The stone mason from our village is built like a boulder, barrel-chested and thick. In his youth, he was a silambam master, versed in the Tamil martial art of fighting with bamboo sticks. Now his weapons are the hammer and an array of home-forged chisels. His opponents are rough chunks of granite that he hammers into submission one tap at a time.
Stone Pandi, (Kal Pandi) got his name so people could distinguish him from Mud Pandi (Mann Pandi) the ditch digger, Milk Pandi (Paal Pandi) the milkman and Toddy Pandi (Kallu Pandi) the drunk. They are all named after the great Pandian Kings who ruled from Madurai at the time of the Romans. Stone Pandi is an Aasaari and his ancestors may well have been among those artisans who built the magnificent temples of Madurai, passing down their skills from father to son. His father, who cut stone for the great Vaigai Dam, was Stone Pandi’s guru.
Stone Pandi longed for a son of his own. His family had fallen on hard times and there was no money to arrange his marriage. Being the oldest son, he had to work hard to earn enough money to marry off first his older sister, then his younger sister, and finally his younger cousin-brother whose father had died.
When he was thirty, Stone Pandi’s parents began the search for his future bride. The first one didn’t want to marry a stone mason, the second was ugly, the third was perfect but her horoscope didn’t match. It became a joke in our village. One after the other, a potential bride would be identified and Stone Pandi would be filled with hope. But when the horoscopes were brought to the astrologer, the wrong planet was always in the wrong star and the potential marriage was doomed. Back to chipping at yet another stone and more months of waiting.
After 80 failed attempts, a suitable Aasaari girl was finally found. Her horoscope didn’t quite match but the father begged the astrologer and after a little ‘something something’, the holy man gave his official blessing. Stone Pandi was married in the Krishna temple with a certain amount of pomp and everybody was happy.
A year passed. Two years and still no pregnancy. The couple went to various infertility specialists who ordered scans and prescribed hormone pills, but nothing worked. Stone Pandi began to despair. Should they consider adoption? Was the slight mismatch with the horoscope the problem? Should they resign themselves to being childless? Stone Pandi went to Kerala to help build a temple and fell seriously ill from a ruptured appendix. Surviving that, he went to Coimbatore and Bangalore to cut stones for men in big bungalows. He continued to chip away patiently, stone after stone, day after day. Five years passed. The prospect of becoming a father truly seemed hopeless.
Stone Pandi and his wife finally traveled to the Pandieswaran temple in Madurai which was reported to have special power to help childless women to conceive. The two offered a coconut to the deity and did the prescribed pooja with the help of the priest. He instructed them to tear a strip of cloth from the wife’s sari border into which they tied a lime and a one rupee coin. After fastening this bundle to a holy tree, the couple vowed that if they were given a child, they would return when the baby was two years of age, shave the child’s head, and throw a feast for the community.
Ten months later, Stone Pandi’s wife gave birth to a vigorous little son. They named him Surendra Pandi after the temple. Stone Pandi’s happiness knew no bounds. A year and a half passed. The active little toddler didn’t say much, but he loved to run around and wear movie star sunglasses. One day a rat skittered into the house and the little boy tried to whack it with a broom.
“That’s my boy!” Stone Pandi said. “See how brave he is!
But there was always an edge of sadness. The little fellow showed no interest in Stone Pandi’s hammers or chisels. He preferred cricket balls and the TV remote. Was Stone Pandi going to be the last of his line of stone artisans? Would this little boy grow up to be a washing machine repairman or a computer programmer or just a bank clerk?
Early one morning, Stone Pandi woke to the sounds of smashing. He rose sleepy-eyed and hurried outside to see what was the matter. There in the morning sunlight was his son, squealing with delight. Surendra Pandi was wielding his father’s hammer. And he was smashing stones.