The Lost Generation: Chronicling India’s dying professions
Nidhi Dugar Kundalia
Random House India
256 pages; Average reading time 3 hours 17 min
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Globalisation has transformed the Indian society. Radios and televisions have eaten into the livelihoods of nomadic storytellers. SMS technology has led to the death of letter writers. India’s professions have always been interlinked with caste practices. The rudaalis, or the professional mourners are an example of caste-based profession. It is a custom in Rajasthan for higher-caste women to not mourn in public and so the rudaalis – mostly helpless, poor women caught in the maze of caste hierarchy – mourn on behalf of these upper-caste women, demonstrating their sorrows for the 12 day mourning period. Other professions such as the calligraphers, the kabootarbaaz, and the ittar wallahs belong outside caste-bound practices. Their professions have suffered because they lost their patrons in the kings, noblemen and moneyed zamindars of pre-Independence India.
This book covers 11 such professions disappearing from India. This handcrafted bookbhook summary briefly covers 7 of these 11 professions. Do buy the book using the links provided to understand The Lost Generation of India.
Letter Writers of Bombay
The British set up India’s postal network in 1854. They started letter-writing services outside the post offices, allocating licences to the letter writers. In the 19th century, there were many illiterate men away from home, and letters and telegrams were the only forms of communication. The writers helped a largely illiterate India and wrote letters on their behalf. The city attracts all sorts of workers – traders, hawkers, cooks and labourers with little or no education migrate here. Many girls from Mumbai’s red-light area also came in back then.
Many customers started work before sunrise and were too tired to communicate and expected the writers to add some flourishes. This was not the time of WhatsApp and SMS. Without the help of facial expressions, writers communicated effectively and personally, and sent letters to unseen recipients. The writers handled people based on their backgrounds – concise with ex-criminals, sharp with daily-wage workers and talkative with government office peons. They thought before writing down each sentence as they would not be able to delete sentences or shift passages around. The letters had a variety. The ones to the wives were simpler, with instructions to pay the rent or take care of mother. They never forgot to write ‘missing you’ at the end of the letter as it made the wives happy & the senders happier.
The letter writers also provided reading services. There were messages for ex-criminals and traders, lovers involved in extra-marital affairs and childhood friends. There was delayed news of deaths and births that happened months ago. Things changed in 1995. The Mumbai General Post Office was declared a heritage site and the letter writers were shifted across the road.
Things changed drastically in 2002 when incoming calls became free with Reliance. ‘I miss you’ could now be sent in seconds across the country. Mobile phones were everywhere and eventually the writers became redundant. India Post declared the profession obsolete in 2010. They didn’t renew the authorisations. Now, the letter writer spends his time filling out forms, submitting money orders and wrapping parcels. For every job created, some are destroyed. It is now the time of mobile phones. The time for letter writers has passed.
Bhisti wallahs of Calcutta
Bhisti is a derivative of the Persian word behest meaning paradise. Bhisti wallah is a water-carrier from a bygone era. Today, he holds on to the last threads of his ancestral profession, a bag made of leather, in the shape of an upturned goat that contains 20 litres of water.
His ancestors filled their water from the banks of the Ganga and freshwater springs serving Mughal troops in war fields, the Nawabs of Bengal and then the British. They were vital in the common man’s everyday lives too – watering the gardens of zamindars, filling pots of water for the dance girls, offering cool water to worshippers at mosques on the days of the Friday prayer and filling cups for fatigued travellers and thirsty lepers. The bhisti wallahs got their international fame when Samuel Murray called them ‘altruists’ in the backdrop of the 1930s Great Depression, in his book Seven Legs Across the Sea.
As the century turned, the bhisti wallahs devolved into mere spare parts, only delivering to those whom the government pipelines had failed to reach. Today, the bhisti wallah sits before the municipal corporation taps, hanging between old and modern, waiting to fill his animal-skin bags with water. This lone bhisti wallah is a testament to significant events and feats of importance from decades ago but he is also a stark reminder that one day he will be extinct. No one gives work to a hag like him because the only thing he knows is carrying water, keeping it cool, which hand pump is in the area is rusted and which one has the least sullied water. He doesn’t send his daughters to school because they must stay at home and learn to be good wives. His son will become a driver and not take up the bhisti work so that this way at least their grandchildren will have a better life.
Rudaalis of Rajasthan
The Rajputs are intensely conscious of their lineage. They plan rituals to preserve their status and perform complex death rituals. Rudaalis or mourners became important as someone has to cry when royal family members die. Unfortunate women who were widowed, poor or served as servants in the royal households became rudaalis.
There are 7-8 regions still under the control of the Rajputs. There is no police station or school in the village. Most villagers are not educated. They are suppressed and not allowed to prosper. It’s a caste-bound community. The lower castes will remain lower castes. The presence of the state is weak and personified in the form of the thakur of the area. The thakurs don’t allow their own women to appear in public. High caste women don’t cry in front of others, even if their husbands die, to maintain their dignity. The rudaalis do the job for them. She represents their sadness.
