by Sylvester Monroe
Asst. Foreign Editor at The Washington Post
I did not know much about India before I met Reetika Khanna Nijhawan. In fact, our first meeting in 2004—to talk about her initial assignment as a freelance writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where I was an editor—showed just how little.
I do not know what I expected when I met her at the newspaper security desk. But it certainly wasn’t the attractive young woman I initially looked right past as she stood there waiting in the lobby. Except for a few newsroom colleagues at work, the extent of my experience with Indians had been extremely limited—mainly brief, stereotypical encounters with highly skilled information technologists at one extreme; and taxi drivers, convenience store workers, and motel managers at the other.
Getting to know Reetika and her family over the past decade greatly expanded my understanding and appreciation of India and Indians. Reading Reetika’s prose has opened a whole new world. And with Kismetwali &Other Stories, she has taken me even deeper into a part of that world few outsiders ever get to see. It is the world of the walis and walas, the Indian underclass born and reared into the service of others. They are the barbers (shavewalas), the cab drivers (taxiwalas), the cleaning ladies (safaiwalis), kebab vendors (kebabwalas), and others who toil in oblivion, while yet enriching the lives of those they serve in imperceptible ways.
A child of India’s more privileged class, Reetika has shared stories about what it was like growing up in a house in northern India, where she and her family routinely received the sundry services of the people she called ‘the invisibles.’
“Early every morning, before the newspaperwala had tossed that day’s neatly folded edition of the Times of India onto our front lawn, my arthritic grandmother would shuffle from room to room to unlock all eight doors to the house, opening my childhood home to the invisibles,” she told me. “Each of them was allowed to enter the house by one specially designated threshold, and each for a specific purpose. Some of them, like the presswalidropping 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.”
Reetika said she paid little attention to the comings and goings of the legions of men, women and even children who made their living working in the sanctuary of private homes, taking care of the physical needs of others, transporting people and property, repairing what is broken, vending cheap food along busy thoroughfares and hawking their wares in noisy bazaars. Often, they 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 waliattached to the label denoting the means by which they earn their meagre livelihood. Otherwise, they are typically considered too insignificant to be noticed. For such is the nature of the ancient caste system in India, which to this day assigns rigid roles, social status and economic value to individuals based solely on pedigree.
“For a long time I knew nothing of their privations or their dreams,” she said. “But a child does not remain a child forever. As I grew older, I began to see these invisibles not as nameless strangers but as people whose acquaintance I had not yet made. Indigent men, women and children subject to the same joys, sorrows, hopes, and fears as those born more fortunate. I came to realise that the strict lines of demarcation that set us apart were just that—lines, and not insuperable stone walls.”
India’s iconic leaders Mohandas Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. understood this better than most. “We cannot all be famous because we cannot all be well known,” Dr. King said. “But we can all be great because we can all serve.” In this remarkable collection of stories, the author shares with the reader small slices of that particular greatness, putting names and faces to nearly anonymous individuals who impact the lives of others in seemingly small, yet immensely significant ways.
The author’s grandmother would often remind her that the servants were not lesser beings. “And she was right. In all the ways that matter, I am no different from them. Even this kahaniwali—the humble teller of tales—can see that now.”
I knew nothing about this India before I read these stories. But they resonated with a remarkable relevance to my own humble beginnings as a poor inner city kid from the housing projects of Chicago, where many members of my family worked in the service industry. The stories are well told and entertaining. They strike a universal chord about how connected we are to each other, even across the fault lines of socioeconomic class and race. You do not have to be Indian to understand and appreciate these stories. You just have to be human.