Posted by: cochinblogger | June 16, 2017

The Reluctant Spidermen

Houses in Kerala have traditionally been built with sloping tiled roofs. Then the British came and built their bungalows the way they did back home, with flat roofs. The result was perhaps predictable: flat roofs became a status symbol. Locals began copying this new style, and houses with flat roofs proliferated throughout the state. However, it soon became evident that the flat roof was an unwise choice: rainwater accumulated on the roof, causing seepage and leakage problems. Our ancestors must have learned from bitter experience that in a wet state like Kerala, the sloping roof is a wise design choice.

Our house is old and has a flat roof, with the result that we had a serious leakage problem on our hands after we moved in. Water dripped onto the dining table, and walls became damp. We called experts, who came brandishing magic potions which they applied on the roof, but nothing worked. Water invariably found an invasion route. Bitumen sounded promising, but its application was a prohibitively messy affair. Finally, I took the easy way out: an aluminum super-roof was erected over the flat roof. This was a technique that was then becoming popular in the city as a reliable solution to the leakage problem in houses.

The man who fabricated and installed our aluminum roof, Joseph, did it single-handedly. Today, more than twenty years later, the roof is still going strong, and I have not had to repair it even once. I'm thankful to Joseph for his recommendation to use the more expensive aluminum rather than iron, on grounds of long life. A neighbor has had to replace several sheets of his iron roofing on account of rust; I thanked Joseph mentally as I saw this work in progress.

Joseph was a small-statured man, very nimble on his feet. He sprang and swung like a monkey around the roof as it came up. I remember the alarm I felt when I watched him once walk on a newly erected sheet to its very edge, lie down, and work on a truss below, more than half his body dangling over the edge, sometimes holding onto a post with one hand and sometimes wedging a foot behind it. He had no safety equipment. When I asked him about the risk, he just laughed. This is typical of the lackadaisical attitude to safety in India: we'd rather cut a few corners than do it the right way. Joseph, thanks to his years of experience, could get away with it, but the construction sector in Kerala today employs young migrant workers, many of whom have very little relevant work experience and are trained on the job instead. Sadly, tragic accidents happen regularly. A momentary lapse of concentration, a misstep, a sweaty palm — any of these can precipitate a deadly plunge from the heights. Joseph operated on my roof like the man in the photo below, who is doing the same job: erecting a metal rain shelter for the house.

The photo that tops this post shows a young worker at a dangerous height without safety equipment. This is not bravado; he has no choice, as he has a living to make. If he is a migrant, an outsider, he is at the mercy of the contractor and is even more helpless than a local. Today, migrants make up much of the labor pool in the state. With the current construction boom, all you need to do to spot a reluctant Spiderman when walking the streets is to look up.

And the rules on worker safety? Ha, ha, ha! They are not worth the paper they are written on; contractors flout them with impunity, and those charged with enforcing the rules must have been given good reasons to look the other way.

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  1. I have long wondered why Kerala, with its two prodigious monsoons each year, has so many flat-roofed homes. I hadn’t realised it was a misguided attempt to “modernise”.
    What’s odd is that there have always been remarkably few flat-roofed houses in Britain. Our plentiful rainfall renders them difficult to sell for the very same reasons you’ve experienced. I would guess that well over 98% of British homes have tiled or slated pitched roofs.

    • I see! I didn’t know most of the houses in England have always had sloping roofs, though now that I think about it, the typical British bungalow (there are many on Willingdon Island, for example) does have a sloping roof.

      It was my late father who told me that this trend of flat-roofed houses in Kerala began with the arrival of the British. It also has to be said that if the flat roof is protected from rain, it can be used as a party area, etc.

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