A typical Indian neighborhood is full of walas (pronounced 'wah-lahs'). Rickshaw walas drive the three-wheeled vehicles (human-powered cycle rickshaws and auto varieties) carrying loads of children to the neighborhood school. The dudh wala provides fresh milk for the residents twice a day. The kachara wala goes door to door to collect refuse. A jharu wala comes through once in a while sweeping up dust from the road.
A wala is a term to identify the one who does something. On almost every corner stands the chai wala, the one who makes chai (Hindi for tea). Across the street is the press wala, the one who irons clothes. Down this alley is the kabab wala, the one who makes this city’s famous meat kababs.
These walas are fixtures of a neighborhood. They are the people that you meet every day. And they are available for conversation. Let’s get to know a few walas of a neighborhood in North India.
The Chai Wala
Mahammud Al-Hudin operates his chai stand on a busy corner of a Delhi enclave. Just a few steps away is one of the most visited Muslim shrines in India, Nizzamudin Dargah. When he is not making milky tea for hundreds of customers in a day, he serves in the shrine—cleaning and picking up after the pilgrims. He lives inside the confines of the shrine with his family and takes pride in his service to the holy site.
Nihan proudly serves a traditional recipe of meat kababs and paratha (a type of flatbread) at his own small shop. He runs it with his brother and enjoys interacting with his hungry neighbors. Though his work is hot and sometimes frenzied, he does it with a smile. He points out that in every direction of his little food stall, a masjid (as mosques are known in this part of India) rings out a call to prayer multiple times a day. He takes breaks to attend prayers three times in a day.
Dabeer is an unassuming man who quietly keeps the neighborhood residents looking sharp. All day long, he drags his heavy, coal-heated iron over cotton shirts and pants, folds them neatly and collects 5 rupees (about $0.07 USD) for each finished piece. His uncomplicated occupation allows him to observe the comings and goings of the people around him. Next door is a masjid, whose call to prayer invites him to leave the stacks of wrinkled clothing and pause for ritual prayer. As evening comes, he disappears as quickly as he arrived that morning—he’s a bit of a phantom, leaving behind only smartly dressed residents.