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Letter From America: In Praise Of Punkah Wallahs

Wallah is the Hindi word for man - attached to anyone and any occupation. Ronnie Bray pays a dazzling tribute to the wallahs of the world.

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The British visit to India introduced many words into the English language, enriching it even as it opened a new world to the stay-at-homes whose imaginations were left to wonder at the tales brought back to Blighty by returning colonials. So completely did Hindi enter our language that they were still used in everyday speech during my military service in Egypt. The local chap who did the laundry, an Arab Egyptian, was known simply as the ‘Dhobi Wallah,’ or laundry man.

Wallah is the Hindi word for man, and was attached to anyone and any occupation. Actress Felicity Kendall’s father toured India for many years with a Shakespearean troupe and was affectionately known as ‘Shakespeare Wallah.’

British servicemen applied the term wallah to themselves and to others, almost as often as they did to indigenous people. Airmen who were ground staff were ‘Ground wallahs,’ a ‘Mungy wallah’ worked in the cook house, ‘Sampan-wallahs’ plied small boats on the rivers carrying passengers and cargo, while the dreaded ‘Knife-wallahs’ worked in hospital operating theatres as surgeons.

Taxi needs were met by ‘Rickshaw-wallahs,’ and ‘Church wallahs’ took Sunday services. A ‘Gen wallah’ was someone who was clued up on most everything, and I was, for a time, a ‘Janker-wallah.’ ‘Jadoo-wallahs’ or magicians, were the talk of my childhood whenever the topic of the subcontinent was raised, as it seemed to my young ears that everyone believed – I certainly did, that they brought off the Indian Rope Trick and made little boys disappear. All this despite LH Branson declaring it to be "much over-rated … particularly as the world-famous Indian rope trick has never been performed.''

‘Night-and-Day wallahs’ were wagon drivers who drove for anything up to and 18 hours a night, with often calamitous results, as tiredness made them crash all over the place.

‘Pani-wallahs’ worked on riverboats as greasers and oilers, and ‘Expense-Account-wallahs’ – well you get the picture – although the ‘Trick Cyclist wallah’ might be harder for you to place unless you are versed in colloquialisms for psychiatrists.

But of all the wallahs that have been, are now, and are yet to come, none occupies such a warm place in the hearts of those who have been subjected to the heat of day more than the ‘Punkah Wallah,’ persons worthy of capital letters because they were capital fellows who undertook a job that contributed more to our day-to-day comfort than the work of any other servant.

The Punkah Wallah was in charge of the punkah. Punkahs were cooling wafters made by hanging a huge flap of cloth across a room on a wooden frame, which was moved backwards and forwards – or to-and-fro depending on one’s mood – to create a cooling draught of air. ‘Punkah’ is derived from a Sanskrit word for ‘wing’ and the huge flaps not only looked like giant wings, but also moved the airs as do wings.

Punkah Wallahs sat on the floor and pulled a rope attached to the punkah’s frame to create cool breezes. Silent in operation, they nonetheless contributed critically to human comfort in many an office where the merciless sun sought to frazzle and dehydrate its occupants. Underpaid, and not required to produce much in the way of effort, nevertheless they were indispensable, although not irreplaceable. A good Punkah Wallah was punctual, silent, continuously effective, trustworthy, and discreet, a necessary adjunct for someone who heard every detail of business or military planning.

The advent of electricity to remote places and the development of the electric Punkah wallah signalled the end of the road for these patient rope-tuggers, and another occupation slipped into the seldom opened pages of history to be forgotten by all save those who have been the direct beneficiaries of their services.

Our home has three ceiling fans and a similar number of portable floor fans. These are in addition to a device somewhere under the roof that refrigerates and filters the circulating air so that even in hundred and ten and sometimes more degrees of the "Big F," we remain as cool as cucumbers, and not like to swelter and melt until we step outside.

It is strange to think of the changes that have been effected in my lifetime. My Nanny never used a telephone, and never saw television, although she lived until 1955. None of my parents or their parents ever flew in an aeroplane. My parents never had a motor car or motor cycle. With the exception of my Ma and Dad Scott who once sailed to Belgium, and my Father who served in the Western Desert and had a lengthy hospital stay in South Africa on government business, my family never travelled outside the British Isles.

I have seen steam engines replaced by electric motors, horse drawn barges converted to diesel engines, the simple telephone transformed into devices that photograph, transmit, translate, and send text messages around the globe in the twinkling of an eye, and computers that almost think – even if they cannot spell – and concentrate more power into a pair of ordinary hands than the greatest potentate of the past possessed.

Hubris leads us to believe the present time as more important and better than days gone by, and faulty memory lets old people remember a Golden Age that never was. Between these two extremes lies the truth, and in consideration of truth it is proper that we pay fitting respects to the defunct and disappeared deliverer of draughts, the doughty and deserving man-on-the-rope, the Punkah Wallah, for all he did to help others keep their cool in sticky situations.

There will probably never be a monument raised to Punkah Wallahs, but on behalf of those who probably never took any notice of them except when they stopped working, I raise my voice in appreciation of their labour, "Sukriya, sahib Punkah Wallah!"

Copyright © Ronnie Bray

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