Going, gone


Nidhi Dugar Kundalia's book, The Lost Generation—Chronicling India's Dying Professions, is rich in delightful insights

Nidhi Dugar Kundalia's fascination for things from the past is the most striking aspect of the book, The Lost Generation—Chronicling India's Dying Professions. Though there is a tinge of emotion in the title, Kundalia's narration is matter of fact. And, her mastery over the subject shows in her writing.

A Kolkata-based journalist, Kundalia chronicles practitioners of 11 dying professions in this highly readable book. The immense research she has done is evident in the delightful insights she provides in each story. And, the book leaves a reader amazed by the vastness of Indian culture. Extracts from the book:

The Genealogists of Haridwar

Haridwar is a pilgrimage site for Hindus to cremate their kinfolk and meet the Pandas—priests who double up as genealogists. They are in charge of the family register, of updating the family's genealogical tree with details of marriages, births and deaths.

The Pandas also arrange religious ceremonies for their clients and solemnize certain life-cycle rituals such as death ceremonies. The reason for their existence has to do with the Hindu belief that the family is everlasting and comprehensive and that each Hindu must look out for his ancestors and perform ceremonies for their journey after death to heaven.

In the spiderweb of little roads, Mahendra Kumar Panda, dressed in a white kurta, sits within a tube-light-lit box of a room on a mattress. He is a rotund, serious old man in his mid-sixties, with a vermillion tilak seen somewhere between the wrinkles on his forehead. Mathri bai from Bikaner has come to make offerings in memory of her dead husband. The grey eyes in her dull and time-worn face fill with tears. 'I can now die peacefully', she says, sighing heavily as the Panda pockets a thick wad of cash.

For six years, Mathri bai had essentially walled herself in her hut after her husband passed away. This frail white sari-draped widowed woman denied herself the joys of watching her grandchildren grow, of the everyday sun, all because her financial status did not let her perform the customary last rites for her husband in Haridwar. The travel was expensive and her family Panda had to be offered a donation worthy of her family's high-caste social background. So for those six years, she was absorbed in a religious reverie of pujas and bhajans within the four walls of her room while her thoughts circled around a sin so horrific that she was convinced she would go to hell for it.

Mathri bai finally took a loan from her younger sister to reach Haridwar, and once inside the alley, she was able to locate her family Panda amongst the thousand such men—so well networked are these men. The moment she entered the road, strangers barraged her with the mandatory questions asked of anyone who wants to search for a Panda in Haridwar.

'Which village did your ancestors belong to?' 'What is your husband's gotra [clan]?'

Once she answered the questions, the strangers pointed out Mahendra Kumar's office amidst the other Pandas chambers.

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On one wall of the room, alongside fat lizards, dust-ridden, garlanded black-and-white portraits of two stern-looking moustachioed men hang. 'My father, Sitaramji Panda, and his father, Ramnathji Panda', Mahendra says, looking up at his ancestors; their watchful eyes seem to be shrewdly scrutinizing his, bestowing a latent chill to the otherwise balmy room. Mahendra grunts at them, as if admonishing them for prying, and then settles deeper into the mattress, firmly asserting his place in his ancestors' room.

'These genealogical registers have been with our family for many generations,' he reveals, his gravelly voice thick with indignation. 'You'll find us and our like in most pilgrimage places like Kashi, Varanasi, Gaya, but Haridwar continues to remain the most comprehensive and well-preserved repository,' he proudly adds, his large, soft-looking stomach moving in tandem with his speech.

The Rudaalis of Rajasthan

We get back on to the roads by afternoon, crossing alternate acres of rocky and sandy ground. The delicate violet flowers of the aak tree, the yellow crispiness of the jharberis, the white whiskers of the snowbush—all the seeds of these deserts lie dormant, soundless, sightless, unawake; wait they must for the weather to change, for the old to be replaced by the new. The dunes are lit a bright orange by now, undulating ridges set by hot winds, and criss-crossed by the large tracks of desert jeeps, a few camel trails and the smaller, stranger ones of a scorpion trudging across the sand.

A young man from the Meena community is almost at his deathbed in a nearby village, the Thakurs chela had informed us. 'The Meena is an upper-caste community. The rudaalis have already assembled outside his home. The village isn't far, about six kilometres from here,' he'd said, pointing southwards. We drive into the quiet village with a few mud and straw homes in sight, all scattered across the mud yellowed terrain. Most of the huts face away from the wind blowing in from the deserts, each of them closed within a mud wall which is short and pocked with holes. Parched khejri trees and bare methi jhaar offer feeble relief from the sun with their scanty shade. Barefoot children play on the street, rolling a mud ball with a stick. They stop skipping around when they see us and watch us curiously as we come to a halt.

