishna if they found him at the workshop. I could tell he had upset many clients in his twenty years of service, like the one who burst through the gate one afternoon, ready to rough somebody up. The clueless welders looked on at the livid man, while one of them weakly mumbled something in their boss’s defence. When the welders were out on duty, however, it was so quiet that nobody could tell a metal workshop hid beyond the fence and the crooked blue gate on a main road in central Kathmandu.

 

Krishna seemed like an oddity in this vocation. He kept his voice low and used delicate gestures during conversations. His workers, however, were different. The first time I met them at the workshop, there was nothing self-effacing about the huddled men who shared a cigarette over loud morning banter. I felt like I was thirteen again: the person who took a detour to avoid a basketball court filled with high-on-testosterone, chest-thumping schoolboys. They had always seemed like an exclusive club whose ethos I could never understand. As I gathered the guts to break into what felt like another dimension, the only comforting sight was the familiarity of metal sparks spraying around the workshop.

Krishna arrived half an hour later on an old black motorcycle that had a basket hanging from the backseat. I followed him into his office with an old customer who sat on a chair behind me and placed an order for a perch for the birds that came to his terrace. I was to discover that few women ever entered the office. Once, one crossed the blue gate’s frontier and stood four feet behind her husband, awkwardly averting her eyes from the welders, holding her handbag and her husband’s helmet, while he placed an order with Krishna. I understood her hesitation; only a few weeks earlier, I too had fled the workshop gripped by the same fear.

It took weeks for the clamour of the workshop to separate into individual sounds: the shrill uninterrupted grind of the metal cutter, the grinder’s sharper screech, and the hollow growls that came from the welding box. The loud sounds left physical imprints. The hammering lingered uncomfortably between my earlobes and the back of my jaw.

With my limited experience, I didn’t have the confidence to begin my own welding project. I changed my designs constantly; I wanted to build an egg-shaped chair at times, a garden table, and finally a stool shaped like a dice cube that I loved the idea of owning. I promised the welders I would start the following week, then the next day, no, in a few more days when my safety mask arrived. Instead, I sat on the porch swing and watched the welders’ days unfold.

A typical day at the shop began with cutting metal pieces for a new project and marking them with Roman numbers. The newest member did all the muscle work. It was a rite of passage that began with sweeping and grinding, and graduated slowly into more complex tasks such as cutting the angles and welding joints together. An ‘expert’ welder was expected to draw and design independently. One of the welders admitted to not using any of his skills while building his house in Hetauda. Even with three years of experience, none of the senior welders had designed a project on their own.

Not a single project passed without Krishna’s approval. The welders first made a ‘baby structure’, a sample model named thus for its fragility. Bimal, one of the senior welders, compared it to his own baby, two months old at the time. “I finally get why this is a baby frame. It could snap so easily.”

A ranking system helped Krishna delegate tasks. Three of the welders were classed between amateur and expert, which meant they could still be trained. They didn’t approach him with the financial demands made by the more proficient welders. The other three were helpers, entry-level staff who had worked only for six months and were training to be welders. However, work delegation and overall ranking was determined by more than just muscle work or technical skills. Krishna also made use of their other skills. Krishna recognized that Bimal, as a senior welder, was confident but lacked the technical finesse. What he lacked in technicality, he made up for with gregariousness. Krishna would often send him to clients who needed to be placated with lip service.

“It’s difficult to find good technicians, and more frustrating when bad ones ask for big raises,” Krishna told me. He had turned away two welders who had come looking for work. They lacked ‘basic knowledge’, a phrase Krishna used unsparingly, and which did not always imply basic. He sometimes used the term to describe the entire repertoire of a welder.

Krishna had been in the trade for almost twenty years, long enough to remember when electric metal cutters replaced hacksaws. He was irked by the misnomer ‘grill mechanic’ and preferred ‘metal fabricator’. “We’re not making barbeque grills here,” he would say. He had worked his way up from a satellite-dish installer in 1994 to a welder, slowly becoming a moderately prosperous business owner earning four to five lakh rupees a month. Between managing his welders and catering to his clients, he never had the time to weld anymore. He checked in with his welders almost every day, calling them at nine in the morning. The senior welders, in particular, resented his surveillance. “Why work for somebody who doesn’t even trust you? I am sick of dancing to his tune,” Bimal said. Every now and then, he threatened to leave the workshop. “Honestly, I would be doing so much better as an owner. I can’t wait to have my own shop.”

