In Memoriam: Velanganie Raj, Timber Dealer for Phantom Hands

Image caption: At the timber yard at the Bamboo Bazar, Bangalore. Image courtesy: Phantom Hands Archive.

By

Deepak Srinath

Date

11.08.2020

The brothers Velanganie Raj and Sagayanathan were our timber dealers and specialised in sourcing reclaimed teak wood. They operated out of Bamboo Bazaar, a historic wood and bamboo products market in Bangalore that dates back to colonial times.

I received a call on June 29, 2020 from an unknown number. The caller introduced himself as the brother of Velanganie and Sagayanathan and said “How are you sir?” before breaking into sobs. He then told me that his brother had passed away the previous night due to a cardiac arrest.

In my alarm and confusion, I asked him “which one?” and he replied that it was Velanganie.

I sat at my desk in disbelief for a few minutes; I had spent 3 hours with Velanganie on June 18, barely 10 days earlier.

The brothers, Velanganie Raj and Sagayanathan, were our timber dealers and specialised in sourcing reclaimed teak wood. They operated out of Bamboo Bazaar, a historic wood and bamboo products market in Bangalore that dates back to colonial times.

Image caption: Brothers Velanganie and Sagayanathan in Bamboo Bazaar. Image courtesy: Phantom Hands Archive.

I was introduced to them in late 2014 by my father-in-law, a veteran of the woodworking trade who knew everybody in the business. I had just started Phantom Hands and was learning the art of sourcing timber.

Tall, imposing and soft spoken, the brothers showed us their stock of reclaimed teak and we made our first purchase from them - a modest trial order of a couple of beams of teak.

As our production increased, my buying trips to their timber yard became more frequent and I eagerly looked forward to our monthly or bimonthly interaction.

Velanganie would call me as soon as they procured a consignment of quality teak. He would always begin the conversation by asking me whether I’d had my coffee or lunch, depending on the time of day, followed by enquiries about the welfare of my wife and in-laws.

I had learnt early on that these courtesies were as important to him as the business at hand.

He would then tell me in these exact words, 'For your kind information, we have procured an excellent batch of teak wood and if you have some time please come and take a look at it.' This would be followed by an image on WhatsApp, of a neatly handwritten note detailing the sizes and quantities available.

I always admired his handwritten notes — it reflected a neatness, precision, and care that is hard to find today.

Image caption: Velanganie Raj's handwritten notes detailing the sizes and quantity of teak wood available at his workshop.

The timber purchase process was a neatly orchestrated ceremony - magical and fascinating - no matter how many times I participated in it: Velanganie calling out the dimensions of each block of wood in Kannada or English, talking to his helpers in Tamil or Urdu (the Bangalore version), conversation flowing in all four languages, with a vocabulary that was unique to the trade.

We would debate over the worthiness of a particular piece and to convince me Velangannie would say, 'this is a laddu piece sir, your loss if you miss out'.

I always trusted his judgement when he used the phrase ‘laddu piece’ and never regretted it. Exactly an hour into the process, Velanganie would call a halt to the hectic activity and break for tea. Biscuits and tea would materialise from a nearby tea shop and conversation would cease as everybody became engrossed in dunking the flaky biscuits in milky tea and eating them before they disintegrated.

A certain amount of theatrics were involved too, especially when we negotiated our annual rate increase at the beginning of the year. Sitting in the shadow of an enormous raintree, Velanganie would write down their new rate on a sheet of paper and push it across the table to me. I would look at it and shake my head in disappointment. I would then write my counter offer on the same piece of paper and pass it back to him. This would go on a few times and finally he would pass the paper to Sagayanathan and say 'brother will decide'.

I knew from experience that this meant that we had reached a point of agreement. Sagayanthan would nod to Velanganie and gesture that he should accept my latest price.

During the COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020, I read in the papers that a massive fire had gutted several shops in Bamboo Bazaar. I immediately called Velanganie and with deep distress in his voice he confirmed that their shop and entire stock had been reduced to ashes.

I learnt from his family that he was shattered completely, he barely slept and ate very little since the incident.

Velanganie and Sagayanathan embodied the genteel, cosmopolitan Bangalore I grew up in. Business was not just about trade, it was about building relationships for a lifetime. Devout in their Catholic faith, unfailingly polite, multilingual, and above all, family men with a deep sense of pride in their cultural ethos.

Image caption: The purchase process at Velanganie Raj's timber workshop. Image courtesy: Phantom Hands Archive.

Over the next few days I called him a few times and promised to support them in any way I could. As we eased out of the lockdown, I’m happy that I made good on my word and purchased a fairly large consignment of reclaimed teak that they had managed to source with great difficulty. This was on June 18. I believe that the fire broke his heart, literally, and he never recovered from it.

Velanganie and Sagayanathan embodied the genteel, cosmopolitan Bangalore I grew up in. Business was not just about trade, it was about building relationships for a lifetime. Devout in their Catholic faith, unfailingly polite, multilingual, and above all family men with a deep sense of pride in their cultural ethos.

I will miss our conversations about life and politics. Come Christmas and I will always think of the cake Velanganie brought over every year on Christmas day. My visits to their shop made me feel like I was in a time machine, connected to an era whose legacy we were now entrusted with carrying forward.

Velanganie’s spirit lives on in the hundreds of chairs we made using the timeless reclaimed teak he supplied to us.

Image caption: The last teak purchase, June 18, 2020. Image courtesy: Phantom Hands Archive.

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