Kids Corner


Love Chakri
Part I -
A Prem Kahani





Rasbir “Razzy” Singh didn’t like her.

Something about her that he couldn’t name unsettled him, got under his skin.  She was known as “The Ball Hawker” in the business for the number of contracts she snagged, contracts favored for competitors. In sports, the ball hawker is the athlete most skilled at stealing or catching the ball.

Naveen Kaur, often the only woman in a room full of men -- builders and contractors, architects and engineers, construction tradesmen -- now pounded her small hand on the table, her silver karra dancing on her right wrist, her thick, chestnut hair cascading over her black business suit jacket, past the creamy silk blouse that exposed just the tip of her cleavage and nothing more.

As she emphasized her point, her sheet of hair reminded him of the gentle waterfall at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pennsylvania house, Falling Water, a thought he banished from his mind.

His company, Architecturals, Inc. wanted this project, the Nail Factory. The name alluded to a complex originally built in 1938 as a long-functioning nail factory during the city’s manufacturing heyday but abandoned in the early 1970s and defunct ever since.

Obviously, Naveen Kaur wanted it, too, and she had a good chance of walking away with it. He already presented Architecturals’ designs and proposal for the property: raze the defunct, long-abandoned nail factory structure, keep some of the feeling and tone of the original three-story façade -- but construct a new, eight-story, high-end glass condo building with balconies that would capitalize the property owner’s investment.

Naveen’s arched eyebrows rose and fell in her oval face, her expression serious, her long, thin fingers elegant as they moved the red laser pointer, and her smile, even he had to admit, lit the room with its stunning exuberance.

“Keeping the existing three-story structure, transforming it into retail and restaurants, a veritable mini mall could transform the area from a death valley and become a destination shopping place for locals,” she said with passion, her earrings winking from behind her hair.

Razzy wondered if she became the Ball Hawker simply because of her beauty or because she was a minority-business owner, one that spoke to the legally-mandated set-asides. He failed to consider her level of excellence.

“I recommend keeping the name ‘The Nail Factory.’ Its 44,560-square-footage means this area here could be a hair salon, dry cleaner store or some other service type business. A hip bowling alley restaurant would be located on the second level, and a bakery in this space on Bank Street. Newly constructed rental units here, here and here and the three new condo buildings located down in the Inner Harbor East neighborhood south of the Nail Factory would support retail and services. The third floor would be rehabbed into artists’ studios and offices.  Keeping its three-story height works well for the surrounding neighborhood and because of the businesses, it could become the energy epicenter of Central Avenue, characterized by residential housing stock,” she said, moving the red laser pointed across the presentation.

“Retail spaces translate into monthly income from business rents,” she continued, nodding and flashing Richard Sterling, the novice property owner, an exuberant smile. Even Razzy had to concede the plans reflected a great deal of research, creativity and thought, but he wasn’t about to allow it to derail Architecturals’ game plan, or his own to rise up the corporate ladder.

He had worked hard to have a good financial profile by now, at age 30, and he imagined himself marrying soon. Maybe an arrangement. Maybe not.

“None of your plans address costs to abate any toxic materials used in construction prior to the 1970s,” he said. “A defunct manufacturing plant might be too cost prohibitive to abate,” he added, working hard to keep his voice neutral, but wanting to throw doubt on Naveen’s proposal. Architecturals could sub the interior design part to her. Or not. Preferably not.

“What’s the abatement cost of your rehab again?” he asked.

“Great question,” Naveen said, shooting him a pointed look and one that hid her annoyance, he was certain. “We can either abate the asbestos, or implement a cheaper operation and maintenance plan, based on its condition. Chances are that some things will need abatement, but not much. As you know, Rasbir, the environmental assessment will identify what must be abated and what can be managed, and once a design for the building is in place, Naveen Kaur Designs is fully capable of moving the project seamlessly from abatement to renovation, especially since yours truly is licensed as both an architect and an interior designer.”

Razzy scoffed. “Razing it and starting fresh eliminates abatement costs,” he said, hoping to gain points in the meeting. Richard Sterling, the property owner and a dentist who had no business getting involved in real estate development, nodded appreciation in Razzy’s direction.

Game on, Naveen Kaur, he thought.

Naveen threw her head back in laughter. “Oh, Rasbir, the easy road is not always the best road! Any monkey can raze and begin again. The real creativity is in repurposing the structure so that it serves the community while keeping Mr. Sterling’s bottom line robust. In my plan, each business pays him a monthly rent.”

Razzy’s face burned. He wanted to mock her. He refrained. Richard Sterling fixed his watery blue eyes on Naveen as if she were a rare Tahitian pearl, nodding up and down like a bubblehead. He worried the Ball Hawker would intercept this contract on her looks alone if he didn’t intercept her in time.