Bimal looked ordinary. He had a small frame and a slight tan. What he lacked physically, he compensated for with words and gestures. He could erupt into a blinding fit just as easily as he could switch on the charm. He would turn on the old radio that dangled from the workshop’s roof and dance about, yelling out popular Nepali songs, his voice mostly buried by the metal percussion that carried on outside. Pawan, his more subdued workmate, was wary of Bimal’s volatility. He would put on his headphones to cancel out all the sounds to finish the hinges on a metal gate. Despite his simmering annoyance at Bimal, Pawan worked with uninterrupted grace, swiftly and quietly moving from hammering to cutting to welding. He qualified as a ‘near-professional’ according to Krishna’s categories, and was admired for his willingness to listen to instructions. Pawan was systematic; he held the welding machine at a 45-degree angle, gently touching the electrodes to the joint, and required minimal assistance with design, measurements and alignment. The two of them seemed to be part of a choreographed show, one clumsily finding his way to the dance floor, the other operating like he belonged there and nowhere else.

Bullet screws went missing one day, and Krishna initiated a search party. He was frugal with his materials. He expected leftovers from every tin of primer or paint, and taught his new welders to preserve their paintbrushes. Jiban, all of nineteen and newest at the workshop, had started out as a welder’s helper six months ago. He didn’t care for the lost bullet screws, nor to hold and clean his brushes the right way. “How many times have I told you to hold it like a pen and use long strokes?” Krishna would say, stifling a meltdown. He would grab a brush and show him. Bimal would egg him on from the back, “Exactly. He just doesn’t listen.” But he would never stop to demonstrate how things could be done.

Jiban would respond by flipping his silky long hair to one side, dragging his feet around the workshop, and talking with indifference. Occasionally he would grin, when his mind was quick enough to catch the jokes made at his expense. Once, he ambled into the working shed after a call, head tilted, chewing gum hard. He let out a sigh and said to Bimal, “I really miss my boys. They’re all going off to Qatar. I want to take off too.” His disinterest was puzzling. It was difficult to tell if he was playing up his boredom. It reflected the ethos of his teenage years and a regard that couldn’t differentiate between a chair and a table. After listening to him ramble for a bit, Bimal, quickest to develop an affinity with the others, told him, “Listen Bullet Raja, my brother, learn a few things first then go.” Then he pointed at me with his mouth and said, “Look at miss, even she has learned more than you.” I blushed, reminded of patronizing teachers at school.

The two of them had an undeniable openness about them. They found respite from their daily grind at work by laughing, swearing and evading the boss’s instructions with their indifference. Hari, Jiban’s older brother and also a helper at the workshop, did not share that lightness, although he played along with the recurring jokes about Krishna or the landlady. When he stretched his arms, he exposed a series of scars below his elbows that ran parallel to the inside of his wrist and a fading tattoo just above them. He wore his neck-length highlighted hair in a bun, wore ripped jeans intentionally, and ripped shoes unintentionally. He scoffed when Bimal teased Jiban and said, “I think the landlady has a thing for you. You should ask her out.” But he often betrayed his discomfort with their unfiltered thoughts.

In sudden moments of vulnerability that caught me off-guard, Bimal revealed that his work had made him feel undesirable to women for a long time, and that before he got married, he carried the shame that came from girls avoiding him when they found out what he did for a living. When I came along, unconcerned about their blackened hands and greasy clothes, he said, it had encouraged him in some way. Bimal was open about his occasional low moods, quick to reveal that his two-month-old baby had kept him up all night, or that an argument at home had ended unresolved. Even with a hammer in my hand, I found myself struggling to avoid the role of the patient, listening woman that I am often relegated to. Bimal also felt no shame asking Krishna for what he felt he deserved, whether it was extra pairs of clothing to compensate for those that he had lost to the sparks and paint stains, or for money during family emergencies.

