There are many reasons why you should read this book but two stand out: one, it makes you wish you had written it because it was a topic waiting to be written about; and two, it fills you with nostalgia without even remotely trying to do so. No one who reads this will be left unmoved as he or she harks back to the past, and not such a distant one. As one reviewer described it, it is a wistful book which reminds us of how all the little things we had taken for granted have disappeared or are disappearing without our even noticing.
Nidhi Dugar Kundalia writes in a simple, accurate and evocative way. As a journalist, she has adopted the reporting style of description, background and interviews. The stories that emerge are touching. She covers professions like the bhishti (waterman) who used to provide water where needed; the boat makers of Bengal, the rudalis (professional mourners, all female) of Rajasthan who stood in for upper caste women not allowed to break purdah; the letter writers of Bombay who are fast becoming irrelevant as India becomes literate; the ittar (scent) wallas of Hyderabad who are giving way to deodorants; the Urdu scribes of Delhi; the keepers of the genealogy in Haridwar; the street dentists whom one used to regard with a shudder; and so on.
There are many professions that have vanished. She has written about a mere eleven of the professions that have vanished. But there are many, many more waiting to be written about. For example, the men who used to repair and tighten the old string and nivar cots when they began to sag; the men who, to remove the lumpiness, would open the rajais and beat the cotton with their harp-like instruments before filling the rajai again; the men who used to put kalai on the bartans (cooking vessels); the guys who used to clean your ears; and so on. It is a very long list.
Some of the professions the author laments are not strictly professions. For instance, the kabootarbaaz of Delhi (pigeon racers) and the storytellers of Andhra. True, these people earned a living but that was sporadic and sometimes even annual. But they were part of the social scenery and an integral aspect of life in those days. Their dwindling numbers are surely a reason for sadness. Another lifestyle swallowed up by T20 and television.
Everyone knows these professions were caste-based. As you read, two questions occur to you: what kind of a society was it that ordained and ordered generation after generation of people to do the same thing forever; and what are these people doing now? Has the disappearance of their profession led to a change in their caste also? What caste would be assigned today to a driver or a computer-wallah?
And, god forbid, if you are an economist, you will wonder if the caste system was not, after all, a system of distributing GDP more equitably because everyone could make a living by doing very small but very necessary things, including ear-cleaning. Was not the social inequity balanced by economic equity?
It was a low-level equilibrium, but equilibrium it was nevertheless. Everyone had a clearly defined function in the village or town, for which he or she was paid, in kind usually. But as those functions disappear into the mists of time and along with them the livelihoods they generated, India will have to cope with a new sort of labour market disequilibrium in which labour is homogenous and no one knows what he or she is supposed to do.