“We all know how capricious architects can be, adding, moving, enlarging windows without ever sharing those details with anyone else, and interior designers select and change finishes, appliances and appointments as often as runway models change dresses, spiking construction costs and leaving us engineers to determine if their design whims are structurally sound. Also, the area’s lack of foot traffic can turn it into a death valley for businesses.”

“Upscale salons usually rely on appointments. It could be a destination retail area. Your point?” Naveen asked. Razzy admired her coolness and wondered what drove her to become the Ball Hawker.

“Plain and simple. Architecturals offers the best proposal for this site.” Now he tapped the table, emphasizing his point.

Naveen stared at him, darts in her eyes. “Enough with the commercial interruption during my presentation,” she said, clicking the red laser pen on and off, then focusing the light in the center of his forehead, right on his black fifty, like a bulls-eye.

The meeting ended with no decision, but after Richard Sterling left the room, Naveen Kaur stomped toward him.

“I don’t appreciate your cheekiness, Rasbir,” she said, wagging her index finger in face. “If I were a man, you’d showed more respect and you wouldn’t have floated that cheap and stupid ‘look at me trick’ during my presentation. Bad enough this stupid meeting was held in your company’s conference room and not mine. My plans are better, and better always wins.”

Razzy harrumphed. “That’s a matter of opinion. Yours.”  He couldn’t help smiling.

“And wipe that sardonic smile off your smug face. How old are you? Twelve? I’ve been in this business when you were still waiting for your beard to grow,” she said, picking up her worn satchel and heading for the door, her hair swaying behind her, her pointy-toed black ankleboots click-clacking as she left the room.

He had to admit she looked hip and stylish. Razzy inhaled the aroma of the perfume trailing behind her: sage and geranium, rose, and jasmine, spicy, sweet and different at the same time, but even with the whiff of the astonishing perfume in his nostrils, something about her knocked him off kilter.

*   *   *   *   *

He fled to the gurdwara, looking for refuge … but not of a spiritual nature. In the multipurpose room, he laid out the weapons for the gatka martial arts class he taught once a week.

His students were babies, between ages 8 and 11. He taught them the weapons-based martial arts class so they could learn discipline and confidence, in the centuries’ old Sikh saint-saint tradition. First, he arranged the large kirpans - curved one-sided swords -- on the blue-cloth covered table. Then he placed the small kirpans -- the size of knives -- that Khalsa Sikhs were required to carry on their person as articles of faith. Next to them, he placed the kukris, large machete-like knives oddly broad at the top end, the bows and arrows, both steel recurved ones and other made of wood, horn, and sinew.

He stood there, losing himself in the beauty of the blades and of the fletched reed arrows and the barchha spears. Touching the etched steel, he arranged the bothatis -- lances generally used from horseback -- and the nagni javelins along the table, and he leaned the lathis -- the bamboo sticks of various lengths, used as surrogates for real weapons during training -- against the table. He arranged the khandas (double-edge swords), the fierce looking bagh nakhs -- a spiked weapon worn on the hand and known as the leopard claw. And his favorites, the chakram (quoit), and the kataar, the dagger designed to pierce armor.

Historical accounts recount tales of Sikh saint-warriors -- each proverbially described as the equivalent of a hundred and twenty-five thousand! --  singlehandedly vanquishing legions of the enemy, only armed with these weapons and training. Although his students were limited to the lathis for training, he wanted them all to see the weapons and understand the glorious history of Gatka when great Sikh warriors brought down the oppressive Mughal empire, long before the practice was relegated to a sport.

He wanted them to be familiar with and respect the power of the weapons before they handled them. Before setting the gurj, a flanged or spiked steel mace on the table, he twirled it, like a baton. He wanted his students -- both boys and girls -- to be able to handle these weapons with the same proficiency as the baton twirlers in the Independence Day parades.

He dreamed of having his gatka students march in their Nihang royal blue tunics and orange turbans on the next Fourth of July, dazzling the spectators with their performance with these traditional and beautifully-wrought steel blades.

But for now, the kiddos could only practice with the bamboo sticks.

Just as he started the jumping exercises, pantha, to warm up, his text alert sounded. He leaped and jumped toward in his backpack and retrieved the phone and read the text from his supervisor: “Great Job. Razzy. Nail Factory nailed!”

Ha! He and Architecturals had bested the Ball Hawker after all! He dropped the phone into his bag just before his students filed in, each wearing their blue tunics and white pajamas, the girls with their hair braided and the boys with their orange patkas covering their top knots. In his own blue tunic and orange turban, he looked like a taller version of them. He leaped and jumped toward the center of the room, his heart leaping higher at the news.

Razzy, One, Ball Hawker, Zero, he thought.

“H-e-l-l-lo!” he said, drawing out the word. “Are we ready? Are we ready to become warriors? Saint-soldiers?”