Hari, on the other hand, was self-conscious, and took orders, feedback and instructions with lowered eyes and without questions. He had preferences about whom he wanted to learn from, often complaining that he didn’t want to work with Madhesi welders because, as a non-Madhesi, he felt that information was lost because of the language barrier. Yet he was hesitant to change that. Parts of me wondered if Hari would ever overcome the intangible blocks in his learning in this tenacious business of not just physical labour, but also showmanship.

 

Orders were never scarce at the workshop. With unending lists of gates, drainage grills, window frames and ceilings to fix, the welders rarely made anything that wasn’t functional. They would put me to task frequently, but would respond to my intention to build something of my own with indifference. Bimal was the first to take me under his wing, constantly reproaching me for observing more than practising. Krishna thought my egg-shaped chair was too complicated for a beginner. Bimal brushed it aside as extravagant. “It’s such a womanly thing to want,” he said. But he was intrigued by my curiosity about the profession. He coaxed me to hold the welding wand and stick one of the joints on his window grill project. The first time I attempted to weld a joint, I backed up immediately as sparks flew in my direction. I told Bimal I was scared. Like any encouraging teacher, he said, “Take it easy, just have fun with it. If you have fun, you’ll learn too.”

There was a marked difference between Krishna’s and the welders’ approaches to teaching. Krishna emphasized observation and the importance of understanding things beforehand, while the welders told me I would learn nothing by observing. I needed to get my hands dirty. This difference in approaches explained how Krishna’s eye for detail was not met with much enthusiasm by the welders, who cared more about getting things done. The welders’ approach was akin to the saying, “An ounce of keenness is worth a whole library of certificates.” This mantra had appeared as a handwritten sign in sociologist Paul Willis’ 1997 book Learning to Labour. Willis had studied a group of working-class boys in Birmingham, England through their last days at school and their transition into working life. He’d been told a tale about someone who’d been sent a book inside a wooden box, but could not read the book because they didn’t know how to open the box. Unlike the working-class boys, their middle-class counterparts valued academic knowledge and skills and saw them as crucial for successful careers. The fact that Krishna was pulling away from the working-class culture of the welders showed in his neat clothes, his sophisticated handling of clients, and especially in his approach to learning.

Breaks at the workshop were brief; some days, there was none. At times, power cuts and a scorching sun made time for a soda. The welders sat around me with their drinks and laughed at my attempts to split a metal rod in half. The first time, it took me eight hits of the hammer. I brought it down to five by my fifth go. That day, Bimal stood at the shed’s door and said, “Look at you, doing a man’s job. Why are you even into this?”

Only a few days previously, one of the welders had told me a story about a woman who owned a welding shop in Kalopul, half a kilometre away. He thought I could become like her. “You know, you don’t have to do the welding yourself. She doesn’t either. She brings in work, makes designs and manages the shop. She’s doing really well. You should do something like that.” A few months later, when I called Krishna to ask if he knew her, he said there was no such woman in Kalopul.

One day, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a window facing the garden. I was dripping in sweat underneath a shirt of my father’s, sunglasses, an old apron and a mask. I’d been playing a never-ending game of welding and dismantling the same objects for weeks, and I would have given up on it had it not been for the occasional bursts of excitement I felt at getting an iron rod to stand perpendicular to another. I had finally decided to build a cubed stool, and cut fourteen lengths of two millimeter rods of sixteen and seventeen inches respectively. My weeks at the workshop had led me to compromise between the aesthetic and the functional to create something with few complications. I was stuck between Bimal’s hasty assistance and Krishna’s fastidious approach. One would get me to hurriedly start building something, while the other would ask me to have a mental design ready before I even started.

My measurements were inaccurate at times; sometimes I left the electrode sticking for too long at the joints. At such times, the welders would drop their own projects to help me yank the welding stick off the metal. One of them started opening up to me once he saw me work on my project, even teasing me at times as I struggled to carry tools around the workshop. “You look like you don’t eat enough; you have to eat more to carry all that heavy stuff.” There was an implicit camaraderie in the workshop, where participating in and withdrawing from each other’s projects both came from a place of affection.

