Paperback: 327 pages
Publisher: Om Books International (June 10, 2015)
Dimensions: 7.9 x 5.1 x 0.6 inches
Once we dreamt that we were strangers.
We wake up to find that we were dear to each other.
The house where I grew up in northern India had eight entryways, some wide and welcoming, others narrow and inconspicuous. Early every morning, before the dudhwala had delivered fresh milk to the kitchen or the newspaperwala had tossed that day’s neatly folded edition of the Times of India onto our dew-covered front lawn, my arthritic grandmother would shuffle from room to room to unlock (and in some cases merely unlatch) all eight doors leading outside, opening my childhood home to those whom I came to know as “The Invisibles.”
Throughout the course of the day one could expect periodic visitations by these Invisibles, each of whom was allowed to enter the home by one specially designated threshold, and each for a specific purpose. Some of them, like the presswali dropping off a load of freshly ironed clothes, were required to ring the back doorbell before being granted entry to the premises; while others, like the safaiwali whose job was to clean the house, freely sauntered in via the front foyer with a loud, lilting “Namaste!” to announce her arrival.
As a child from one of the more privileged classes, I did not really take much notice of the numerous walas and walis entering and exiting the house all day. Nor was I supposed to—at least according to the conventions of that time and place imposed as much upon me as upon them. Though they labored tirelessly and without complaint on my family’s behalf, those indispensable providers of service and peddlers of goods occupied the lowest rungs of Indian society and thus remained strangers practically unknown to me. Such is the nature of the ancient caste system in India, which persists to this day in assigning rigid roles, social status, and economic value to individuals based solely on the pedigree of one’s birth. The legions of men and women and even children who work with their hands and make things and take care of the physical needs of others are considered too insignificant to be noticed.
Yet they are found everywhere: toiling in the sanctuary of private homes, transporting people and property, repairing what is broken, vending cheap food along busy thoroughfares, and hawking their wares in noisy bazaars. Often they do not even possess the trivial luxury of distinct names but are known only by their trade or occupation. They make their presence felt primarily by attending to those routine necessities of daily life that their employers and customers will not or cannot manage for themselves. They are the unremarked but remarkable ordinary people without whom the countless small amenities of civil society would simply disappear. Nevertheless, their only honorific is the suffix wala or wali attached to the label denoting the means by which they earn their meager livelihood.
For a long time, I knew nothing of their privations or aspirations. A child, however, does not remain a child indefinitely. As I grew older I began to see these Invisibles not as nameless strangers but as people whose acquaintance I had not yet made, subject to the same joys, sorrows, hopes, and fears as those born more fortunate. I came to realize that the strict lines of demarcation that set us apart were just that: lines, and not insuperable stone walls.
Interwoven across the burgeoning cities and rural towns of India, this collection of eight stories, like the doorways of my childhood home, may provide an illuminating glimpse into the parallel lives of the privileged and penniless, zeroing in on the moments when the gap between the parallels vanishes, along with the distinctions inherent in the preordained roles of master and servant. It is in those moments when boundaries blur, when barriers are broken down by compassion or contempt, and lines are crossed to serve a greater purpose — an unthinkable, unexpected purpose — that we meet the characters in this book.
As the title of every story suggests, these walas and walis take center stage as the real protagonists of the collection. I claim no intimate familiarity with the true weight of their toil or the quotidian details of their exacting lives, but I recognize and salute their industriousness, invincible grit, and dogged sense of purpose. The narrative steers away from the frequently documented pathos of street life in India, focusing instead on the conflicts and conundrums that challenge us all, regardless of place, purse, or prestige. Although the cultural terrain depicted here may seem at times somewhat alien to a Western audience, the paths laid out before these characters, the obstacles they encounter, and the resolutions they achieve have universal resonance among all who share the experience of being human.
“The servants are not lesser beings; they are just like us,” my grandmother would often remind me. Indeed, in all the ways that matter, I am no different from them.
Even this kahaniwali—the humble teller of tales—can see that now.