Nidhi Dugar Kundalia’s book The Lost Generation looks at 11 dying professions of India
When was the last time a nadaswaram player came to your door in the city, playing your favourite tune? Does the knife sharpener still call out asking if your cutting tools need a doing over? Some of us have seen these purveyors of expertise sometime or the other, maybe even transacted business with them. The rickshaw-puller in Kolkata. The knife-sharpener from Arakkonam. The lakeside barber and ear-cleaner in Srinagar. The itinerant nadaswaram player. The parrot astrologer. The pavement tailor. The travelling acrobat. Job done, we’ve moved on. But Nidhi Dugar Kundalia has followed them home, so to speak, and shared what she saw and heard in a small book. Indeed, in the larger scheme of things, 11 professions may be a minuscule number in a country like India, especially for those with an interest in the subject. Still, The Lost Generation: Chronicling India’s Dying Professions is unpretentious and, for the most part, nonjudgmental collation of interview-based writings that draws attention to livelihoods that are on the edge, and the world of insights they unravel.
The author explains that “while recording the interviews, I found myself being critical of the patriarchal, casteist, classist and sexist world-view seemingly espoused by these professions and the organised religion they practice”, but the narrative mostly remains free of authorial comment. In hindsight, this gives the reader a more direct access to the different worldviews chronicled in the book.
While the introduction to the book starts off promisingly, it peters into a bit of a ramble and so it makes better sense to plunge directly into the narratives. The first chapter tells the story of godna (tattoo) artist, Dubru, from Jharkhand. It talks about little girls being subject to bloody, painful tattoos in order to protect their husbands “from Yamraj”; the girls will continue to be tattooed as they grow into women because the tattoos are considered to be their “assets”. As a woman describes them: “The only things we take with us to the heavens”. The chapter talks about how Nowri, the grandmother of the child whose godna ceremony is recorded in the book, makes it abundantly clear that she will have no truck with a man such as Dubru, a mere malhar, only for the godna:
The fact that the casteist sentiments or the excruciating unsanitary procedure did not elucidate any comments from the writer seemed jarring initially. Even the fact that during the ceremony, the women sang obscene songs to distract the child! Upon reflection, though, the restraint shown by the author is commendable. For one, the voices of the people are heard, unadulterated. For another, since the nuances of these issues are complicated, it is best to not impose a dominant value system to analyse them, even if there is room for debate on these practices.
Dubru’s story draws attention to the fate of nomadic people such as himself and Anjalayya, the burrakatha storyteller of Telangana. Nidhi writes:
But it is curious that we don’t get to know the name of the village in Khunti district, Jharkhand, where Nidhi met Dubru and Nowri. Nor is there a mention of the name of the village where the rudaalis of Rajasthan were interviewed; the only clue is that it is 23 kilometres from Jaisalmer and is one among “seven or eight regions still under the fierce control of the kith and kin of the Rajputs”. This story about professional mourners, who are hired to cry during the mourning period of upper-caste people, is about how deeply entrenched patriarchy is in many parts of India. We are told there is no police station or school in the village; the nearest school is about 10 km away. “This nowhere place lies outside the larger economics of a country, and the presence of the state, if at all, is feeble and personified in the form of the thakur of the area”.
“Women’s brains are hardwired to feel loss and grief. They have a weak heart,” the Thakur says, patting his chest under his kurta. “We don’t allow the women in our families to make a sight of themselves outside our homes. High-caste women do not cry in front of commoners. Even if their husbands die, they need to preserve their dignity. These low-caste women…do the job for them.”
He refuses to allow Nidhi to meet these women because they “have to preserve their lajja”. Curiously, though, being rudaalis gives daoris some power because otherwise they would never be acknowledged as ‘legitimate consorts’.
When the author finally manages to meet some rudaalis after a funeral performance, they offer their unique insights. There’s a definite touch of irony when one of them, Feroja, says, “People die a lot less often, too, these days… They have started calling musicians these days, from Jaisalmer, for the mourning. I heard about it from a randi who came from the next village… They can never console people like us. You need to feel things in here.”
The narratives arouse different emotions and responses. For instance, godna, mourning, pigeon rearing and street dentistry raise troubling questions. On the other hand, accounts on calligraphy in Urdu, writing letters on behalf of others, maintaining genealogical records going back generations, selling perfumes and storytelling remind readers of the continuing relevance of these professions. The most moving stories, though, are those about the boatmaker of Balagarh, redolent with philosophical overtones, and the bhisti wallah of Kolkata, who lugs his heavy goatskin waterbag all over because people – and animals – are thirsty.
Mahendra Kumar Panda, a panda (priest) in Haridwar, engages in a fascinating occupation: he preserves the genealogical records of families. The how and why of this unique operation remains a mystery – the book sheds light only on some aspects of the process. Commenting on what happened to genealogical records in London and China, Nidhi puts the work done by Mahendra Kumar’s family and others such as him in perspective when she points out: “Considering that more than 90 per cent of this world has slipped into an absolute torpor, with identities having been lost, and no particular written proof by which we might hope to find the names of everybody who has ever lived, this record-keeping method of the Pandas becomes a critical treasure trove of information — of recent human history, migratory patterns and even cultural evolution.”
Similarly, the story of Anil Sood, a kabootarbaaz (pigeon-rearer) has snatches of history complemented with Sood’s own interest in the subject. No one who has visited Old Delhi could have missed the “Aa! Aa!” cry emanating from the roofs of close-set buildings, and the loud flutter of birdwings receding and approaching. Animal rights activists are vehemently opposed to this practice. Sood’s love for his birds shines through the narrative and when he screams, “These animal organisations that claim we torture these birds are on a witch hunt. Why would they keep returning to us if we tortured them?” you feel sympathy, even if you know the logic doesn’t stick. Animal activists claim these pigeons are tortured (it is alleged they are given performance-enhancing drugs). For instance, once they are too old to perform, their necks are wrung and they are carelessly buried.