He counted heads. He searched the room for his best student, a 10-year-old girl named Manreet.

“Where’s Manreet? Anyone know?”

They shrugged. The gatka weapons always captured their attention, and his students crowded around the table. How could he emphasize spiritual discipline when his best student missed class without notice? Pursing his lips, he instructed the children begin the ardaas, the Sikh invocation for God’s blessings before beginning any task, no matter how small or inconsequential -- such as the gatka lesson -- or earth-shaking, such as the battles of yore.

Then they began reciting, “O God Supreme, sword of steel and justice, destroyer of the evil and wicked, so beautiful in battle, giver of strength, unstoppable arm, terribly fast, dazzling light … ” until they had recited all three stanzas.

Afterward, they jogged four times around the room before starting stretching exercises, followed by strengthening exercises including squats, sarab dunds and hand-to-hand partner exercises. He remembered doing these exact exertions when he was their same age, marvelling how times have changed since gatka was first practiced, but not the human body and not human nature. It required a great deal of training and focus for the sword to become an extension of the arm, but without good footwork, a warrior was doomed. 

“It’s all in the footwork. Your footwork is the most important thing because when you are using a blade you must be able to maneuver to protect yourself,” he reminded them. It pleased him to see his students sweating from the exercises.

Forty-five minutes into the class, little Manreet rushed in, her braid half undone, her sneakers untied.

“I’m sorry to be late, Veer-ji. My mom had to work late,” she said, breathless from running.

“That you’re here is most important, Manreet,” he said, careful to hide his irritation and made a mental note to talk to the child’s mother after class.

“Veer-ji, please call me Mini.”

 “We’re learning to become Sikh warriors. Mini is not a warrior name. It's like Mini Mouse,” he said.

Manreet giggled, revealing her dimples. “Call me Mini Mouse, then!” 

“First, tie your shoes, please, and then begin your stretches and squats before you start doing the 4-step pantra leaps. You need to warm up and catch up, Mini Mouse,” he said, winking at her. 

Razzy focused the next 30 minutes on the pantra, on jumping on their tippy toes, and spars, shoulder to shoulder and freestyle using the lathis, activities that he allowed Manreet to do despite having missed the first forty-five minutes of class. His best student, she possessed a natural ability, executing with ease what his other students struggled to achieve, twirling the lathis while doing the pantras, jumping and squatting to the floor with grace and uncommon dexterity.

At the end of the class he signaled Manreet. “I would like you to help me wrap the weapons so we can put them away,” he said, giving her the task so that he could speak to her mother about her tardiness, as she frequently arrived late. “I’ll walk out with you after we’re finished.”

She looked pained. “We have to hurry. My mom doesn’t like waiting long for me.”

Considering he had waited 45 minutes for Manreet to arrive, it affronted him that this mother couldn’t wait an extra five minutes.

“It won’t take too long,” he said, pursing his lips hidden behind his beard. He’d have a thing or three to say to this mother.


Continued tomorrow ...

July 8, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Jeet Kaur (Ealing, England), July 08, 2013, 7:15 AM.

Welcome back, Rosalia. Been waiting for your latest piece. Enjoyed this one ... can't wait for more of it! Love your meticulous details.

2: Balvinder Singh (Georgia, USA), July 08, 2013, 7:39 AM.

I have always enjoyed your Sikh characters. They stand out as real, everyday Americans and live, ordinary, yet interesting and complicated lives. You're such an inspiration to us in the community who aspire to write fiction. Will be checking for Part II first thing tomorrow! Thanks ...

3: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), July 08, 2013, 8:38 AM.

Rosalia ji, I see the soft corner you have for Sikh characters that comes from a keener and meticulous understanding. From our sporadic interactions, I could see the birth of a strapping Sardar and a Sardarni. Looking forward to their further antics as they grow in the parts that follow in your 'prem kahani'.

4: Bakshish Singh (Chandigarh, Punjab), July 08, 2013, 11:03 AM.

I always welcome and enjoy the postings of "Prem Kahani" on because they break the traditional mold of love stories and venture into new frontiers. Just like Ms Scalia's story. Thank you for this series. And, thank you, Ms Scalia for this story. Will eagerly follow its course.

5: Gagandeep Singh Shergill  (Mohali, Punjab ), July 10, 2013, 1:24 AM.

Every time I read a piece penned by Rosalia, I go like oh, oh, oh! how can an Italian American, Christian, write so much beautifully and with so much detail on Sikhs and their culture! It's amazing! Honestly, I didn't know so much about the gatka weapons as I do now after reading the story. And yes, it's well spun till now. Can't wait for the next segments.

6: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), July 10, 2013, 8:49 PM.

A thrilling story! Ms Scalia went to the core of Sikhism so suddenly and so smoothly that I think her name in this context should read Rosalia Singhni!

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Part I -
A Prem Kahani"

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