Thakurs are connected to the royal families who still exercise influence in the Marwar and Jaisalmer regions in Rajasthan. The nobles, chiefs and thakurs house the daoris or female servants who serve as their concubines. They are the rudaalis for the family during death and sickness. They have no family. Once they leave their home and come as a gift to the thakur in marriage, they never go back. They have to live with the thakurs and serve the men. They can’t be out in the open. They look after the children and men of the households and cannot meet strangers. By being concubines, rudaalis from the Darogi community have access to their feudal masters and their families. Otherwise they would never be acknowledged as legitimate consorts.
The daoris are the thakurs’ mistresses and the children never have an official father. Their ration cards, voter IDs, all have only the mother’s name. The daori is not taken to the hospital for childbirth. Midwives deliver the babies at home. If a girl is born, she is killed right away. When they mourn at landlords’ homes, rudaalis get Rs 200 for 12 days. But money is given only when rich people die. The rest just give them some coins. Sometimes, they get only food – oil, wheat, a bag of onions, old odhnis and cholis too. For children’s deaths, they don’t charge anything. They cry thinking of their own dead husbands or sons. And when they can’t cry, they use the bark of aak leaves. It makes their eyes burn and water.
They used to cry for a lot more days until recently. Relatives who received the information via post arrived late and they were called to cry for them. But now, mobiles ensure messages are delivered immediately. So the mourning period is just 12 days. There are fewer rudaalis too. They are only in the villages in Marwar. Many choose quiet funerals and call musicians from Jaisalmer for the mourning.
Street dentists of Baroda
The Indus Valley civilization has shown dentistry was practiced 7000 BC. Skilled beads craftsmen were the dentists. During the Middle Ages, barbers looked after dental needs like cleaning and whitening, while blacksmiths did tooth extractions. Dentistry as a profession was free-for-all until the 20th century. The street dentists in India learned it from the Chinese in the early 1900s. They taught them basic dentistry with amalgam fillings, making dentures and rebuilding of front teeth.
Things changed after Independence. Dentistry practice got regulated. But the street dentists flourished, treating migrants, labourers and their families, visiting people at their homes and tending to refugees. There were thousands of them in Amarnath, Ahmedabad & Delhi. The pilgrimage places of the Hindus are also the ideal places for street dentists and their quick treatments. There’s no physical shop, no fancy chair, no surgical tools. They don’t give you long names for diseases, and you can go any time. They do it for those who cannot afford other dentists. They don’t take care of root canals, swollen and bleeding gums. They do dentures, tooth replacement, & cleaning. While the medically certified dentist takes 10 days to make dentures, the street dentists do it in hours. They make it on a furnace with acrylic resin and charge Rs 50-60 for a bridge, 100 for a tooth and Rs 2800 for a 28 teeth full set. Ten years ago, the street dentists would get about 12 patients per day, but this has now dwindled to just 5. In a country gearing up to become the medical tourism hub of the world.
The street dentists are now embarrassing for the country. India has more than 180 dental colleges that churn out about 13,000 qualified and certified dentists every year. So who goes to these street dentists these days? There is a large cross section of our society for whom dental care is out of reach because it is expensive. But then the medical practitioners argue that government hospitals provide affordable dental care. Then is it an issue of awareness? Interestingly, poor teeth condition is seen as a roadblock to jobs by the underprivileged section of the society. ‘Bad teeth is a marker of (poor)class, nothing declares ‘poverty’ louder than bad teeth, not even broken shoes.
Genealogists of Haridwar
The Hindus believe that the family is eternal and complete. Every Hindu must acknowledge his ancestors and carry out ceremonies for their journey after death to heaven. They come to Haridwar to cremate their relatives and meet the Pandas, their genealogists. Pandas look after the family register, and update it with details of marriages, births and deaths. They also coordinate religious rituals for their clients like death ceremonies. These genealogical registers have been with their families for many generations. You will find the Pandas in pilgrimage places like Kashi, Varanasi, and Gaya. But Haridwar is the most comprehensive and well-preserved repository. When 90% of the world suffers from lost identity, the books of the Pandas have a wealth of information – of human history, migratory patterns and cultural progress.
These records also help settle inheritance quarrels for wealth and power. The Pandas have issued affidavits to solve legal disputes of his customers. People come from every part of the world looking for them. They act as witness in property dispute; attest to someone’s actual last name or to ascertain relationship between brothers, fathers and cousins. Women can’t enter this profession as they are not the legal heirs. These are only passed on to male legal heirs like sons and grandsons. These books are an everyday livelihood for the Pandas. They can even be traded and sold. They can also be used as security against loans. So a man with no male lineage will pass it on to a male family member through his daughter but never to the daughter herself.
