A case of identity

This is a story from my school days. I grew up in Bihar. In the eastern and northern parts of India, there’s a puja which I don’t see much in the rest of the country: the Vishwakarma puja. This is a day dedicated to the worship of Vishwakarma, the presiding deity of all artisans and architects. This day is absolutely sacred for all workers who work with tools — it’s a total tools-down day of worship and quiet community bonding.

My dad is an electrical engineer by qualification. At the time of this story, he was a mid-level engineer at a government-owned electricity generation corporation; he finally retired from there. Every power station, sub-station, generating plant, factory, warehouse, and office of this massive corporation employing more than 10,000 officers and men would have idols set up, and would conduct puja. It would be a holiday. In that part of the country, schools and banks too had the day off.

The day of this story was a Vishwakarma puja holiday. I went with my dad to his office to watch the puja. It was a holiday after all, and dads were happy to get their kids along to watch the puja. There was the idol, perhaps four or five feet tall, made of clay, decked in finery and jewels. There was the purohit (priest) performing the puja while various officers and men either sat and watched or helped with the arrangements. The hall was quiet.

My dad was sitting on the floor, and I was sitting on his lap, watching. All in all, a very comfortable perch. At one point, I asked him, “What’s the purohit doing?” And he said “This is called praan-pratishtha, beta. In this step, the purohit is invoking the god’s spirit into the idol, bringing it to life.” I had mental images of the idol about to wake up, blink and step down from the stage on which it had been installed.

I asked him what Lord Vishwakarma did. He said “He builds things. He is the god of all construction, all making of things. When Lord Ram wanted to go to Lanka to fight Ravana, Vishwakarma built the bridge over the sea to help Lord Ram cross over to Lanka.” (This bit of Lord Vishwakarma’s exploits is probably the most widely known; every Indian child knows it.) And then my dad quietly added: “We are all engineers here, beta. We build things. Vishwakarma is our god. He is the god of all engineers.”

What kind of a god was this, who did not fight in the glorious war beside Lord Ram, but built something instead, to help the forces of good win over evil? What sort of role was this? Where was the glory? But at some sub-conscious level, sitting before Lord Vishwakarma, something fell into place deep inside. I would understand the full import of it much later.

The second chapter of my story happened when I was probably twenty. I was a student of Metallurgical Engg, and I had to spend two months at a small steel plant in Kumardhubi which used to make high quality steel ingots from scrap metal. I spent eight hours a day there, six days a week. I would see how they would charge their electric arc furnaces, and walk around the ingot storage, the attached sheet rolling mill, and other areas. But most of all, I would stand and watch when they tapped the furnace.

“Tapping” a furnace means opening the tap at the bottom of the furnace and collecting the molten steel in a vessel. In this case, the furnaces were small: 10 or 15 metric tons. The cradle to collect the metal would be made of steel and lined with firebrick, to prevent the cradle itself from melting. It would be suspended from an overhead crane, with all the workers standing by. The shift supervisor would be shouting instructions to the crane operator, thirty feet above ground, to move the cradle exactly into position. Then they would open the gate at the tapping point of the furnace. And liquid sun would pour out.

I have no other way to describe what liquid steel looks like. You cannot look at it with naked eyes; all of us were handed out really dark glasses. It looks like a thick flow of pure sunlight, brighter than the sun. It’s easier to look at the sun in the sky than to look at this liquid sun forty feet before you, it was so bright. And the way that molten sun flowed, danced, splashed into the cradle, spilt out (just a few drops), swirled at the bottom of the cradle, then bubbled and filled to the brim, was out of this world. You could feel the heat from fifty feet away. You could feel the energy. It was, well, superhuman.

I then understood what engineering was about. Four years of engineering education could not teach me what I was, but watching this molten sun pour out from the furnace every afternoon taught me. Engineers, I realised, can play with molten suns. They only look ordinary like other swarthy, pot-bellied and bespectacled people. They are actually wizards who play with superhuman energies. They watch this molten sun come dancing out of the furnace with their eye fixed on the flow, and they know how to tame it, what’s wrong and what’s right with it.

A couple years later, I was grappling with the question of whether I wanted to study for a management degree after my engineering course. I realised that I didn’t, really. I was happy to be an engineer. I built things. That’s who I was. Some of my bigger questions were getting answered. And over several years, it kept on answering questions for me.

Even today, the foundation built during that Vishwakarma puja helps me understand who I am, why I am. People like me don’t necessarily pick up arms, conquer kingdoms or acquire untold riches. We build things. My dad doesn’t know it, but his greatest gift to my adult existence was this identity. It’s a good identity to wear.

I haven’t yet regretted giving the management degree the miss.