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The Lost Generation

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the lost generation

In The Lost Generation, Nidhi Dugar Kundalia narrates the unforgettable stories of twelve individual professionals — from the hauntingly beautiful rudaalis to the bizarre tasks of a street dentist — uncovering the romance, tragedy and old-world charm of India’s ageing streets and its incredible living history.

The Lost Generation: Chronicling India’s Dying Professions

Nidhi Dugar Kundalia 


Publisher: Random House 

Pages: 247; Price: Rs 350

It is by no means an easy task in chronicling India’s dying professions. Even though there are remnants of an India which might still exist in its old streets and neighbourhoods, author Nidhi Dugar Kundalia narrates the unforgettable stories of eleven professionals from the Genealogists of Hardwar to the letter writers of Bombay, the Kabootarbaaz of Old Delhi, the street dentists of Baroda, the Urdu scribes of Delhi, the Ittar wallahs of Hyderabad and the Rudalis of Rajasthan among others. The streets in the ancient cities of this country are suspended in a time warp — not the lofty, shiny lanes of the city but the old faded, deceived-to-be-pulled-down-any-time-now.

A perpetual nostalgia lingers in these old neighbourhoods, a sense of belonging to a time you were not born in. There was the ‘bhisti’ wallah — the water carrier before the corporation taps. Suspended between the old and the modern, waiting to fill his animal-skin bag with water. His ancestors will fill the 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 crucial machinery in ordinary peoples’ everyday lives too  — watering the gardens, filling pots of water for nautch girls, offering cool water to worshipers at mosques on the days of Jum’ah (Friday) and filling cups for weary travellers and thirsty lepers.

As the century turned, they quickly turned into mere spare parts, only delivering mashqs to those whom the government pipelines had failed to reach. Like the old, abandoned palatial homes of the noblemen dotted the congested market, this solitary bhisti wallah is a testament to the significant events and feats of importance from decades ago.

The hapless last generation of these ancient professions have been left wondering about the bleakness of their futures. A scribe teaching calligraphy at an academy in Delhi says “we struggle to make Urdu survive, let alone Urdu calligraphy, in this digitised world.” During her travels around the country she found the new and old worlds intersecting in unpredictable ways even as modernisation spreads.

In Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, a midwife or dai, provides training to other women in midwifery practices because of her distrust in modern lead reviewbirthing practices at today’s hospitals. She limits her teaching to traditional castes, which were essentially a lower caste. ‘It is to preserve our ancestral professions’ she told the author defiantly. In villages it is not uncommon for affluent families to bestow land grants to a dai’s family and give her the sole rights to deliver babies in their household.

India’s professions have also been interlined with caste practices that dictated the professions of caste.

Occupations were meant to be passed on from father to son, and the option of transitioning from one profession to another was generally outlawed. The Kayasth class, who comprised the upper layer of Hindu society, occupied high governmental positions, often serving as administrators or advisers. The lower castes such as the nais or the chamars performed the menial jobs of barbers and tanners, respectively, while their wives doubled up as masseuses or pedicurists for the women of the aristocratic families.

The ‘rudalis’, or the professional mourners whom Nidhi interviewed for this book are caste inducted professions too. It is customary in Rajasthan for upper caste women to not mourn in public and so the rudalis – mostly helpless, impoverished women caught in web of caste hierarchy – step in to mourn for them, representing their sorrows for the traditional twelve-day mourning period. But changing times and automation are slowly eliminating these mourning practices, consigning them as some sort of an anthropological curiosity.

No caste exists for a call centre employee or a computer operator. Those who belong outside caste bound practices – the calligraphers, the kabootarbaaz, the ittar wallahs – their professions have suffered because they lost their patrons in the kings, noblemen and moneyed zamindars of pre-impendence India. The author caught up with naxalites, activists, thugs and ruffians, who rather than obstructing the story in any way helped her understand the complex social fabric of this vast country. Through their conversations she saw that their paradoxes provided for a deeper understanding of issues rather than cause moral obstructions – all contributing to appreciating the frailty of the human condition.

In the early 1970s visiting Calcutta for the first time on an assignment, shocked me. It was very different from Delhi and had a very distinct character because the British imperialists based themselves in Calcutta. The national capital was more of an enlarged village capturing the myriad culture of this country. People from the north and the hills along with others from different parts the country made Delhi their home. I Spotted a lone ‘bhisti wallah’ in the backlanes of the upmarket Chowringhee and Park street in the Eastern metropolis carrying water hung from his shoulder. A weather beaten, wiry person he supplied water to some of his customers and anyone who hailed him quenching their thirst.

On another occasion as a teenager on a holiday in Hyderabad I met some friends of my cousins much older than me who were animatedly discussing matters which upset them a great deal. They said the poor people in the villages were always being harassed and manhandled by the law and order machinery for no fault of theirs. I learnt later they were angry young men with ultra Left leanings who had decided to fight the establishment for the rights of the peasants.

Each of these dying professions has its lessons and poignancy unique to itself. The letter writers of Bombay hailed from different parts of the country and could read and write several Indian languages including English, Hindi, Sanskrit and some even learnt Marathi and so on. Dilip Pandey hailed from Varanasi and came to Bombay because of an ailing father and dwindling finances. “I was fascinated by this city,” he told the author “as Bombay tells you a new tale every day. The people have learnt to talk its talk but nobody learns to breathe here.” His friend Gourishankar with whom he stayed in Bombay taught Dilip to “understand the deep, dark underbelly of Bombay.”

As advised he wrote two lines for one word and never forgot to saying “missing you” at the end of the letter. It makes wives and lovers happy and the senders in turn happier. For the letter writers of Bombay things became bad in 2002 with the mobile communications market making incoming calls free. With mobile phones priced at a few hundred Rupees letter writers were pushed out of business.   The narration is fascinating and gripping about the professions and professionals left behind.