Section - I
The young man flung the hammer and the chisel to the ground and cried, “I’m leaving Father. I’m leaving you and this work. Look what it’s brought us!”
He spread out his arms and glanced indifferently at the small, congested work room. The white washed walls were stained by many monsoons. The window, bare of curtains, opened into a tiny backyard.
“After all these years of work, this is all we have – nothing, nothing. This kind of work just doesn’t pay!”
The old man stared at his son in surprise. Although his voice trembled, it didn’t lose its usual gentleness. “It’s not only the money that matters, son. It’s the service, our service to God.”
“Father,” the young man grunted impatiently, “times have changed. The stone carver’s work has changed too. You can’t live on sculptures for temples only. You have to mass produce, mass produce like all the others in Agra. Come on, Father! Wake up.”
The lines around the man’s mouth tightened. “No, my son. This is the work I learnt from my father. And he learned from his father. We have kept up this tradition for hundreds of years... and I hoped you would continue our work.”
“No, Father” the young man replied with determination. "I’m tired of working for a pittance for the committee of the temple in Srinagar. I’m leaving, Father.”
The young man moved angrily out of the room, leaving his old father crouching in front of a half-finished marble statue. He dropped his hands into his laps, and closed his eyes. He began to pray and didn’t even hear the hesitant ‘goodbye’. His son called out from the door.
“Masterjee!” called Salim, the servant boy, entering the workshop barefooted. He held out a glass of steaming tea in his hand. “Masterjee?” he asked once more, his voice filled with concern.
The old man looked up. His face was ashen. He looked tired. He called the boy to come closer and motioned him to sit down.
“Salim,” he said gently, “soon I will be the last stone carver here. All the others would have gone to Agra. There they are turning out cheap candle stands, paperweights and ashtrays by the dozen. They are making money, but they betray our skill, our age old tradition. Now Gopal has also gone. I’ll have to finish this sculpture alone. And with the help of God, I’ll do it, Salim. "I know you will, Masterjee,” the boy answered. “You’ll make many more."
The old man looked at the orphan boy who had come to work for him five years ago. Drenched to the skin, dressed in tatters, he had begged for shelter during monsoon storm. And had stayed on to work for the old master craftsman. He had grown tall and strong. The old man knew that Salim too would leave him one day.
He shook his head. ” My strength is waning. I can’t work with the chisel like I used to. Carving takes too long, much too long. Then he straightened up and said with fresh determination, “I’ll have to finish this work. And surely I will.”
“Yes, you will,” the boy repeated offering his master the glass of tea. “Drink please. It will do you good.” Then he added, “I have to go to the market for an hour or two. But I’ll be back in time to prepare dinner.” The old man nodded. The old man sighed and picked up the chisel and hammer. The cool metal of the tools filled him with happiness and confidence. He loved his work, and didn’t want to change it for any other in the world.
Section - II
Days and weeks went by. It was a month since Gopal had left. The old man worked tirelessly. It was all there, in the stone the strong, straight shoulders of Krishna, his soft curved hips, the pointed fingers holding the flute delicately to his lips, his serene face eternally beautiful – the old man could see it in the stone. He could feel it. He only had to set it free with the chisel.
He didn’t feel hunger, he didn’t feel thirst. He was driven by the strong desire to finish the sculpture in time. It was his biggest piece of work, his best. It would also be his last.
On and on he worked, his chisel striking the stone again and again. But then came the day when the old man felt his strength ebb. His shoulders began to ache, his arms felt heavy and his
vision blurred. Overcome with fear, he sank to his knees and prayed. The old man prayed a lot these days.
“Masterjee,” Salim said, “you haven’t touched your food again. Please have some rice and vegetables. You only had a glass of milk for breakfast. Have the curd. You like curd, I know you do.”
The old man looked up. He whispered, “I don’t think I’ll be able to finish it. If Gopal was here, it would be different. He hadn’t yet learnt to carve the finer details but in a year or two he would have learnt surely.”
He felt silent. “It was the features and hands that gave him trouble. There was something missing in his figures. That something which can’t be taught.”
“Because it comes from somewhere deep inside you,” Salim whispered. “From deep inside here!” and he pointed to his heart.
The old man looked at the boy surprised. He saw him blush and turn his face away.
“You are right, Salim, you are right.” And then he added with sudden bitterness, “And if you don’t have it here,” he thumped his chest, “ then you’d better go to Agra and mass produce ashtrays for tourists from abroad. Then...” The old man coughed painfully and reached for his glass of water.
“Eat, Masterjee, eat. Everything will be alright.”
After he had eaten, the old man once again took up his hammer and chisel. He worked till late in the night. In the early hours of the morning the chisel fell from his hand, and the hammer dropped to the ground. His old body sagged, falling forward limply. His forehead struck Krishna’s flute and slid down the statue to rest on the pedestal.
“Hai Ram,” he muttered, and sank into a comfortable darkness.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself lying on a cot in his bedroom, covered by a light cotton blanket.
Section - III
From the workshop, the chipping sound of the chisel reached his ears. He listened. Had his ears deceived him? No, He could hear it again – the strong blow of the hammer on top of the chisel.
Gopal! He was back! Gopal had returned. He would help him. They would finish the statue! He stumbled to his feet, crossed the small room and reached the door.
“Gopal!” He was about to shout when the words froze on his lips. “No!” he wanted to cry out “ Stop! Stop the work!.”
But he couldn’t move. Shock had immobilised him. He stood staring at the back of the young stone carver working on the face of the statue, on the eyebrows, arching over a pair of fine eyes.
But it wasn’t his son sitting cross-legged before the biggest statue he had ever carved. It was Salim, his servant.
The old man watched stunned. The first wave of shock, fear and anger passed to give way to a feeling of great relief and happiness.
“Hai Ram,” the old man whispered “Hai Ram” and tottered over to the boy. Dropping his hand on his shoulder he said softly, “ Salim.”
The startled boy turned and looked up at his master. He rose to his feet clumsily, the hammer and chisel still in his hands.
“Salim,” the old man searched for words. “I...I...I...only wanted to help,” whispered the boy, “I...I’ll learn, if you teach me Masterjee! I have practised secretly for almost two years in the quarry.
“Please tell me! For many years, I wanted to become a sculptor like you yet I fought the feeling. But it proved too strong. I know there is nothing in this world I would like to do more, there is nothing in life that I could do better. I want to become a stonecarver. Will you please teach me, Masterjee?”
The old man pulled the boy’s head against his shoulder and whispered, “There’s nothing I can teach you my son beta. Go ahead. You have it in your hands and in your heart. I know you will be one of the country’s finest stone carvers.”
--- Sigrun Srivastav
State Council of Educational Research and Training (2019). Term-2 English Standard-7. The Last Stone Carver-Sigrun Srivastav (pp. 109-116). Published by the Tamil Nadu Textbook and Educational Services Corporation.