In a storeroom of my childhood was my grandmother’s prized Godrej almirah and every time she opened it, the handlebar and the contents inside jangled grouchily like they were dreamily asleep musing on better times. Balls of silver and gold zari border would tumble out, now having splitting into shards of threads at the edges. They had been carefully snipped of the edges of her antique sarees, to be sold to the jewellers who would in turn melt them for precious metals.
There were some other old timers in the almirah: an elephant tusk gifted to my grandfather as a good luck charm; greasy old needles of my grandmother’s single most coveted possession which she attended to everyday with a soft rag – her Singer sewing machine; a handwritten book her father wrote with traditional Ayurvedic medicines and concoctions; a small velvet box with vials of gold coloured liquid – jasmine, henna, rose – ittars that had aged over the years like fine vintage wine and a drop would cause our noses to tickle and the cough till we snuffed out the fragrance; and then a thin silver curious looking metallic scooper similar to a doctor’s tool except for the intricate carving on the handle.
We’d pull out the scooper and ask my grandmother every time she opened the almirah, “Ma, what could this be?” Ma would put on the glasses that had taken a pew on her head, and examine it closely. “Difficult to say... But I used to clean your father’s ears with it.”
There were cadavers of other old tools and objects – broken earrings, a hand fan and in an old iron box, discarded snake skin. And some black and white photos which she used to tell stories of her youth – when she wore her long, embellished ghagras with a customary veil covering her face, peeking at everyday vignettes of life from beneath it.
I remember her talking about the lamp post lighters who would put off the gas operated lights on the streets at dawn while the bhistiwallahs or the men who carried water in animal skin bags, watering the dusty streets in her village in Rajasthan. The barbers’ wives (called the nains) were called in for the weekly mustard oil body massages. And then when she visited the docks in Calcutta with her enterprising father, she heard those drummers routinely beating their drums near the factories dawn, functioning as morning alarms for the local labourers.
At the age of thirteen, she got married; and then the war began, and we lost all our jute mills in Bengal, and my grandmother with her husband and four children and a cook, moved to Ranchi; where she herself sewed her children’s clothes and curtain and started wearing humble sarees. A few decades later, they moved to Hyderabad where her grandchildren were born. By then, she had completely given up on the veil. She no longer had to peek through it but her surroundings had changed with a rapidity that was now beyond her comprehension.
My grandmother’s stories continued to haunt me long after the Godrej almirah was sold and its contents distributed among the grandchildren. I moved in search of the characters from her story and found myself in thin alleys and cold corners of the country, drawn to the totems of the past.
They had changed, most of its sharper edges smoothened over time. But beneath the large, new edifices of now renamed Kolkata or the newly formed capital of Ranchi or the widely expanded Delhi, there were old buildings and lives indistinguishably tied to their past; fragments of my grandmother’s India. You just had to be willing to bend your ears and listen.
Bhistiwallahs, beedi makers, wigmakers, postman, wooden boatmakers, storytellers, letter writers, kabootarbaaz (pigeon fliers), Urdu calligraphers, street dentists, ittarwallahs – the professionals who were such an integral part of everyday life centuries ago existed here, but cast out of those lives now and fast giving up on their ancestral professions.
Over the past few decades, a few of these professions have already died at the altar of modernity. Mobile phones and SMS hastened the doom of the letter-writer I met in Mumbai – a man who was once the only means of communication for the migrant labourers and often added Hemant Kumar lyrics to the love letters.
The supremely talented oral storytellers from Vikarabad, a group of rat-eating mendicants who are acutely aware of their lower caste status, no longer draw crowds with increased access to cable televisions in the villages. The bhistiwallah of Kolkata who filled pots and watered the gardens with his father is all but redundant with the emergence of municipal corporation taps, and now cannot wait to cast away his water bag – a “burden of the past”.
The rest have simply migrated from their profession, to which they were bound by the caste system, unshackling themselves from its stereotypes and opting for more economical jobs. The rudaalis or the professional mourners from Rajasthan who ceremonially cry at the death of the upper castes continue their work only to ensure a more “dignified” life for their children.
The pandas of Haridwar who recorded Hindu family genealogy cling onto their professions to maintain the brahminical hegemony while their sons have moved to the jobs of the future – in IT and communications.
The tribal tattoo artist of Jharkhand, the malhar, says his nomadic life of travelling from village to village to inscribe tattoos on young girls will soon come to a halt with changing needs of the villagers. “I’ll also live in a village and die,” he told me in a drunken slur.
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 practise. But at the same time I found myself grieving for the loss of these ancient vocations, the cultural diversities and mysterious characters they have produced over the years. By the time I finished working on the book, I had hoped to arrive to a conclusion.
Instead, I was enmeshed in multiple perspectives that helped me appreciate the fragility of the human condition rather than restrict myself to moral impediments and view these professionals as, more than anything else, anthropological curiosities. And the result of these curious investigations into the time of my grandparents was this book.
Nidhi Dugar Kundalia is the author of the book, The Lost Generation: Chronicling India’s Dying Professions. She has written extensively on subcultures, cultural oddities and society.