The Wild West in the attic

by Gautam Raja

One recent weekend, I donned some old clothes, pulled on a headlamp and dust mask, and went reverse spelunking in the attic. I was attempting to run Ethernet cable from the router to my audio system, keeping as much of it hidden as possible.

My wife came up the ladder, and stuck her head into the space. She looked wide-eyed at the snowdrifts of blown-in insulation, the cabling, the wood joists studded with tiny golden globules of resin, the bronchial ductwork. She marveled that the home we lived in at the bottom of the ladder was mere epidermis. “Just under the surface it’s no more than a pioneer log cabin,” she said.

Sitting there, covered in the fluff of R-44 insulation, and breathing heavily through my dust mask, I chose to extend that to a metaphor for America itself. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Just as canyons are evidence of rivers of old, there is much in day-to-day America that’s a reminder that not too long ago, here ran the blood and sweat of the settler life.

Out here in the suburbs of Los Angeles, it seems everybody is self-sufficient. Their garages are filled with enough tools to build small townships. Plumbing, fence building, roof repairing, electrical work–they don’t need a professional for anything. They drive cars that have seen close to 200,000 miles, if engines need a new pistons, the work is done in the driveway. Changing brakes is a morning’s task, no more stressful than I would find changing a spare tyre.

A neighbour helped me contextualise the American fascination with enormous engines. Most performance cars today take a European approach, using smaller engines that are tweaked and tuned to produce higher power. And because they run at high RPM, tolerances need to be tight. “If something goes wrong, there’s nothing you can do at home,” said M, a man who had replaced a camshaft in a Ford truck that morning. “And because they run at such high RPM’s, they don’t last.”

An 8.0 litre pushrod engine on the other hand, does highway speeds at a low 1,800 RPM. With its slack build tolerances, parts are more interchangeable in emergencies. If cylinders fail, you can still limp home on half the engine. The reason beloved American cars are so agricultural, I realised, is directly descended from the dream of driving across a wild and desolate country, and making it to the other side. Or from living so far from services, your life could depend on your car engine coughing to life one deep winter morning.

A friend, on hearing about my attic project, observed that Indian education and upbringing just doesn’t prepare us for manual labour, and nor does it sensitise us to its dignity. Being privileged in an under-privileged country means there’s always somebody to do your work for a few rupees. Why spend the morning crawling through the woodwork, drill in hand, when you could pay someone to do it for you, while you did something perhaps not as noble, but more of the nobility, such as reading a book, watching television, or playing the piano?

In addition, there’s the fear of the unknown, even though learning repairs is no more challenging than figuring out a new computer operating system, or a new recipe. Okay, the stakes are higher. Do manual labour wrong, and lose a finger, fall through the ceiling, or break your house. Luckily, it’s never that difficult or dramatic, and if something were to go wrong in that attic, at least I’ve met the wilderness above our ceiling.

First published in Gulf News, March 28, 2017