Book Excerpt: The Lost Generation

21/01/2016 8:16 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Penguin Random House


A Haridwar pandit who maintains genealogical records of families for centuries; a professional mourner who has mastered the art of fake tears; a letter writer who overlooks the lies that a sex worker makes him write to her family back home. These are remnants of an India that still exists in its old streets and neighbourhoods.

In Lost Generation, Nidhi Dugar Kundalia narrates the unforgettable stories of eleven

individual professionals-- from the hauntingly beautiful rudaalis to the bizarre tasks of a street dentist--uncovering the romance, tragedy and old-world charm of India's ageing streets and its incredible living history. The following is excerpted from The Lost Generation- Chronicling India's Dying Professions by Penguin Random House available on Amazon here and Flipkart here.


To the rear of this cultural preservatory of sorts is an oval-shaped room with high ceilings and a solitary window that allows the sunlight to trickle in. The rest of the chamber has adjusted itself to this window--the walls accepting the habits of weather through the days, learning to eliminate all but the sounds of the sparrows. In a darker corner of the room, a large form--that could be merely a dusk-time shadow--lies very still. Perhaps it is an old piece of furniture covered in white, or a marble statue.

My eyes adjust to the light in the room and the shadow turns into a figure, a lean man in a skullcap, with smooth, dark tendrils of smoke for a beard, sitting on his knees, finishing his afternoon prayers. Each of his ageing but firm limbs move like they are choreographed--hands, legs and neck working in a practised fashion as he rolls the mat and adjusts his skullcap. There is no extra flutter, twitch or stretch; each movement has a purpose and no superfluous energy goes to waste. Only his neck moves as he reaches to turn on a switch, bathing himself and the room in white light, revealing the walls crammed with verses in Arabic script--billowing and drooping like waves in their wooden frames, all fashioned by him and his students.

He is a katib, a scribe and teacher of Urdu, Persian and Arabic calligraphy for over thirty years. In the packed precincts of this room, Wasim Ahmed teaches students his craft, and he works and lives to tell a saga--both story and history muddled into one.

A few handwritten posters with verses from the Koran lie beside him; the flowy, bold lettering in navy and turquoise resembling a watery paradise of rivers and springs, a paradise of a religion that emerged from the land of deserts. I caress it, admiring the lettering, when Wasim turns to me, drawing the posters away. 'Try not to touch these posters.' He frowns. 'The depiction of faces and humans is not permissible in Islam. Instead of pictures, these verses are akin to God for us,' he explains, forcing a smile. 'I am pak-saaf. I have washed and performed all the rituals of purification. I can touch them, but being a non-Muslim, you may not have followed the ritual purification,' he says, clearing his throat, his voice somewhat tortured, like a pebble-grinding machine at work.

With a brief smile, he brushes imaginary dust off the posters with his slim, ringed fingers. A pregnant silence fills the room in spite of the old fan whipping through the thick, dry air, the annoyingly happy sparrows chirruping outside and the exaggerated sounds of the sheets of paper as he wastes long minutes rolling each of them.

Moments later, the door to the room opens and a peon brings in two cups of tea. Wasim habitually lifts the cup and holds it against the tube-light to make sure the peon has cleaned it well, snubbing him for the delay in service. 'You are late as usual. I was done with namaz ten minutes ago,' he hisses at him. 'I draw these for some shaukeen men sighs, turning a little towards me, but only talking in my general direction. 'This style,' he says, pointing to a framed verse hung above his head, 'was the secret official script of the ancient Ottoman courts, and each artist had a distinct style, so much so that it could rarely be forged by someone else.'

The letters are intertwined like the threads on a delicate crochet scarf, both flawless in terms of fine design as well flawed in the slight caprices of the artist's hand. 'Each piece can take months to finish,' he continues, 'and many good, devout Muslims display them in their shops and homes. They believe that the sacred verses will bring good vibes and luck. Beautiful calligraphy always celebrates the sounds and meaning of this sacred text.'

'Do you scribe copies of the Koran as well?' I ask.

'The Koran, even a trained katib like me cannot scribe.' He frowns, shaking his head at my ignorance. 'The Koran is inscribed by huffaz, people who've learnt the Koran by rote.' They are often checked and certified by government bodies in many countries like Saudi Arabia and Iraq. 'Mostly, I copy educational books and novels that are written by others,' he explains.

'But you are still an artist,' I remark and he looks up with beady-eyed interest, as if the word conjures up the image of an enigmatic, gifted, revered genius. 'Yes,' he says after a long pause, dropping his eyes to a bottle of ink lying before him. 'I'm like an artist and this is art. There is instant reward with this work. You see the result as you move along the paper. Like painting figures on a canvas, these fine arts occur when you are alone--if not always, not always, but . . . I mean . . .' he grumbles, cursing his ageing memory that whisks words off his tongue. Closing his eyes, he searches for the right phrase, his skullcap moving up to reveal his orange hair that, at certain angles, appears to glimmer, as though fired by the thoughts in his brain.

'Sometimes, weeks, months or even years later, I smile, thinking about certain words from Allah that I scribed many eternities ago. And that thought gets my heart beating rapidly,' he says, his deep voice clearer and filled with love for his Allah, like the voice that calls out the morning azan from the dargah. 'It is like being close to Allah.'

The door swings open again, interrupting Wasim's thoughts, and he scowls in response. Twelve students walk into the room, their heads bowed; they cast a quick glance at us before flipping up the backs of their kurtas, so as not to dirty them, and sit up against the wall and hastily start their prayers before class. Wasim glowers again, as if their presence has made it difficult for him to remember things. He lifts his upper lip and flares his nostrils, a grimace that the students have learned to recognize as ominous.

Reputed to be a martinet or, at his benign best, an academic version of Aunt Polly from Tom Sawyer, Wasim has a smile that never reaches his eyes. He is an unyielding master of the script and the bane of those with poor handwriting. His mandate: To evolve from block-lettering to graceful, flowing lines and turn illegible Urdu and Arabic doodles into calligraphy. 'Round and then curve. Move your fingers carefully!' he snaps at a student who approaches him with his corrections. 'Did you practise at home?'

'No, huzoor,' the student meekly replies, hanging his head.

'This art needs your brain and heart to work together. Work harder, you get that?' he roars, tapping the desk with his knuckles, eyebrows furrowing in a serious rictus.

'Ji, huzoor.'

'Can't you say anything else?'


'Off you go,' Wasim shakes his head, scowling, 'and make sure you write that line ten times.' And then, clicking his tongue, he mutters, 'We rely on them to take our traditions forward. Deplorable!' He suddenly thunders, 'These students ask me why Urdu is written from right to left unlike English.'

A student or two peer above their boards, suddenly interested in the conversation.

'Now, how do you answer questions like that? Such dimwits. Why are humans born? Why are they being rebuilt in labs? Why repeat God's mistake?' He throws back his head and cackles with laughter.

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