Lend them an ear, won’t you?: From Mughal to Covid Era, a profession standing on its last legs, yet outliving

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Lend them an ear, won’t you?: From Mughal to Covid Era, a profession standing on its last legs, yet outliving

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From Paranthe Wali Gali to Gurduwara Sisganj Sahib, Asia’s largest wholesale market, Chandni Chowk is indeed  a hub of the latest fashion at nominal prices, bustling lanes permeated with scrumptious street food and other valuable items. Amidst this hustle-bustle, a group of four-five men, all of them donning a red skullcap and a satchel bag over their right shoulder with another towel like cloth on their left shoulder, with their hands holding some tools; standing in quest of some customers. 

On being asked as to what do they do, one of them with sparkling eyes and a cheerful personality, named Muraad Ahmed, 52, replied, “Ji Kaan-Maeliye hai hum.” 

This profession- Ear Cleaners or traditionally known as Kaan Maeliye, dates back to the Mughal Period. “Us waqt ek raja ke kaan mai gaanth (lump) bangayi thi, humare buzurgo ne usko nikaali, isi kaam se, woh itne khush huye ke ek gaon  tohfe mai dediya, bass jabhi se yeh kaam chalta aa raha hai” says Ahmed. It is also said that the Ear cleaners had a close and strong association with the Royal family, by reason of this were called ‘all-knowing’ since they had access to all the private happenings and gossips of the palace. Everyone back then used to approach them for their daily dose of inside royal gossips which used to be 100% authentic.  

Their occupation was at its glory during the Mughal Period, but with the advent of enhanced technology and changing times, it lost all of its luster and radiance, yet they have still managed to outlast. “Yeh kaam hamara pidi dar pidi  chalta aaya hai, mujhe bhi 17 saal ho chuke hai, aaj bhi log bharosa karte hai hamare kaam par” (This profession has been going on since generations in ur family. I have been doing it for 17 years and people still have trust in my work), said Ahmed. 

The procedure to clean the ear is very simple, but super effective.  Their only tools are a wad of cotton, a steel needle known as Salai, and a pair of pincers or ear picks. They wrap the cotton wad, which is soaked with an oil, around the needle and gently penetrates it into the ear to clean the excessive earwax, dust, dirt,any foreign particle or microorganisms.  The process hardly takes 10 minutes. “Hum toh apne auzaar khud apne haathon se banate hai” says Ahmed while cleaning their customer’s ear. “Subha se hi kaam pe lagjate hai, roz 11-12 log miljate hai humko, waise toh hum 30 rupey lete hai par dawai bhi dalwani ho toh 50, baaki jo insan khushi se dena chahe.”  (We make our own tools. We start in the morning and usually I get about 11 to 12 customers every day. I charge thirty rupees, an extra 50 for medicine; apart from that whatever a person wishes to give on their own goodwill)

When inquired whether the entire pandemic situation and the lockdown treated them well or not, he said, “Humlog apne gharo mai hi the, or kaafi pareshaani hui humko, rozmarra ka kaam hai hamara isiliye, or touch wala kaam bhi hai, toh log darte the. Ab lockdown hatne ke baad se wapas humlog kaam pe lag gaye, jo log hamare kaam ko bharosa karte hai aajate hai, warna lockdown ke doraan darte the.” (We were inside our homes as well, since we depend on daily wages, and our work involves touching as well, people were afraid and we were financially badly hit. After the lockdown restrictions were removed, people who trust us came back) Ahmed also stated some benefits of this traditional way of ear cleaning, for instance, no dust/dirt in-ear, no infection, no blockage, no irritation and improves overall health and hygiene.  “Jo kaam yeh bade doctor technology ya operation se itna mehanga karte hai wohi humlog itne saste mai kardete hai, kaafi log apne kaan ke dard ke saath hamare paas aate hai or khushi khushi wapas jaaate hai or izzat dete hai, kaan saaf acche se kardete hum.”  (We charge almost nothing in comparison to the expensive doctors who use technologies and operations for treatment. A lot of people come with pain and go back satisfied and happy with our ear-cleaning service.)

Muraad Ahmed and his group members have suffered a dreadful loss during the lockdown,  despite of it,  they all very gracefully continued to do their work. 

One can look for them in areas like Chandni Chowk, Jama Masjid, Chawri Bazar and even in Connaught Place, with their red skull cap being their trademark. 

Photos by Maryam Khan

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