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The Lost Generation: Chronicling India's Dying Professions

On August 20,2016, The Society of International Law and Policy invited Ms. Nidhi Dugar Kundalia, a young journalist based in Kolkata to deliver a talk about her first book, titled,“The Lost Generation: Chronicling India’s Dying Professions”. Ms. Nidhi Dugar Kundalia has written for newspapers like The Hindu and The Times of India and also magazines such as Kindle and Open, on topics such as society, sub culture and cultural oddities. In her book, “The Lost Generation: Chronicling India’s Dying Professions”, she traces vanishing professions, such as the kabootarbaaz (pigeon breeders) of Delhi, or the rudaalis of Rajasthan.

During the session, she talked about the different professions that she had written about in her book. She told us about how the kabootarbaaz, otherwise a tough and intimidating man, was extremely tender with his pigeons. She also mentioned how the letter writers of Bombay had told her that married men sent extremely short letters to their wives while unmarried men who were sending letters to their lovers wanted the letter writer to write very lengthy ones along with songs and poems. She recounted how she had traced her ancestry with the help of the genealogists or the pandas of Hardiwar.

Her account of these ancient and dying professions gave us wonderful insight into a world about which we have very limited ideas. In today’s age of mobile phones and television sets, we hardly feel the need for the Burrakatha, story-tellers to entertain us through their renditions of stories poems and songs or for the Urdu scribes or calligraphers when we can use printers and computers or even for the ittar wallahs when we have cheap synthetic perfumes. However, the charm of these professions kept us enthralled as we listened to her while she gave us a peek into an enchanting and magical world of yester years.

However, she did not just give us a rose-tinted image of these professions, which are facing extinction, but also acquainted us with the reality that most of the people practising such professions did so by virtue of the caste that they were born in, like the rudaalis, the professional mourners of Rajasthan, who belong to the lower castes because high caste women did not cry in front of commoners or the pandas who are upper caste Brahmins.

Her accounts of these professions not only ignite nostalgia but also make us wonder about the fragility of the human condition. The street dentists of Baroda who cater to the poor, are legally banned. Burrakathas who can enrapture you with their oral storytelling, survive on rats and rice and their children fill their stomachs through manual scavenging, The rudaalis who also serve as mistresses to thakurs have their babies killed if they give birth to girl children.

On being asked whether these professionals have a sense of pride regarding their professions or if they know that they will probably be the last generation practising these professions, Nidhi tells us that the pride that they associate with their professions is directly proportional to their caste and their economic conditions. While the bhishiwallahs are better off than rudaalis, they take more pride in their profession. In fact, the rudaalis do not even feel comfortable discussing their work. Nidhi tells us that it took her a day to get a rudaali to talk. She tells us that even those who are proud of their professions, do not want to pass it on to their children. They realise that the world is changing and they want to be a part of the modern world.

Nidhi agrees that these professions are anachronistic in the modern world and that they are meant to die. Nonetheless, she tells us that that it would be nice if the government could develop these occupations into cultural legacies instead of treating them as anthropological studies.

In conclusion, she told us that her book was not written to answer any questions or come to any conclusions. She wants us readers to read the book, and look at these vanishing professions through our own perspectives. We were told that the book was not written as a commentary on these professions but instead, it was written in the form of a narrative non-fiction, recording the stories of those that she interviewed. She only gave her own perspective occasionally. According to her, the book raises questions about the vulnerability and fragility of the human condition and it is for the readers to explore such questions and answer them for themselves.

Nidhi chronicled the tales of her travels across the country and urged us as future lawyers to travel as she did. She told us that we must have first-hand knowledge about the people for whom we will make laws and for whose rights we will fight. She refrained from passing any judgement, but left us thinking hard about caste, gender and economic inequalities while also making us recognise the other-worldly charm of these age-old but almost extinct professions.

by Adrija Ghosh


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