It is in this spirit that I offer up the following top ten list of jobs that you should be thankful you will hopefully never have to accept in this lifetime. These dismal vocations have been gleaned from time spent in both India and Nepal, watching people work, studying their behaviour. I could have easily come up with at least another ten jobs to make it a top twenty list but I’ll leave it at ten. I am sure readers who live on or have been to the subcontinent can suggest countless other positions that would never breed a single trace of envy. Here are my choices:
10. Road sweeper
I first encountered this odd job in Himachal Pradesh, a mountainous area of India. I had just finished visiting the highest town in the world accessible by road and was heading back to the monastery where I was eating and sleeping. Along a desolate stretch, kilometres from anywhere, sweeping away with abandon were two little old ladies, hunched over, armed with traditional hand-brooms. The duo seemed so out of it, mindlessly sweeping, without anything really to sweep away save for a few pebbles and stones here and there. It was surreal. In the cities, the sweeping caste, have it more difficult. They are usually up at an ungodly hour, sweeping the streets of garbage and feces and trudging it off to some undisclosed rotting heap nearby.
Occupational hazard: airborne diseases, rats, putrid odours, having to dodge errant traffic
9. Train chai wallah
If you ride the trains in India, which is almost inevitable if you want to travel great distances throughout the country, then you will quickly come across the incessantly irritating chai tea vendors, or wallahs, usually employed by the train company to constantly harass you into purchasing a cup of sweet milky tea. The irksome chai chai chai refrain is bellowed with a tone of derision, over and over, sometimes overlapping as two or three of them pass down the aisle one after the other. For the equivalent of about ten cents, they will pour you a small thimble-like cup of tea, or the latest craze, coffee (not brewed, but instant). If you do the math and realize that the company takes its cut, you come to the unmistakable realization that you have to peddle tons of it in order to make an honest living. Never mind the rogue competition at each train stop where unauthorized wallahs hustle the drink at all hours, even well past midnight. At one time, the tea would be doled out in tiny clay cups that would then be tossed out the window, typically smashing onto the tracks. Now the tracks are littered with little white plastic goblets.
Occupational hazard: fighting through a noisy sweaty wall of people (particularly in second unreserved class where the masses are stuffed into train cars like luggage), reciting the mind-numbing sales mantra again and again for the rest of your working life
8. Bus jockey
Bus jockeys, as I call them are another ubiquitous occupation in the transportation sector. At every bus station, there is a sorry bunch of lads hollering at the tops of their lungs various destinations throughout the area, coaxing indecisive passengers on board, even forcibly guiding some of the more really indecisive individuals onto the bus. They stand behind the bus as it is backing up, hitting the side of it as a signal to the driver that all is well since the buses are usually not equipped with side mirrors (perhaps seen as unnecessary protrusions when in transit where every inch of road space counts). One hard knock signals stop. Two hard knocks signal go. Onboard, the jockey has to muscle his way through an impossibly stuffed bus, keeping track of who has paid and who is trying to swing a ride for free. I am told their wage is a mere fraction of that which the driver receives.
Occupation hazard: inhalation of exhaust fumes, falling flat on one’s face after trying to jump back on the bus as it is speeding off
Again, the tout is a ubiquitous stalwart, especially in tourist destinations where they fester like weeds. Basically hustlers, they hang around train stations, airports, bus stations and so forth in order to harass the confused and wayward into visiting expensive shops, staying at over-priced hotels, joining costly tours. They live off puny commissions and the occasional tip, so every waking moment, they are hustling in order to feed themselves. Many lives in India and Nepal are spent in this manner.
Occupational hazard: delusory developments where one grows convinced that people actually care about what is being hustled, always hungry, always chasing the dream
6. The Boy
It is customary to send ‘the boy’ out on routine affairs like standing in line or fetching tea or dashing off to the store for something. In fact, the ‘boy’ is hardly ever an actual boy, and is usually a young man with a limited education but loads of ambition. I liken this lowly position to having your own personal son doing chores and running errands for you, only that he is not related to you. His remuneration is being tolerated and not thrown out with the garbage. If he is lucky, his boss may provide a place to sleep (usually the floor in a room of the house or office or store).