'Have you come for Kundan Kakosa?' inquires one of them, coming forward. 'Go there.' He points his stick in the direction of a two-storeyed pukka house, but follows us nevertheless, guiding us around his village. It is the only pukka house in the village, outside which a small group of people have gathered. Among the party are several men whose white cotton dhotis are fluttering in the hot wind. There is a cripple who usually begs outside the village temple, manoeuvring himself on his hands, hoping to procure some alms from the gathering. The sarpanch is a square-shouldered man whose expression speaks of restlessness. He is inquiring into Kundan's farmlands and asking after the deceased's inebriated son who was being given glasses of lemon water to rid him of his hangover so as to make him able enough to perform his father's last rites. The women squat separately on the ground.

Three rudaalis stand out among the crowd, dressed in black odhnis while the rest of the women sit with their long, colourful veils drawn down to their chins. They all look into the hut where Kundan has been placed on a bed of sacred kusa grass, on a spot circled by cow dung.

A few male relatives hover above Kundan while a pandit places a sprig of tulsi and pours a few drops of water from the Ganga river into his mouth to delay the messengers of Yama, the god of death. A cow is brought to stand next to him and then hurriedly pushed out moments later into the backyard through another door. Kundan was supposed to grasp the cow's tail to signify his safe carriage to the other world but before he could do so, he took his last breath. A relative feels his pulse and silently declares him dead. And the rudaalis immediately break into action.

They gasp and cry loudly, tossing their heads back, and wail to the heavens, beating their chests and slapping the ground in front of them. Their veils drop every now and then, exposing their faces and long necks tattooed with traditional symbols. Soon, thick tears start flowing, staining their cheeks with black kohl in the process, falling on to their odhnis. They don't wipe the tears away, most dry under the hot sun before fresh ones flow down. This upper-caste funeral procession is a performance with the village as its audience—of pomp and pageantry.

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The Bhisti Wallahs of Calcutta

History has often been a spectator to the bhistis, who were, in the past, adjuvant characters in the narratives of battles and epics, and are now cogs in the machinery of everyday lives. And during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the bhisti was also an altruist, according to Samuel Murray who states so in his book Seven Legs across the Sea .

Thirsty children could be seen running to the bhisti with empty cups in their hands. The bhisti would release his thumb at the mouth of the bag and placed it over the cup. The happy children would drink and walk away. A mother, with a matka in her hand, would call out to him and he would wait until she caught up him. Murray informs us that 'the Indian mother might leave with him a pie. Rain does not fall in India at certain seasons of the year for periods of five to nine months, and water is water during most of that time. Should the water-carrier pass an ox, a goat, a dog, or a horse—anything in need of water— he at once eases his thumb on the spout of the bag and relieves suffering. The bhisti, in short, practises what Red Cross societies aim to accomplish, and what churches profess to do.'

Tracing them further back in history, the bhistis were a Muslim horde from Arabia who are known to have followed the paths of Mughal ingression into India. Formerly, they served the villages and towns without any charge. But, with time, due to their popularity in the Mughal period, the bhistis adopted this as their source of revenue. Also identified as Sheikh Abbasis, they gradually suffused through the subcontinent, keeping alive their austere traditions as Sunni Muslims wherever they went, assimilating folk beliefs every now and then. Every Mohammedan family that could afford a bhisti would keep one to refill pots of fresh water from wells, lakes and rivers.

Others, meanwhile, bought mashqs of water from them when required. Hindus had pani wallahs who provided a similar service, walking around with earthen pots. They were mostly Brahmins—upper-caste figures who also prayed and cleaned their sins regularly in holy water so that the water could be accessed by Hindus of all castes.

It wasn't long before the bhistis broke up into a number of clans, or biradaris— a few being Abbasi, Faruqi, Turkee and Bahlim. In the northern regions they appeared during Akbar's regime as the Abbasis who were the water bearers for the Mughal armies.

When Nawazuddin recalls their history, as told to him by his father, he speaks with gratification. 'My great grandfather served the troops in the late-eighteenth century. The bhistis would follow them into the battlefields. Every time a soldier was injured, he'd crouch beside him, make a skin-cup with one of his hands and wet his lips.' Covered wagons, cavalries, foot soldiers, messengers on agile horses, gunmen, bonneted sweethearts—all moved around with the troops through war zones and cantonments; and among them would be the bhisti wallahs. In the infantry, a few would move along with every company, as would the barber and the washerman. The bhisti wallahs would escort the troops on their march, filling water in the mashqs from rivulets, cool streams in the forests or village wells as they sang the water-drawing songs of their tribes.


Perhaps the most famous bhisti wallah in history is Ninam Saqqa. Lore has it that the second Mughal emperor Humayun, while he was still young trying to amalgamate the annexations made by Babar, was apprehensive of the complex river system of the subcontinent as they caused the loss of lives and farmers' livelihoods. His reservations were not unsubstantiated. After being treacherously conquered by Sher Shah on the banks of the Ganges near Benares, he barely managed to save his life in the inundated Ganga, all thanks to a bhisti wallah who supported him on his buoyant water-skin. Humayun rewarded the bhisti by allowing him to become king for a day—glorifying the bhistis—and the name Nizam Saqqa lives on.

The Lost Generation—Chronicling India's Dying Professions
By Nidhi Dugar Kundalia
Published by Random House India
Price Rs 350; Pages 246

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