Vanishing occupations

For all I know, they all must have joined the bursting ranks of India’s unemployed or grossly under-paid manual labour force. Dozens of occupations, which were valued sources of livelihood for millions of people, have now become almost totally extinct, swallowed up by the seemingly uncontrollable phenomenon politely termed as ‘modernisation’, ‘development’ or ‘globalisation’.

Occupations that were not simply a means of survival but also a centuries’ old way of life for many have been taken over by multinational companies, rendering vast numbers of people unemployed. In cities where authorities have launched ‘beautification drives’, innumerable thousands who lived through such occupations have been driven off the streets.

Growing up in a middle-class locality in Calcutta half a century ago, many of the services that people today hop across to the impersonal neighbourhood supermarket for, were delivered, quite literally, at one’s own doorstep. There was the bread-wala, who would come to your home early in the morning on his bicycle, which was laden with loaves of freshly-baked buns and bread.

There was the doodh-wala, who’d arrive at around the same time along with his cow, which he would milk in front of you to assure that the milk wasn’t adulterated. The chhuri-wala would wander in the streets with his bicycle-wheel that he had cleverly turned into a knife-sharpening contraption. There was the sonar, the goldsmith, who’d arrive home armed with his little wooden box with glass panels, a pair of weighing scales and jewellery design books for housewives to choose from.

The barber would make his rounds of the locality with his worn-out suitcase that contained his implements. Then, there was the jhadoo-wala, who’d roam in the lanes crying out his wares. And there was the darzi, the neighbourhood tailor, who’d come home to take your measurements and to show you his sample book with the latest designs, the sari-wali, peddling her little bundle of hand-woven saris, and the dhobi (washing machines were still many years away).

There were enormous, arrestingly-handsome Kabuli-walas, money-lenders from all the way in Afghanistan, who’d come once in a while to recover their loans and to offer small amounts, at exorbitant rates of interest, to poor folks as there were hardly any banks in those days. There was the kumhar, who’d carry an enormous load of mud plates, pots, jars, and little sun-baked mud toys and piggy-banks, on his back. There was also the ubiquitous subzi-wala — in some parts of urban India he still manages to exist today, despite the allure of the hyper-market — driving his cart laden with fresh vegetables and fruit.


That was the blissful time of no TV, when children like us had other ways to entertain ourselves. On the streets of Calcutta, a host of performers provided lively entertainment for a small fee. There were jugglers and acrobats and magicians, who’d gather large crowds on street corners. Jogis or Saperas, dressed in flowing ochre robes, onion-shaped turbans, enormous ear-rings, and tell-tale, richly embroidered cloth bags and flutes shaped from dried gourds, would squat on the roadside and regale awe-struck spectators with their dancing snakes.

As did the bandar-wala, with his pair of monkeys, dressed in torn frocks and pants, and the bhalu-wala, with his miserable hirsute Himalayan black bear driven almost mad in the fierce semi-tropical Calcutta heat. There was the view-wala, who would go from house to house with his giant contraption, that had large hole-like windows, through which you could view pictures of amazing places you’d only heard of. And then, of course, there was the khilauna-wala, peddling his jumble of simple, low-cost toys that were strung together on a lengthy pole — balloons, whistles, wooden toy cars, bamboo pipes and Jacks-in-the-box, and many other such wonderful things that children like us could only rarely afford.

It was, quite literally, a different world then. We didn’t know the names of most of the men and women who came to our doorsteps to deliver these valuable services. We simply called them after their occupations — such was the hiatus which the caste system, which was still largely intact, engendered, and the vast majority of these people must have been from the so-called ‘low’ castes. But, yet, there was often something of a personal bond between us, built on the basis of regular, face-to-face interaction which could stretch over many years and which could sometimes become a close relationship.

Life was relatively unhurried and relaxed then. Time wasn’t considered to be just money, and money wasn’t considered to be almost everything, and so you didn’t think it irksome or odd or a sheer waste to spend half an hour chatting about this and that with the milkman or the dhobi the first thing in the morning.

And you didn’t think twice to help the subzi-wala who had been visiting your home, day after day for over a decade, with money when he needed it for an operation that his father was to undergo. It wasn’t at all like today, where you step into a supermarket, hurriedly purchase whatever you need, hand over your credit card to a wooden-faced employee whom you don’t know or want to recognise, and then slip out, without a smile or a few polite words or even a thanks exchanged between the two of you, the process being entirely mechanical and strictly impersonal.

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