Posted by: Dinesh Kapur | September 25, 2012

(Part 2) Disappearing in a Cloud of Dust!

Just then, a rush of dust suddenly swept in … I lost track of my team, the shoes and footprints had vanished … the realization dawned, they were ‘disappearing in a cloud of dust’.

End of Part 1

***

300 700 900 1250

Some of you might confuse the series of numbers above as the desired progression of ‘incidentals’ that we dream about when traveling for outstation work.

The numbers are in fact, some of the temperatures typically found inside different zones of a cement kiln. As a consequence, the heat outside the kilns is the stuff tandoori chickens are made of.

Just after I had lost track of my team-mates in Part 1, I found myself walking past the kilns. For the uninitiated, these are essentially long, very long, rotating columns of steel. The columns in this case were about 64 meters long, rotating with ‘fire in their belly’. They were melting powdered limestone and gypsum, and fusing them into red hot clinkers of cement.

Walking along the kilns is nothing like a walk in a park. Not even remotely close. The kilns look sinister, and they sound fiendish. I could hear the ominous background score of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ playing in the background. There we were, mining the earth, just like the ‘Orcs’ in Two Towers.

And this thought was interrupted by a muffled sound – “ine jee”. I stopped to pay closer attention. Again, – “ine jee”, was the sound again. I looked around, but I couldn’t locate the source. The third time it was louder, “nesh jeeeee!” Standing between the piles of crushed limestone (rock) and the grumbling steel machines (hard place) I wasn’t quite sure where this voice was coming from.

‘Teng teng teng teng!’ was the outcome of a key repeatedly meeting a hollow bar on a steel staircase. I looked up, and I was greeted by the sight of a very amused looking Stuti, and a scowl on the face of the engineer from the plant. The chap was obviously trying to out-scream the machines.

‘Upar aaiye, abhi 150 motors baaki hain! (Come up, we still have 150 more motors to go)’, was his cry.

And so our trek up to the highest point in Baikunth village began. For the uninitiated, a cement plant can tower over the landscape. The setup has air separation, pre-heating, exhausts etc. Huge fans are used to draw in air. The finely crushed materials descend from a height, and the coarse and fine particles, are separated. All of which requires a decent amount of height.

Over the next 10 days, we took electrical measurements at a height of 10m, 15m, 25m, and 40m. On one particular day we went all the way to 73m – where the floor trembled, but the view was the stuff cement lords are made of. Every area of the cement plant, the railways line bringing in coal and the nearby artificial lake could be seen. We really were like ‘Orcs’ from the Lord of the Rings. The view extended to the entire village. To set a context to the heights, the Qutub Minar in New Delhi is 72.5m high.

Our work was carried out between regimented tea-breaks and a long lunch break. We spent most of these breaks being surprised or accosted by our own man-Friday – Gopal. He was deputed to serve us tea and convince us to have ‘nashta’ at every break.  A kindred spirit, with the uncanny knack of appearing out of nowhere, is the best way to describe him. We never saw him in the lobby or inside the room. Yet, within seconds of our reaching the energy audit room, we would hear his earnest voice saying – ‘chai’, ‘nashta’, ‘nastha lenge aap log’?

On one particular day we reached the energy audit room whilst consciously keeping a watch for Gopal’s movements. He was nowhere to be seen. We reached our room, smug with our singular victory over Gopal in our game of hide-and-seek. And then from under the table, came the voice – ‘teen chai aur teen nashta ready (3 teas and 3 snacks ready)!’ Gopal was unplugging the kettle from the plug-point under the table. We were too shocked by yet another miraculous appearance by Gopal to notice that he knew how many people were in the room!

