Pooran Singh’s little blacksmith’s shop down by the mill was a miniature Hell on the farm, with all the orthodox attributes of that place. It was built of corrugated iron, and when the sun shone down upon the roof of it, and the flames of the furnace rose inside it, the air itself, in and around the hut, was white-hot. All day long, the place resounded with the deafening noise of the forge,—iron on iron, on iron once more,—and the hut was filled with axes, and broken wheels, that made it look like some ancient gruesome picture of a place of execution.
All the same the blacksmith’s shop had a great power of attraction, and when I went down to watch Pooran Singh at work I always found people in it and round it. Pooran Singh worked at a superhuman pace, as if his life depended upon getting the particular job of work finished within the next five minutes, he jumped straight up in the air over the forge, he shrieked out his orders to his two young Kikuyu assistants in a high bird’s voice and behaved altogether like a man who is himself being burnt at the stake, or like some chafed over-devil at work. But Pooran Singh was no devil, but a person of the meekest disposition; out of working hours he had a little maidenly affectation of manner. He was our Fundee of the farm, which means an artisan of all work, carpenter, saddler and cabinet-maker, as well as blacksmith; he constructed and built more than one waggon for the farm, all on his own. But he liked the work of the forge best, and it was a very fine, proud sight, to watch him tiring a wheel.
Pooran Singh, in his appearance, was something of a fraud. When fully dressed, in his coat and large folded white turban, he managed, with his big black beard, to look a portly, ponderous man. But by the forge, bared to the waist, he was incredibly slight and nimble, with the Indian hourglass torso.
I liked Pooran Singh’s forge, and it was popular with the Kikuyus, for two reasons.
First, because of the iron itself, which is the most fascinating of all raw materials, and sets people’s imagination travelling on long tracks. The plough, the sword and cannon and the wheel,—the civilization of man—man’s conquest of Nature in a nut, plain enough to be understood or guessed by the primitive people,—and Pooran Singh hammered the iron.
Secondly, the Native world was drawn to the forge by its song. The treble, sprightly, monotonous, and surprising rhythm of the blacksmith’s work has a mythical force. It is so virile that it appals and melts the women’s hearts, it is straight and unaffected and tells the truth and nothing but the truth. Sometimes it is very outspoken. It has an excess of strength and is gay as well as strong, it is obliging to you and does great things for you, willingly, as in play. The Natives, who love rhythm, collected by Pooran Singh’s hut and felt at their ease. According to an ancient Nordic law a man was not held responsible for what he had said in a forge. The tongues were loosened in Africa as well, in the blacksmith’s shop, and the talk flowed freely; audacious fancies were set forth to the inspiring hammer-song.
Pooran Singh was with me for many years and was a well-paid functionary of the farm. There was no proportion between his wages and his needs, for he was an ascetic of the first water. He did not eat meat, he did not drink, or smoke, or gamble, his old clothes were worn to the thread. He sent his money over to India for the education of his children. A small silent son of his, Delip Singh, once came over from Bombay on a visit to his father. He had lost touch with the iron, the only metal that I saw about him was a fountain pen in his pocket. The mythical qualities were not carried on in the second generation.
But Pooran Singh himself, raging above the forge, kept his halo as long as he was on the farm, and I hope as long as he lived. He was the servant of the gods, heated through, white-hot, an elemental spirit. In Pooran Singh’s blacksmith’s shop the hammer sang to you what you wanted to hear, as if it was giving voice to your own heart. To me myself the hammer was singing an ancient Greek verse, which a friend had translated:
“Eros struck out, like a smith with his hammer,
So that the sparks flew from my defiance.
He cooled my heart in tears and lamentations,
Like red-hot iron in a stream.”