The Lost Generation by Nidhi Dugar Kundalia chronicles the professions that used to be mainstream. But are on the verge of dying. Some of them can be declared dead. While others slowly and painfully moving towards their end. My generation is probably the last one to see their work. Though I do not recall using any of these services in my lifetime too.
Nidhi Dugar Kundalia through her stories of these erstwhile professions takes you through the remote corners of the country. From Tattoo artists of Jharkhand to Rudalis or professional mourners of Rajasthan. Genealogists of Haridwar to storytellers of Telangana to dentists of Vadodara. Boat makers and bhisti wallas or water carriers in Bengal. To letter writers in Bombay to perfume makers of Hyderabad. And she returns twice to Delhi for pigeon owners and calligraphers.
Each story of The Lost Generation has a protagonist, a last surviving member of a professional tribe that would have thrived and whose time to go has come. Nidhi Dugar Kundalia begins by etching out the current state and environment of the protagonist. And then she moves on with the conversation that gives you insights into the history of the profession and some key insights into their work and life.
What comes out consistently in each story is the inherent knowledge that each of these people had about their work. And how they intuitively learned it from either their parents or their masters. For example in the Kabootarbaaz story from the rooftop of old Delhi, you learn so much about what goes into training and maintaining pigeons. And how well versed the owners are with each of their birds. They know exactly what to feed them and how much to feed them. How to protect them from diseases, how to breed them or prevent them from breeding. In a crowd of identical looking birds, they can identify their own. And while the modern animal rights activists fight against them – they are as passionate about their birds an artist is about his or her art.
Similarly, the boat makers story talks about the deep knowledge of wood and its relationship with water. In the Tattoo story, you learn about the cultural relevance of tattoos on a girl’s body and how each one of them has unique markers on their body. Strange that the tattoo culture is so much in rage in hippie dominated areas and urban areas while the original artists in hinterlands are on the verge of extinction.
The story of Rudalis brings out the social structure of a society in which they exist. It is hard to believe that a parallel social structure exists in the same country that we live in. Calligraphers of Delhi are so well connected that they know about calligraphy festivals in Japan – talk of professional networks. From the letter writer’s story I learned that it was a recognized profession by the government of India and letter writers was issued a license to sit outside post offices and write letters for those could not read and write and they lost their relevance when the mobile phones became ubiquitous. This story tells you of the secrets these guys got to read and write and how they could manipulate the content based on their judgment or fancies.
The author follows a set format for each story; of course, stories do introduce their own twists and turns. You feel sorry for each story, even when you understand change is the only constant and many such generations of professions have died before this and many will die after this. Having said that, I did enjoy reading each of the stories in the book.
Language is nice, not the basic simple English that you get to read most often these days. The author uses her craft of storytelling very well. She brings out the emotions very strongly – though I wish she were a bit cheerful at times. Chapters are small and you can read a couple of them in one sitting.
Read The Lost Generation to know the recent history through the professions that thrived in it.