The Lost Generation (Chronicling India’s Dying Professions) by Nidhi Dugar Kundalia takes us on a journey to different parts of India, albeit an India which few of us may have experienced. The author does this by delving into the lives of myriad characters engaged in professions which are fast facing extinction. Eleven professions have been chosen, covering an extremely diverse range of people from the Godna Artists (tattoo artists) of Jharkhand to the Street Dentists of Baroda, the Storytellers of Andhra to the Genealogists of Haridwar from Kabootarbazs (pigeon fliers) of Old Delhi to Bhistiwallahs (water carriers) of Calcutta ; all of them bound by the common thread of having to witness their professions being gradually wiped out. In the process we get to see a layer of India which has remained unobtrusive for centuries. Each practitioner of the professions chosen has been portrayed with a lot of sensitivity and empathy. Shashi Tharoor very aptly calls this book “An unforgettable portrait of a disappearing India.”
We get to see a section of society who seem to be bound by unwritten rules and strictures which we remain blissfully unaware of. A case in point being the life of Rudaalis – professional women mourners in Rajasthan. The Thakur (feudal landowner) of the village categorically states that “ Highcaste women do not cry in front of commoners. Even if their husbands die, they need to preserve their dignity. These low-caste women, rudaalis, do the job for them. She represents their sadness.” I feel suffocated by the unrelenting male hegemony, practiced ruthlessly over centuries, one that has even laid claim to women’s tears.
Most of the people featured in the book have landed up in these professions only by virtue of birth in a particular caste. That one moment determined the paths which were drawn on the maps of their lives. I started the book with a sense of anticipation, looking forward to learning the mysteries of these exotic livelihoods. But a closer look revealed the underlying despair which coloured their existence, the daily struggle for survival which kept them tethered to their professions. But this is not a book without hope. Even in the most dire circumstances the indomitable nature of humanity surfaces, a spark which lights up even the most mundane existence. I felt envious of the Kabutarbaaz in Delhi, whose mind and soul flies with his pigeon, and reaches great distances even while his feet are firmly planted on the ground. Equally inspiring was the thoughts of Mohak, the boatmaker of Balagarh, a village deep in West Bengal. His dream was to build a boat to sail to Kolkata and drift below the stately Hooghly bridge. He used his lifetime’s earnings to buy the wood and material for his boat and took a year to build it. He set sail for Kolkata on a fine morning with the clouds smiling down on him. Unfortunately these same clouds turned traitor transforming into storm clouds that swept down on the little wooden boat. It got stuck in a whirlpool and capsized, dragging Mohak’s dreams down with it into the depths of the river. Some fishermen rescue him, and Mohak returned to his village accepting his destiny stoically. He never makes it to Kolkata and he consoles himself by citing the local priest’s explanation that “ ……….. my role is to make boats here, in Balagarh and smoke beedis. Not to live in Kolkata and buy fancy cigarettes.”
Nidhi has not only introduced us to eleven quaint professions, but also has skillfully drawn portraits of a supporting cast who have allied themselves with these professions in some way. The Godna tattoos are done by a caste called the Malhars who are male members of the Hindu coppersmith caste. “ They have no addresses, nor any official papers. ……… nor do they have any expectation from the government.” They’re true nomads who hardly have any possessions. It was amazing that most of them own only a single thing. Dabru the tattoo artist was privileged because he owned two things, a shirt and a prong. On reading this, I looked around me and flinched at the surfeit of possessions that I considered essential for living. It really made me take a more magnanimous look at my life and count my blessings.
Nidhi Kundalia has taken a lot of pains to chronicle the lives of these people and their unusual professions. She has peppered her narration with a lot of interesting facts, which have been carefully slipped in so that they bolster the framework but at the same time do not bog down the reader. Nidhi writes so beautifully that we are swept along with her on her journeys. She has got a wonderful eye for detail and her descriptions are so vivid that we feel that we’re travelling with her, crinkling our eyes as she squints into the sun while walking to meet the boatman, moving our bodies while she weaves her way through the crowded streets of Hyderabad and Kolkata and inhaling deeply while she meets the ittarmaker with his profusion of fragrances.
She also imbues a sense of life into her landscapes, be it the sandy deserts with their delicately hued flowers or the narrow streets of Kolkata where the bhistiwallah has to lead his life. “… – a babel of voices, a racket of rickshaw pullers, din from the coffin making factories located close by, the clamour of food vendors, thunderous clouds, witticisms from addas, men heaving beneath heavy sacks, horns, cackles, sighs… wave after wave of it.” We trudge along with her into bylanes in places as diverse as Haridwar and Juma Masjid. There’s one sentence that epitomizes my India, the common man’s India – “The Jama Masjid, the Pashupatinath temple and the Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib jut out amidst the roof tops and half-abandoned houses of Old Delhi.” I was picturing the Gods communing with each other high above, at one with the air, the sky and all of humanity. That image soothes my troubled mind when I see so much of strife around.
The Lost Generation, reminded me of the book Until The Lions, written by Karthika Nair, which took a look at the Mahabharat from the point of view of a number of marginalized characters. Nidhi’s book too views life through the lens of certain sections of society, which makes us stop for a moment and think about our lives vis-à-vis theirs. While India is poised to leap into the future on wings of digital advancement and technological breakthroughs, it is imperative to understand that we are also a country with bhistiwallahs and rudaalis who need to be assimilated into the development process. They are an integral part of the mosaic that forms our country and we cannot afford to leave them behind. All these vanishing professions are like islands around which an ever changing world rushes tumultuously. They are reduced to being mere spectators who see the land on which they are perched getting smaller and smaller.
The author is remarkably non-judgmental throughout. She could have ranted at length on the societal and governmental apathy towards these sections of society. But she has shown immense restraint and has served only as a magnifying glass to draw attention to their life and challenges. This helps me as a reader to form my own opinions and pay more attention to the ittarwallahs and his ilk. We are not side tracked into anything that detracts from their essence.
My only tiny regret is the picture on the cover (a caricaturist depiction of grinning teeth) which I feel does not do any justice to the sensitive nature of the contents. The picture seems to trivialize the seriousness of the effort taken by the author and I personally feel that it does not add any value to this wonderful piece of writing which serves as a historical record as well as a fascinating tale. A splendid attempt to decipher the lives of vanishing sections of society whose existence will ultimately be reduced to mere mentions in historical tomes. I’ll leave you with the words of the Letter Writer of Bombay, a poignant statement which mirrors his weariness with life. ” I have too many secrets within me and cannot hold any more.”
Thank you Nidhi for sending me this book for an honest, unbiased review !