My dad while narrating his travel stories would tell me about the porters who’d run with kulhads (mud cups) serving cold brackish water through the window grills of railway compartments whenever trains would halt at the desert stations of Rajasthan. This was back in the 1970s before any forms of packeted water, were still a distant reality. The thirsty passengers would happily pay a few cents for quenching their thirst, usually returning the kulhads back for a refill. The advent of the more sophisticated and hygienic bottled water business apparently wiped off this local form of livelihood. You do not find kids running up railway platforms, selling borewell water in mud-kulhads anymore!
Similarly thanks to the internet, message exchanges happen almost instantly, so my kids will never have a postman uncle walking up their door delivering letters from their grandparents. There would be no “raddiwallah” too, the guy who’d cycle around the colony, announcing his arrival in a chant-like manner, often exchanging old comic books for a few paise. There were kulfi wallahs, sabzi wallahs, sarangi players too, who had fix timings of showing up and were often an integral part of the lifestyle that we led.
These were the few examples that I could think of while reading Nidhi Dugar Kundaliya’s book on the lost professions of India. She talks about the dying professions that are now mostly redundant, given the lifestyle advancements we have all made. In the book she chronicles the lives of Bhistiwallahs of Bengal, the traditional water-bearers, she talks about the Godna artists of Jharkhand – India’s own tattoo makers, the Kaboortarbaajs of Delhi, the Storytellers of Andhra, the Letter Writers of Bombay, the Rudaalis of Rajasthan, the Street Dentists of Baroda to name a few. A collection of 11 such essays, the book touches a nostalgic chord every time she records her conversations with the practitioners of these trades of the by-gone era, usually the last ones to do so. While reading, oftentimes you will be critical of the patriarchal, casteist, classist, sexist reasons behind these niche trades, but would also grieve over the loss of these ancient vocations. Now culturally exhausted, having lived out their natural lives, these professions have become an anachronism, and we can do nothing but sympathise with the people who once made a living out of these trades.
Quoting a part:
Chapter 11: The Letter Writers of Bombay
And here it is paper and ink, smelling of times gone by, a legacy that can be handed down to the cook’s son – perhaps the last generation of people who would be given a handwritten letter – who’d suck its contents into the pool of his memory and relish the letter from his father who wasn’t around for most of his years growing up. He will stow it away with all his other memories, the good, the bitter and the ugly, keeping them sealed, locked under everything else, and finally letting them rust, until one day, it will make its way into the hands of the people to whom letters are nothing more than antiques that have disappeared the way of papyrus scrolls, parchments and cablegrams.