 

Sometime mid-monsoon, I finished the frame of my project and took a break from the workshop. On my way back to Kathmandu from Pharping one evening, we stopped at a teashop. I zoned out of a tired conversation and began to stare at a metal chair the shopkeeper had discarded. My mind trailed off into thoughts about how this would have been made, especially its circularity. Metal does not come in circles or spheres; they have to be shaped carefully with a hammer or on a steady shaping tool for bigger pieces. The chair’s design was simple, and I began to describe the cuts, bends, the grinding and the welding that had gone into the chair. A friend was amused that a rusty old chair in the middle of nowhere had meant something to me. I’d been trying to get into the heads and hands of people who made things for years now, and this  reverie joined itself with the larger idea of making, learning and the role of tools in our lives.

Three years previously, I’d taken part in a making-based initiative for women and realized how women’s narratives as makers are generally limited to the kitchen, and rarely explored beyond. Under the care of a female mentor at a workshop, I’d confidently used a jigsaw and hammer on the first day. As the weeks went by, individual spatial aptitude aside, we’d grown an interest in design and construction. Now, my family sometimes treats me as a consultant on repairs around the house. Although those expectations extend beyond my capabilities, the shift in their understanding of who I am, even if it is based on unscrewing a screw here or hammering in a nail there, has been noticeable. In her 1986 thesis, sociologist Maria Mies wrote that the various forms of productivity men have developed through time emerged only because the historic forms of female productivity were rendered invisible in that same process. Debunking several myths surrounding male productivity – man as hunter, as toolmaker – Mies argues that women not only provided for the family in the frequent absence of hunting prey, they were also the first inventors: they made the baskets and the digging sticks. She argues while the tools of men were destructive, the inventions of women were almost always life-giving and life-sustaining. Invoking the memory of those women and working with women who embody the practices of creating, making and engineering now helped me navigate unfamiliar learning spaces.

When I returned to the workshop, the garden was soaked from the previous night’s rain. Jiban lit a cigarette in a corner whose smoke mixed with whiffs rising from Krishna’s anti-mosquito coil. The damp smell of wet metal didn’t lift until the sun came up later in the day. Krishna unsuccessfully batted away mosquitos with his mosquito-zapping racket. But by mid-afternoon, we couldn’t fight them anymore.

Jiban sat on a low stool near the gate, his legs spread, the veins on his neck popping as he grunted and brought down a hammer on a piece of metal. Then he got up suddenly and walked into the shade. A senior welder interjected, “Sit in the sun and work for a while. You can’t expect perfect work conditions at all times.” Jiban responded, referring to the other’s Madhesi heritage, “Of course you guys can work under the sun. But we’re not like you.” But he obediently dragged himself back into the sun. He followed the senior welder into the shed a little later, but only managed to provoke him for the second time that afternoon when he kicked the welding machine in an attempt to fix it. The welder snapped: “When you fall ill, does the doctor kick you? Don’t kick the machine that puts food in your mouth.”

Hari, despite being more alert, still struggled with work, like his brother Jiban. One day, Bimal taunted him as he struggled to adjust the drilling machine to the correct height. “Why don’t you use that brain of yours?” he said, as Hari wound the base further away from the drill. Finally, when he got it right, I grabbed a metal piece, laid it on its base, turned on the machine and steered the wheel to the side until the drill cut a satisfying hole from one side to the other. Hari and I got through forty of these, taking turns to drill.

Later, as Hari and I painted a flowerpot-stand together, he encouraged me to pick up the welding stick and start practising, although he rarely seemed to do the same himself. I observed a hesitation in him to learn more, and asked him what he thought was the toughest task. “It’s not really tough. But I don’t have an education, so it takes me time to learn. People who are educated grasp things so easily. It’s not hard for them.”

As the quiet one, Hari would wait till the others were outside to strike up a conversation with me, which steered away from my nosy inquiry into his life toward inquiries about mine.

