The Earwax Cleaner of Lodhi Garden

Invisibles

The Earwax Cleaner of Lodhi Garden

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wiry, young man with pointed sideburns and a well-oiled mop of brownish hair, frequents the park close to where I live. Dressed in ill-fitting trousers and oversized full-sleeved shirts, a leather satchel on one side, he has a ball of cotton wool stuck behind his right ear, and a sharp needle, about six inches long, over the left.

Twenty rupees is the asking price to have my ears cleaned, the dazzling kind of clean that J&J earbuds will never achieve, in full public view. I’m shy, but the offer of sparkling clean ears is seductive.

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His name is Mohan and he comes from a proud line of khandani earwax cleaners. “My dad still does it,” he tells me “but you may not have seen him because his area is different. I do it in this part of Delhi.”

The first of his tools is a small bottle of hertrazan, which looks suspiciously like hydrogen peroxide. Then come bits of cotton wool rolled up in balls and strips of cloth. Finally, with the dramatic flourish of a magician arriving at his final act, Mohan removes from behind his ear, his main tool, the needle.

“Pure brass, no iron, so there is no fear of infection,” he says, holding it up in the sunshine like a family heirloom. “My father gave it to me.” His bequest is terrifying but his confidence in his craft is comforting. I’m now seriously tempted to submit my ears to his ministrations.

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Mohan looks barely 18 but has been cleaning ears for five years now. His future plans are to clean earwax with increased dedication and hard work. “I want to become a very big man,” he says, his voice sombre. “But only by cleaning ears.” When I ask him how he plans to do this, he explains it to me as if I’m a bit of an idiot for not seeing the obvious: “Sahib, I earn ₹100 per day, my father earns ₹400,” he says. “We have our own room in the village not far from here, and end up spending about ₹200 per day. We save the rest. In 10 years we will be very rich. Then I will buy a big house and a car like all you people.” Simple.

I’m really beginning to like this guy.

Mohan is Kid Number 3 in a family of five brothers and two sisters. When I ask him about them he says flatly, “I avoid them because if I don’t, one day I will kill them.”

“Why,” I ask, alarmed.

“My brother’s wife threatened my mother that she will urinate on my mother’s head.”

“That’s bad manners,” I reply.

“Yes, because only my mother can urinate on her head, not the other way around,” he explains earnestly.

“I want to become a very big man, but only by cleaning ears.”

His brothers are a disappointment to him because they don’t follow the khandani line of work. They repair zippers on bags and shoes for a living. That’s a sell-out as far as he’s concerned: Abandoning an ancient craft and taking up cheap commerce is a travesty.

I could chat with him all day, but Mohan, sensing that I am not buying his shiny-sparkly ears pitch, decides my time is up and repacks his tools. “Sahib, now I’ve to go to the police inspector’s house. He is expecting me at 1 pm.”

“Policeman? Does he pay?”

“He always does, sahib. And he works 20 hours a day. He is a good man. Ever since I have met him, I’ve wanted to be a policeman too. But cleaning wax is our khandani job and I will never give it up.”

I plead for a few more minutes. I need to understand why he loves cleaning ears. Is this what he wants his children to do? I tell him about the Modi government’s initiative of training the daughters of sanitation workers as taxi drivers. Surely he wants a better life for his kids than have them fiddling inside someone’s ear?

“Why?” he asks me, unimpressed by my idea. “I think we are contributing to the Swachh Bharat mission. Everyone is busy cleaning the streets, we are cleaning souls. We are purifying what people hear, because only then will they speak pure,” says Mohan, unabashedly glorifying his contribution to the world in a way that would make the guys at J&J blush.

Mohan is from the nat jati, the nomadic north Indian tribe known for entertaining people through jugglery, folk music, magic, and by helping with funerals. A scheduled caste community, many nats claim to be Brahmins and Rajputs and use similar surnames. Mohan however, takes no such refuge. His caste, his identity sit within him peaceably.

I have so many questions for this young man. Here is an uneducated earwax cleaner from a marginalised community peacefully making his living by the side of the road. Why is he not grasping for more? Seeking to improve his lot? Isn’t that the survival code of the city? My distress must have shown on my face because Mohan stands up to reassure me before departing, “I’m getting married in two months. My father has seen the girl. We will be a happy family and after 10 years we will be rich. You just wait and watch.”

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