Mumbai has a wallah for everything, no task too big or small. Outside my 14th-story flat, one of four elevatorwalas pushes the button that takes us to the street and back again.
The other night we ate our first dinner at a Parsi restaurant called—this is all one word—Sodabottleopenerwala.
It’s a chain.
Derived in part from Hindi, Marathi, and Bengali, Wallah translates roughly as ‘that guy who does that thing,’ the person imbued with the qualities of the work he does or the clothes he wears or the place he’s from. It’s a labial, upper teeth to lower lip, like ‘vala.’
Some wallahs work at multiple jobs: at Sodabottleopenerwala the sodabottleopenerwala will pry the cap off your beer as well as your soda. But such double-dipping isn’t common. At my building, the elevatorbuttonwala doesn’t make his own tea. Instead he turns to the chaiwala, whose expertise lies in making Masala chai, which he also prepares for the numerous other wallahs who staff the property. It isn’t always clear why more than one is needed at a given time, but their they are, swarming and ready to handle distinct responsibilities from parking and security to mopping, dusting, and helping patrons of the fitness center. Others are present to supervise all of the above.
This multiplicity of walawork makes sense. Parts of Central Bombay have registered a million and more residents per square mile, making it the most densely-populated city on the planet. Wallah proliferation eases economic pressures where the concentration of humanity is so high. It’s also a result of caste. In past cities we’ve called home, we might hire a housekeeper to iron the clothes and mop the floors and wash the dishes. Here, we’re likely to have a separate individual for each chore.
When I hire a driver, he won’t shine my shoes, but may run them over to the shoeshinewala. Four weeks from now my sons and I will be on the prowl for a reliable clipperwala, scouring the streets past rickshahwalas and taxiwalas and fruit&vegievendorwalas. On nights we don’t feel like cooking, we’ll call up the pizzadeliverywala. Millions of people receive lunch every day from a dabbawala, who brings their hot meal across town via a confusing network of roads and trains and crowded sidewalks, never missing a beat.
The city thrives on the backs of the wallahs. They do the jobs the city needs them to do. They do the things we can do for ourselves, but make our lives easier by doing it for us.
Like pushing the button on the elevator.