“And what’s your caste?” he asked one day, not quite out of the blue by Nepali standards.

“Brahmin. Yours?”

“Lama. Do you eat meat?”

“I do. We don’t eat pork or buff at home so I eat that outside.”

“Even pig?”

“Why? You don’t eat pig?”

“No! We’re lama, and they say lamas shouldn’t eat pork. But your nose, why isn’t it pierced?”

“I don’t have to get it pierced.”

“I thought you were a Shrestha because of that. What will your parents do if you go with a lower caste?”

“What do you mean go?”

“Like, marry.”

“Nothing, I guess.”

“Do they know you come here?”

“Yeah, they do. They’re okay with it.”

“Well, you’re sorted then,” he said, spitting out a blob of tobacco.

 

Sometime in early July, Bimal returned from his father’s funeral after a whole month away. He was in no mood to work. He slouched on the swing, one leg folded, the other spread out. Hari walked into the shop, and in his usual manner anxiously announced he could not go to a site in Baneshwor. “I got lost on my way there yesterday. I’m not going back there,” he warned Bimal, who had been trying to call Krishna. When Krishna finally picked up, Bimal put him on speaker phone.

“Eh Bimal? Where are you?”

“I’m at Ramanath Grill and Rod Furniture,” Bimal replied.

Krishna ignored his sarcasm and asked him who had gone to Baneshwor. Since Bimal had gone home, the tempo at the workshop had slowed.

“I don’t know. Hari says he’s sick,” Bimal replied.

“Okay, then close the workshop today, tell him to go home, and you go to Baneshwor.”

“I don’t want to go to the site on my first day back unless you send a taxi or something…” Bimal grinned ear to ear at his own joke. Once the call was over, he interrupted Hari, who was sweeping the shop floor, and yelled, “Old man says to shut the shop and go home. Want to go swimming?”

“Bullshit. What did he say?” Hari didn’t believe him. “We can’t just leave. He’ll flip if he finds out.”

But Jiban started to close the shop and Bimal shooed the boys out the gate. He had made plans to meet a former colleague who now had a business of his own and had invited him to join as a partner. “I’m getting old, you know, I can’t be welding forever or my lungs will start failing. It’s only a matter of time before I start something of my own,” he said. Jiban laughed while Hari nodded vacantly. Once outside, Hari and Jiban were joined by a group of boys who looked like them: coloured hair, ripped jeans, the similar ruggedness. They playfully pushed and shoved each other down the road until they turned into another lane.

As Bimal rolled down the shutters, I hooked the cuboid I was making onto the edge of another ongoing project, now just another artefact among the unattended clutter in the workshop.

 

A spacecraft, an astronaut, the moon and stars float on a mural on the wall of Karkhana’s main classroom. A soft stage light gives them a hazy glow. Whiteboards feature checklists and to-do lists – ‘refill kits’, ‘do two mock classes’, ‘pack material for sixteen students’ and so on. Karkhana classrooms shift to school buildings and playgrounds across Kathmandu during the week, and return to the office on Saturdays and holidays. The smell of burned acrylic wafts all the way up to the lab on the third floor where two content designers unfold a long belt that allows children to imagine the vastness of space, and the scale of spatial bodies relative to each other. Vials with ketchup and dissolved vitamin C tablets for a biochemistry class are kept to a side. The whirring motors of battery-powered cars compete with toys scattered around the classrooms, between the constant interplay of student conversations and the occasional attempts of a teacher to grab their attention through a countdown: five, four, three, two… two and a half, one! The classes are planned to the minutest details: What do the teachers teach? How much information should they withhold? The lesson plans go through multiple iterations with feedback from students, co-teachers and observers.