Occupational hazard: constantly demeaned, having to deal with long spans of boredom
5. Rock crusher
Usually working in teams along roadsides where some blasting or excavation has already taken place, these unfortunate souls spend hours in the relentless elements chipping away at rock cuts with hammers if they are lucky or harder hand-held stones if they have been banished to Paleolithic times due to their seniority. It is the poor man’s quarry. The work is slow and beyond monotonous though there may be a certain degree of peace in the process, who knows. Rock is crushed into gravel and sold for whatever they can get for it.
Occupational hazard: falling rocks, rock dust, fingers accidentally smashed
4. Traffic director
These hapless conductors are found in maddening urban centers in intersections that reign in nothing but complete chaos. Owners of autos, ox-carts, scooters, buses, trucks, and bicycles remain undeterred by the presence of a uniformed individual blowing a whistle maniacally and flailing his arms around as if he was possessed. Absolutely no one pays attention, no one cares about the possibility to an orderly flow of traffic, including the director, who will often take longer-than-mandated breaks with his buddies in a gazebo in the center of the intersection. If no such structure exists, he can be spotted at a street-side chai stand, staring at the mess, laced with resignation. I once saw a shabby old man, who must have been demented, valiantly attempt to undertake this role in the middle of such mayhem, but as a lowly civilian volunteer with no hint of authority, many drivers just tried to run him over.
Occupational hazard: noise pollution, exhaust pollution, losing your mind within five minutes of starting
3. Cow crap patty-caker
I could not think of what else to call this enterprise. Undertaken particularly in rural areas but not unseen in urban centers, the job description of this vocation is quite simple: find clumps of drying cow manure (but not too dry) and with your bare hands fashion them into patties like children do with mud. Arrange them in neat rows out in the open or stick them to the side of a mud hut where they can get plenty of sunshine and dry out completely, transforming into an ideal source of fuel for the hearth. Gents interested in applying: sorry, but this one is typically a role for the ladies.
Occupational hazard: charging bulls clearly irritated with someone messing around with their crap
2. Public cremator
Like most of these jobs, there is a particular caste or segment of society that is entrusted with the unenviable. This undertaking is no exception. Known as the dom, these men are designated the role of tending to the flames of the funeral pyre during public cremation ceremonies routinely staged in sacred locations. Their duties are limited to arranging the firewood, keeping the fire burning, and tossing the remains (usually the hip bone) into a nearby water-source for the fish to feed on. This is perhaps one of the more lucrative positions on the list since the dom are permitted to retain any jewelry left on the corpse. They are often spotted sifting through the embers for choice keepsakes.
Occupational hazard: choking smoke and ash, the inhalation of human remains, tolerating the sketchy energy of places where souls detach from bodies
1. Latrine cleaner / sewer worker
If having to spray down and scrub public toilets in one of the most unhygienic places on the planet does not appeal to you, perhaps the other aspect of this career will. On page nine of the June 2003 edition of National Geographic, there is a photo of Amrutbhai Sarasiya. He is a dalit, a so-called untouchable. He is pasted in excrement, sitting on the edge of a manhole in Ahmedabad after completing his task of unclogging a sewer, the black gunk all over him, caking in the sun. In spite of the obvious awkwardness in having to pose for the photo, there is such an undeniable sincerity in his expression, conveying a quiet pride, a humility instead of humiliation. To imagine being photographed in this condition is heart-wrenching and thought-provoking at the same time. The photo had a huge impact on me. I have framed this photo and have nailed it to the wall of my memory banks. He is the inspiration for this list.
Occupational hazard: the obvious, must I spell out for you?
As I said, this is certainly not an exhaustive list but it offers something to chew on. Even though the tone of this list is humorous, I do admire and respect the individuals on the margins of our societies who take on the jobs everyone else is disgusted with or cannot bear to stoop to the apparent level that the job is situated at. This list is dedicated to these individuals!