Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Lost Service Providers of Bombay

The way we live and work undergoes significant change over time. Occupations that once flourished are now mostly forgotten as they do not contribute to the livelihood of most people anymore. Here are 4 such trades that once employed many in Bombay but are no longer relevant today.

All those who have visited the General Post Office before the proliferation of mobile phones would have noticed men perched on a stool on a pavement nearby, with some postal stationery, a pen, bottle of glue, stapler and seals. These men helped connect millions of migrants with their families back home through India’s vast postal network. Even locals unable to pen letters themselves used the services of these Professional Letter Writers. For a small fee, these writers would write letters in Hindi, Urdu, English and other native languages informing family, relatives and friends of happy occasions, sad news, promotions, ill health, money matters or on any issue their customers wanted to pour their heart out. In the absence of telephones in most parts of rural India, letters were the only means of communication for many poor people. The writers also doubled up as letter readers since an incoming letter had to be read should the receiver not be able to do so. And often, a reply to be given. Besides writing letters, they also helped customers send money orders, telegrams and invest in postal savings. Truly, they were the only link between many a lonely migrant and his family back home.

With the arrival of the mobile phone, its easy availability and affordability, almost everyone was soon connected. Thus the need to write letters to connect and communicate became redundant. As a result, the business of professional letter writers suffered. With the telegram and the postal money order discontinued, most of them have moved away from this profession, whilst others continue to eke out a living by stitching and sealing parcels, and writing that odd letter.

A visit to the kitchen today would reveal that steel and aluminium have replaced copper and brass vessels. Whilst elders waxed about the health benefits of cooking and having meals in copper and brass vessels, these vessels required regular maintenance. Once every few months, they had to be given a coating of tin to prevent the oxidization which occurred due to moisture. Besides, brass and copper also react to souring agents in the food. This is where the Kalaiwala or the Kalaigar came in. A travelling service provider, often accompanied by an assistant, he would move in different parts of the city advertising his services with a loud, elongated shout, Kalaaai. The process of tinning required a strip of tin, caustic soda and aluminium chloride. The vessel was first cleaned with caustic soda and water, then heated on coals fired up with air pumped from bellows. Once the vessel was hot aluminium chloride powder was sprinkled on the inside of the vessel and polished with a strip of tin using cotton cloth. The tin would melt leaving behind a fine film that would shine like silver. And the vessel was good to use for a few more months.  

Steel or aluminium vessels on the other hand do not require tinning and are easy to clean. Besides, with people staying in high rises and the lady of the house often out at work, the option of using copper or brass vessels which require regular tinning is not practical anymore.  

Today, when we want to spice up our food all we have to do is to open a packet of ground, powdered spices. But, not so a few decades ago when whole spices were purchased, dried and then ground at home, either by a member of the family or by professional spice grinders, usually women who would move from house to house with a wooden mortar and pestle. They would operate in groups of 2 or 3 and would pound the spice all at the same time but in turn. And the pounding sound would have a rhythmic beat to it. The whole spices would first be piled into the high walled mortar and then each lady would pound it with a long wooden pestle alternately until the spice was finely ground. This work was not only tiring but also detrimental to health. The ladies would cover their faces to avoid breathing in the finely powdered, but often pungent, spices. Whilst this service may still be available in rural areas, these ladies known as Masala Pisnewali Bais are no longer to be seen in Mumbai. Easy availability of a variety of powdered spices, both plain as well as blended, means that we do not need to stock up on whole spices and then grind them. And for those who want to do so, the electric mixer-grinder is always on hand.

Here is one profession that is still around but dying a slow death. The cotton carder or the Pinjari was the most visible of the four. In some places Pinjaris were also referred to as Dhuniyas and Bahnas. And they ensured that one had a good night's sleep on a soft cotton mattress or that we sat in comfort on our chairs and sofas before foam replaced cotton in furnishings. Pinjaris too roamed the towns and cities looking to redo mattresses and pillows, carding cotton by hand with the help of shaped wooden bow-like instrument with a metal wire drawn across diagonally and a mallet. This instrument also served as a calling card to advertise their services. A pull of this wire produced a Twang like sound which would draw the attention of people around. The Pinjari would open up mattresses, quilts and pillows, remove the lumpy cotton within and pass the instrument through it to separate the fibres thereby restoring its fluffiness. Some also upholstered chairs and sofas besides carding cotton. With the arrival of Rubber and PU foam cotton was no longer the preferred choice for beddings and furnishings. Some Pinjaris upgraded themselves to mattress dealers in keeping with the changing times whilst many others realised that their children were reluctant to take up this profession thus leading to its slow oblivion.

However, all is not lost. We have others, like the Bhangarwala / Kabadiwala who helps us rid our homes of  unwanted stuff , the Churiwala who sharpens knives and scissors and the Bhishti who quenches our thirst from the water in his goat skin pouch, still roaming the streets of Mumbai and reminding us of the itinerant service providers of days gone by.


Satyen was a conscientious employee and had spent close to a quarter century in a private bank. A devoted family man, he found solace in his...