Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ustiwalas: The vanishing profession in Kolkata

With the passage of time everything that we see around us vanishes in the darkness of past. We love to stay in present and dream of a sweet future. Past haunts us, so we prefer to run away from it, ignoring the fact that lot is lost in the process.

Kolkata, or the colonial Calcutta has come a long way from the time it was bought by Job Charnock from the then Zamindars of Bengal and has now transformed into one of the fascinating cities in the world. Once a remote village, then Calcutta slowly became the capital of India holding the hands of British Empire. The Britishers changed it into one of the most important centres of medical, education, cultural and financial hub in India. Every day large number of people from different sections of the society entered Calcutta through the Calcutta Port. It started bustling with lots of activities. Traders from other parts of India and the rest of the World visited Calcutta to explore a new market. Gradually, the city started expanding manifold. New buildings, offices, schools, universities, medical institution and recreational centres were created to keep up with the growing demand.

New professions were also created to keep the city administration run successfully. One such profession was the Kerani babu or Clerk in modern day who were assigned to keep records and look into the accounts of the administration. This is one profession that has survived till now escaping the wrath of time victoriously. The British has left India long ago but the Kerani babus are still dominating the Government offices such Writers Building, New Secretariat and several other key govt. departments.

But there is one profession, which is almost standing on the verge of extinction. They are the Ustiwalas. This is one unique profession about which very few had any idea. At present there are very few Ustiwalas to be found in the whole city. Basically they earn their living by carrying water. They had derived their unique name from the usti or a hand made leather bag that is made from the skin of goat or cow. The leak proof bag look like a long neck pitcher. The bag has a leather handle for carrying on shoulder. The Ustiwalas fill their usti from any street side source of water, preferably hand pump. They then tie the mouth of the usti and carry the water to their customer. These Ustiwalas earn very little, around forty to fifty rupees a day and finds it hard to survive with their family.

But in the colonial Calcutta, these Ustiwalas had a different role to play. They were not appointed to carry drinking water as their usti was made from animal skin. Instead they used to carry water from the Ganga and nearby ponds to clean the roads early in the morning. Large numbers of Ustiwalas were appointed for this job. Generally these people are Muslims who belong from the same family and had a separate community of their own. They mainly lived in the then old Chitpur and in the adjacent localities.

The Ustiwalas should not be mistaken with the typical Bharis (mainly Odiya) of today who carry fresh drinking water from tube well and supply it to household. Nowadays these Ustiwalas can be found in limited areas of Kolkata fighting everyday to feed their family.

In near future there will be an attempt to post an interview along with a relevant picture of an Ustiwala who work in the Mirza Galib Street of Kolkata. Readers will get to know about their lifestyle, their inclination towards their profession and their trembling future from their own mouth.

The writer came to know about this particular profession from a book on old Kolkata written by Srijato who presently works with Anandabazar Patrika, ABP Pvt. Ltd.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a beautifuly written article which is informative as well as really interesting.
Hope to see more of such articles.