Friday, 30 May 2014

From Fire's Heat

The workshop of Sushil and Ranjeet Karmakar. Nandina, Jamalpur.

Bring a heart free of preconception and your best listening ears. Go to the karmakars, the blacksmiths, for blacksmith knowledge. Everybody has something to tell and blacksmiths can be no exception. At least, that was the plan.

Loki Karmakar.

It’s a time worn trade, blacksmithing, one that those of us with a western childhood got used to reading about in history books. There were primary school excursions to colonial-themed parks where, beside the candlemaker, apothecary and saddler displays would be a faux blacksmith’s workshop – a replica replete with hanging horseshoes. I’ve been meaning to talk to the blacksmiths for a while now.

I found them perched on piri micro-stools in stalls opposite the bamboo market and in a row around the corner from there, alongside the dusty road adjacent to the pond. To the sound of metal obediently chiming they were working. Loki Karmakar, 51, was scraping sharpness into the blade of a kachi paddy cutter. Brothers Sushil and Ranjeet Karmakar, 40 and 45, were alternating, pounding an end of molten metal rhythmically with weighty iron mallets. Indrajeet, 40, who belongs to the last stall in the row, was gripping iron with a kind of pliers, tapping with a smaller hammer. They were making things.

Sushil and Ranjeet Karmakar at work.

There are six blacksmith families in Nandina Bazar West, a decent half hour by road, following the Old Brahmaputra out of Jamalpur town. Another three have workshops in Nandina Bazar East. As they pulled the cord that brought the bellows to life – inhaling, exhaling, stoking the coals first to glow and then to flame, there was heat in it, unbearable heat.

In May, the month when any average Joe is hankering to hunt down the slightest breeze a blacksmith’s stall is a cauldron within an oven. They must be most pleased at this time of the year that their shanty workshops have no walls.

“When I’m busy with orders I like it,” says Indrajeet, who is shedding a river of perspiration and barely wishes to down tools to share a few words or even to catch breath. I pull up a piri next to him and it’s only a few short minutes before I feel light-headed, as if on the verge of passing out. “The worst is to be idle,” he says.

Indrajeet in his workshop.

He explains the sources of metal to be smelted: old machinery, building construction supplies, used vehicle parts. The purchase price is from 40 to 100 taka per kilogram depending on quality, while the finished tools he makes retail for up to 500 taka per kilogram. There’s a margin to be had in his ancestral profession, pursued by his father, both grandfathers and ancestors long before them. “It’s very laborious work,” he says, “I got used to doing it.”

Similarly, the Karmakar brothers nearby have little interest in talking. It looks as if there’s the anger of fire in their faces; but it’s more about the strain of effort and the pain of heat. “This work is a bitter experience,” says Sushil, who recounts how, 22 years earlier, some influential people took the ancestral land and houses of five of the families. “The court did not help,” he says despondently.

Then surprisingly he reconsiders, changes tack – things are what they are depending on which aspect one focuses on. “This life is quite okay,” he says, also the blacksmith’s view. Due to the trade he has no trouble maintaining his family. They don’t suffer from a lack of money. Blacksmithing forged indeed the education of his two sons: the elder has become a craftsman at a local jewellery shop while the younger completed his SSC this year. “My sons had the chance to study,” Sushil says, “They can do better.”

Locals gathered at the blacksmiths. Nandina, Jamalpur.

As he talks I realise that despite wanting not to, I have unwittingly brought along a few preconceptions. For one thing I’d expected to hear of financial hardship but it seems that most of the time blacksmiths are in demand and have little trouble making ends meet. People need kitchen bati floor-knives and pasun weeding tools and kural axes, khanti shovels and kudal hoes. The trade’s future is not defined by a lack of customer interest but by a desire for coming generations to pursue less arduous careers. “It’s not a good job,” says Loki Karmakar, “That’s why my son does not do it.” Like Sushil’s elder son, Loki’s earns a better income making gold ornaments at somebody else’s shop.

The row of blacksmith workshops beside the pond.

Loki speaks of burns to his hands, the little accidents that are an occupational hazard. But he’s his own boss with the flexibility to work or not work as he wishes; and he takes pleasure from that. It was love that started Loki out on his career a little early – for more than two years he loved a girl who he secretly married at age 16. It was then that all too suddenly he discovered marriage’s usual consort – responsibility.

He did not know how to do blacksmith work. He had to pick it up quickly from his father and struggled to cope. I ask him to tell more about his love story – hoping for a charming saga, and almost as a teenager still he shies with embarrassment. He says no more of it except that his marriage is still a happy one – it stood the test of time. If I didn’t know better I’d say there was a hint of love in his face as he says that.

I wonder if it was his wife who gave him the tulsi necklace he wears, if it isn’t a successful lifelong partnership, aside from hair dye of course, that has kept him looking younger than his 51 years, despite the hard work and burns to his hands of the blacksmith trade.

The blacksmith's view: Loki Karmakar can watch the bamboo market from his workshop.

Indrajeet also focuses on family. When he has a good income and the family is running well he is happiest. The most exciting days are during the time of Durga Puja when he presents his family members with new clothes. “We follow the Sanatan religion,” he says, the ‘eternal’ religion that is most often labelled by its Persian-origin name of Hinduism.

Sushil Karmakar meanwhile contemplates his younger son, “I will help him to be educated to the highest possible level.”

Afternoon at the blacksmith workshops.

Another preconception – that everybody has something to tell. Perhaps it’s because of the blacksmiths Belal and Sahed in the village I know best, in Hatiya, Noakhali... Speak to them and you’re certain to find yourself laughing... There are bound to be stories with some kind of interesting life philosophy and witty turn of phrase...

I was waiting for interesting words of the type that stand out... but I should have been focused on what was there – the lesson in struggling hard for one’s family, from taking pleasure in step by step achievements like children’s education and a family’s progress through the years.

The bellows.

It remains true of course that everybody has something to tell. It’s just that sometimes it’s not so much in what is actually said but in the example shown – a way to live a life. The blacksmiths of Nandina Bazar West in Jamalpur are too busy making things, agricultural implements and family futures. The blacksmith’s knowledge they need not articulate in colourful phrases: because it’s right there – strong – in the heat of the fire.

But Sushil lastly reconsiders, changes tack – things are what they are depending on which aspect one focuses on. “The best part of this work,” he says, “is the heat of the fire in winter,” also the blacksmith’s view. And it’s certainly easy to think of the heat of the fire on an afternoon in May.

The blacksmith.

This article published in Star Magazine, here: From Fire's Heat


  1. Surprisingly this write-up pulls the inner cord of village life, a segment of life seen through magnifying glass. It is a sight that we are used to and consciously avoid while passing making little reflection. It is indeed seeing our self in the mirror. Thank you chap!

  2. Thank you uttarans. Glad you enjoyed it!