At another time I was sitting in the audit room to enter the data of the 220 odd motors that we covered – I found myself in the midst of a conversation with Gopal and his colleague Hari. They knew a lot about cement. They knew a lot about the different cement plants owned by the cement lords that ran this place. They rattled off numbers about production capacity, location and even turnover. It took me a few days to realize that this is all they knew. This information had been drilled into their minds and they were very much a part of the plant furniture. Their world and life was cement. The had taken loans, in the name of cement, their marriages happened in the name of cement, their kids grew up on cement – the visionary cement lords had built an entire world out of cement! So much so, that the walls of the plant had important teachings and wisdom written on them. For example, ‘Safety comes before action’ – ‘Work and rest are important for a productive life’ etc. etc. And to add to the mystic, there were portraits of the owner of the company and his textbook industrialist’s wife that adorned every alternate wall in the plant. Every time we would go to a different area of the plant we could see the portraits. The smiling faces and the clever eyes seemed to suggest that we were being watched. No wonder, all the plant personnel were so sincere!

Our treks were accompanied by entire days spent at the packaging plant, the in-house thermal power plant, the raw-mill, the compressor house. The marquee moment of the audit was traveling on the EOT cranes. Picture this – we were moving on an open wrought iron platform, on rusted iron rails, across a distance that went from the 5th floor of the TERI building to the Library Block. The tattered platform was powered by equally tattered motors. It would start and stop with jerks that made traveling by Punjab Roadways a comforting thought. Most of the engineers at the plant were the ‘brave’ sorts. For them, jumping up and down railings, walking under machines or climbing stairs was a regular affair which they did with their most normal disposition. They were obviously not daunted by these tricks. To be honest, I was enjoying the exercise. A little apprehensive, Stuti seemed to cope well.  And this is what made the experience of the EOT cranes a tad unique. It was slightly amusing to see the engineers clutch on to the railings ever-so-tightly. It was very amusing and mildly alarming when one of the engineers started saying a prayer. Mid-way through his prayer, and just before the platform jerked into motion, he smiled at us. It was absolutely hilarious, to see him clinging on to the railing so tightly, and utter – ‘Mujhe yaahan aake bahut dar lagta hai, iska koi bharosa nahi (I feel really scared when I come here. You cannot trust this device)!’ He said this with a broad grin and then the cranes began. Thereafter most things were a blur. Fortunately none of us were shaken off the 5th floor platform. 

The physical experience of working in an old cement plant was one living with dust, dust, dust, heat, dust, dust, hot air, dusty water and a lingering odour of something very dry. We were particular tickled by the irony of one of the teachings on the walls – “Clean air and clean water are the secrets to a healthy life”.

Despite the conditions, the experience was educational and largely uneventful in terms of incidents etc.

Anyway, to cut a long story short we wrapped up our audit – measurements, instruments, incidents, characters, clothes and everything included. A long journey to the airport was succeeded by a delayed flight to New Delhi. It was December, a day before Christmas Eve.  We said our good-byes to each other, and disappeared in different directions. This time we disappeared, but not into the dust, instead New Delhi’s winter fog.

***

And as I put the finishing touches to this post, the faint tune of a song plays in my head. The pointer on the screen is now searching for the submit button and that tune becomes more familiar. Some of the lyrics flood into my mind – “Hey, hey, hey…Here I go now” It is a song.

I finally press submit, but the die was cast some time ago. The music is now playing loudly.

“Hey, hey, hey

Here I go now

Here I go into new days …”

… Just as soon as I belong,

Its time I disappear”

The clouds of dust have gone, the lyrics are crystal, and so is the path ahead.

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Responses

  1. An excellent post. The vividity of the landscape, the conditions at the plant, the personalities involved…described in detail, and yet without redundancy.
    You ought to write more, and write more regularly. You’re good at the narrative style, like Guha said earlier.
    Waiting for one on Cambridge next. Cheers!

  2. There’s a saying, ‘some are wise, some are otherwise’.
    I knew you were coming to Lord of the Rings before even starting to read that sentence.
    So into which category do either of us fall, your call!

  3. 9 months eh?! Well I am glad you wrote part two. It was rather interesting, and it also served as a sharp reminder of my own tardiness in the matter of blog posts. Do not disappear, even if you do.


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