A group of engineers started Karkhana in 2014, fuelled by a deep dissatisfaction regarding the learning trajectories they had followed from school through university. For some of them, formal education contradicted the way they had learned and perfected their hobbies of hacking old radios and watches. A pedagogical question they wanted to answer was: How can we introduce elements of inquiry and discovery that are characteristic of making and hacking into classrooms? They chose math and physics concepts from middle-school textbooks and designed lessons that involved putting together a few cheap materials to make cars and toys, with a learning style that allowed questioning and confusion, delayed answers and the stripping away of conventional classroom reward systems where imperfect projects were not regarded as incomplete. Such an environment was difficult to create without the teachers themselves becoming middle-school students. A small collective was formed to teach each other how to use manual tools, understand the laws of physics, and also manage a classroom. A team of six male engineers started to include women who were biologists, social workers, educators and engineers. It was during this wave that I found myself joining the team.

My earliest Karkhana memory is from a Tuesday afternoon three years ago spent measuring the circumference and diameter of spherical objects I could find in the building with a ball of string. Dividing the circumference of each round object by the diameter consistently gave me a number that was close to 3.14. That was my re-introduction to pi. In another class, an engineer helped me build an antenna and we listened to radio channels on her laptop. My eighth-grade physics class on radio waves suddenly made sense then. I slowly began to combine the hands-on experience with my natural interests in theory, and started digging into how people learn.

Sessions span twelve weeks at Karkhana. Each session has a story students are introduced to in their first class. In one such story, a village called Rangatar is under siege by ‘Momasur’, a dumpling-loving monster who has recently migrated to the village outskirts. Rangatar is well known for its fat, juicy buffaloes, Momasur’s favourite dumpling filling. Soon, Momasur starts plundering the village for its buffaloes, leaving villagers terrorized. This story is enacted for students by Karkhana’s teachers. The narrative then proceeds towards a solution. The villagers promise to build a bridge and a self-driven vehicle to transport momos – Nepali for dumplings – periodically to Momasur’s side of the village, and in return, Momasur vows to keep his distance. In the end, the villagers invite the students to help them build both projects.

The final project is a culmination of a varied set of skills that students learn in order to solve the villagers’ problems. Each class is designed to teach a skill that could add to the final project. Students learn the basics of engineering by making simple vehicles with cardboard, and are introduced to the workings of simple machines. While making the bridges, they learn measurement and woodwork. A class on ideation involves brainstorming and building mind-maps. The final three classes focus on making and improving a cardboard prototype of their project, before a sturdier material replaces it for the final exhibition.

A few fundamental understandings between the teacher and student are established in the first class. A teacher will often defer to the statement ‘ask three before me’ (ask three friends before asking the teacher) before attending to a student’s query. ‘Copy but understand’ encourages students to collaborate and build on each other’s knowledge instead of glorifying originality, and ‘explore but don’t smash’ encourages them to play with materials and tools while being mindful of handling them carefully. Student needs are expressed through small visual techniques like asking them to hold up differently coloured cups that represent different levels of difficulty, or a simple raise of the hand. During noisier classes, a slow countdown from five to one helps the teacher draw the attention of the students. By the end of each session, apart from technical know-how, students are expected to take away four key skills to navigate other problem-solving opportunities: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication.

 

Learning is central to both Karkhana and Krishna’s workshop. In its own organic way, the workshop prepared the welders for the same core skills as Karkhana prioritized with its students. They diverge as Karkhana foregrounds learning and perfecting skills, while the welders are compelled to set their skills aside and instead learn to survive city life, bargain with their bosses, send money home and worry about the basic needs of their children. By twenty, most welders have had at least one stint in the Middle East or Malaysia. Under these circumstances, an explicit focus on mastering their welding skills seemed like a lot to ask for. During my time with them, it had become clear that the potential for a conscious learning culture to develop at the workshop existed. But until the welders find themselves in a workshop that is constantly preoccupied with curating learning experiences, I will be more forgiving of a slightly tilted metal frame or a few extra holes drilled into my roof.

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The Metamorphosis, by Sabhyata Timsina, was written as part of the 2018 La.Lit Writer’s Fellowships in Nonfiction: New Ethnographic Writing which was organized by La.Lit in partnership with the Open Institute. Each year, the fellowship supports aspiring writers to immerse themselves in a field context to capture facets of the societies, cultures, religions and environments we live in.

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