As you read about Anjalayya, the burrakatha storyteller performing in Kothagadi village of Telangana’s Vikarabad district, you are struck by the distressing chasm that exists between what it means to be an artist engaging in the creative process and the abysmal conditions in which he or she most often lives. It is impossible to reconcile the two, and even more difficult to accept its reality. It’s hard to survive on storytelling alone, Anjalayya explains, “but my grandchildren work. They earn enough to keep our family of ten eating”. What do they work as? Garbage collectors.
While the stories of the ittarwallah of Hyderabad, the Urdu scribes of Delhi and the letter writers of Bombay are information-oriented, the story of the Baroda street dentist is a comment on the approach to healthcare in India and the mismatch between supply and demand. In the grand scheme of smart cities, will the likes of Amrit Singh, who offers his dentistry services to those in need, simply disappear? There are ethical issues here; equally, we know that even within the formal system, these issues persist. What then is knowledge, and does it prevail only under prescribed conditions? Isn’t it possible that a person like Amrit Singh, who learnt the trade from his father, who in turn was trained by his father, also has a certain degree of expertise? In any case, as he tells Nidhi, he only does certain things – dentures, tooth replacement, cleaning. “Indians have much better teeth because we eat hard substances all the time, unlike foreign people,” Amrit Singh points out to the writer. “A dentist from Scotland told me this when she visited me after hearing about “our kind” from a tourist”. His existence is endorsed by Syed, a fakir selling tabizes and the like in the vicinity: “See, I know what he does is illegal. He has had cases that have gone badly too. But someone has to take care of the poor, right? Where will people like me go?” Where, indeed?
A personal favourite from this collection is the story of Mohan Chandok, a boatbuilder from West Bengal’s Balagarh, whose work is truly an extension of his life, an attitude that has been captured beautifully by the author. The description of how he built a boat after dreaming of sailing to Calcutta, used up his life’s earnings and set sail one April morning in 2000 echoes Hemingway.
Suddenly there was a storm, he got caught in a whirlpool and all the parts of the boat floated away, except the mast. “I still have the mast flying above my hut… I also heard that another boatman saw my sinking ship and was warned of the whirlpool. Well, at least one boat was saved that afternoon.” That pearl of wisdom drops gently, and when he tells the author that he believes his “role is to make boats, here in Balagarh, and smoke beedis. Not to live in Kolkata and buy fancy cigarettes”, you feel that a larger consciousness is in play. It is yet to be seen how long people like Chandok can sustain a livelihood out of this. As the writer observes:
But it is the story of the bhisti wallahs of Calcutta, traditional water-carriers, that leaves the sharpest visual impressions – in the shape of the goatskin water bags (mashqs), in the picture of the bhisti collecting potable water from various sources, and pouring it out… There’s plenty of back story here, and the anecdote about Mughal Emperor Humayun being caught on the banks of the Ganga and being saved by a bhisti wallah, Nizam Saqqa, is intriguing. In fact, it leaves the reader feeling that such a background should have been added in all the stories.
The writer meets Nawazuddin, who recalls a time when bhistis accompanied the troops to war, refilling from cool streams or village wells along the way. Enemy troops would always first target the bhisti wallahs to cut off the rival’s lifeline, he says. He knows this, he says, because his great grandfather “lost a leg from a gunshot wound as he crossed the line of fire to offer a dying British soldier his water”. The work is relentless and, in today’s world, unrewarding. After all, how much water can one man carry in a mashq? Not to mention the number of trips it would entail – all for little monetary recompense. Yet, even as he whispers to Nidhi that “There are times when I go to bed and I feel I’ll never wake up again,” he lifts his thumb from “the enclosed mouth of his leather bag to pour some water for a street dog”. It’s not always for money that Nawazuddin plies his trade.
There are some puzzling things in the book, the most curious being the concluding statement in the introduction: “By the time I finished working on the book, I hoped to have arrived at a conclusion. I wish I could have assertively stated that these professions have been culturally exhausted, that they have lived out their natural lives, that they, then, have to go – that the world doesn’t need the bhisti wallahs to exist if they have become an anachronism.” Now that’s a bit of a googly, but what is clear is that the professions the author has presented in the book are likely to be ‘lost’ sooner or later. We don’t really get a sense of how they are coping under changed circumstances, or if, for instance, these individuals are adapting technology to keep up with the times. There is a tiny glimpse of how technology impacts their livelihoods when Mahendra Kumar talks about a future date when genealogies will all be computerised. In the course of the book, the author sometimes takes recourse to odd use of words and phrases, almost like a small child that has discovered big words. What’s “adjuvant characters” or a “sanctimonious boatbuilding process” or “boutonniere smells”? More significant are the editorial goof-ups too galling to recount. As for the image of the dentures on the cover: the grotesqueness of the effect gives a misleading sense of the book that’s basically all nostalgia. Perhaps a rethink is in order when it’s time to reprint.
All this aside, there’s plenty to take away from The Lost Generation. Did you know, for instance, that the way a stamp was fixed on the envelope sent out secret messages? “Depending on the angle the (one rupee Gandhi) stamp could mean ‘I love you’ or ‘Come and visit me’.” Read the book and you will discover them for yourself, and after that, you might start noticing the different ways of life around you.
~ Sandhya Rao is Deputy Editor at the Hindu BusinessLine in Chennai and she writes for children.