Pandas arrange these documents by the village from which the ancestors hail, then by the gotra from that village. This helps a Panda to name a pilgrim’s family and ancestors with no information other than the pilgrim’s first name, last name, gotra and ancestral village. You can’t choose a Panda; a Panda chooses you. It is a hereditary relationship defined by the customer’s paternal ancestral home. Earlier, people came by foot, travelling for months. Many of them died because Haridwar was surrounded by jungles filled with dacoits, wild animals and diseases.
The Pandas are a traditionalist community. They are averse to change and stick to conventional methods of record-keeping. They reject the idea of making their records public as they fear loss of their livelihood. But the times have changed. The scientific world is catching up fast. These ancient books may vanish. Many have dropped out of the profession and found profitable jobs in the tourism sector. The Pandas wonder how many more generations will continue this work.
Godna artists of Jharkhand
Godna is held in high regard and carefully followed. The malhar (tattoo artist) makes the Godna (tattoo). He is the male member of the Hindu coppersmith caste. The soot collected from burning lamps is mixed with mother’s milk to make the Godna ink. It was a noble deed and was believed to make the Gods happy. But now mothers don’t donate their milk and keep it for their babies. So the malhar mixes cow’s milk and uses prongs, made from bamboo stick and thorns from shrubs, to make the Godna.
Malhars neither farm nor sell wares or go to schools. They have no addresses or official papers. They have no representative in the government or panchayat that they can look to for help or lodge complaints with. They expect nothing from the government. They look for a place in the periphery of the villages – under trees, or haystacks. They move around with their wives and children. They are the eternal nomads. They travel from village to village performing Godna and making copper utensils in their free time. They travel many kilometres, through the rainforest. They start their mornings with leftover rice that villagers give away. Except these lasting marks of Godna, everything in their life is momentary. They get a bag of rice or a few coins for their service. Many have just meagre possessions: a shirt, a pickaxe, a panga. The one with a shirt finds a job as a night watchman; the one with a panga can be hired to cut down weeds; the one with pickaxe can dig a ditch.
The tribals believe that the Godna signifies the celebration of the girl’s journey to heaven after death and her reunification with her ancestors. If a girl child is old enough to walk, she must be tattooed. The more Godna you get done, the stronger you become in spirit and physical prowess. They are their ornaments, their assets. The only things they take with them to the heavens. Those without a Godna will be branded with hot coals in hell. The ceremony is accompanies by song and dance and attended by 15 people. However, nobody wants a Godna anymore. Students avoid it to escape bullying. Women who marry men in villages and cities avoid it. Men despise wives with traditional Godna and leave them behind at home.
Ittar wallahs of Hyderabad
Ittar is made by culling thousands of crocus flowers for saffron strands. The ittar wallahs have the shop in their families for generations. Their ancestors sold from a wooden box that hung around their necks. Hearing the cry of the ittar wallahs, servants took them in and the women of the household bought their wares. The descendants of the Nizam’s family still come to buy ittar.
The Mughals fragranced their palaces and the harem women were educated in the art of enticement through fragrances. Ayurveda introduced ittar in the 6th century. The earliest distillation of ittar is mentioned in Charaka Samhita. Varahamihira, the 5th century scholar, writes the method to create the bakula scent by extracting the essence from seashells.
The rose ittar has the best fragrance. But the time between cutting the flowers and making the ittar is crucial because the petals lose their essence with every second. Good ittar depends on the essence of the year’s harvest. Petals, after plucking, are then brewed in water on a wood fire overnight. And when these petals are plucked and added to the broth, they leave their fragrance behind for eternity. They live instead, forever, bottled in the jars. The ittar wallahs use only cane wood, not teak wood and cook in copper pots because copper heats evenly and passes on a rustic fragrance. They keep their ittars simple through the distillation process with sandal oil as a base. It took one ittar wallah 11 years of training under his father to perfect his formula for gulab, and 2 decades for his father to perfect a musk fragrance.
Today, the pure ittars are brewed and made lesser than ever. Twenty years ago, they made 15 cauldrons a year. Now, they just make 2 or 3 ittars. The rest are all imported from Kuwait, Dubai and Saudi Arabia. The ban on sandalwood in some states for the past 2 decades has decreased the supply of sandal oil, making ittar more expensive. In turn, the customers choose the alcohol-based perfumes instead.
Sellers from Kanauj, Uttar Pradesh, sell fancy synthetic scents. They are inexpensive, easy to control and the best shops in the Charminar area stocked them as the demand grew for them. The ittar wallahs know the sons will begin selling only synthetic perfumes soon, but till the time they are there, they will make and sell pure ittar.
Do pick the book to go through interesting list professions like the kabootarbaaz of Delhi, the storytellers of Andhra and more.
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