The Unsung Heroes

Edited by: Ananya Khandelwal

 

A hero is often understood synonymously with a champion, victor, luminary and similar words. This common and oft-repeated usage of the word hero is considerably different from the dictionary definition – “a person admired for courage and noble qualities”.  In every person, there is a hidden hero who may not necessarily be a victor or a winner. Moreover, a person does not need the recognition of his fellow men to be considered a hero. One can be a hero in one’s own eyes because ultimately, self-esteem is best boosted by one who knows the effort she/he has put in to be courageous or achieve a feat. Among heroes, there are some who are not recognised by society for the heroic and courageous acts that characterise their daily lives. It is these unsung heroes whose feats create melodious tunes for us in our various walks of life. 

I would like to begin with unsung heroes involved with the most basic need, something that excites us, that involves work and thought and is encountered by us on a daily basis. It is none other than food and there are undoubtedly numerous people out there who are instrumental in providing us with a plate of delectable food. 

Hasn’t everyone at some point or the other learnt basic cooking skills from their mother or grandmother? Their hands are adept at performing several tasks simultaneously and between this swiftness, one must keep a keen ear out for the ‘gharelu nuskhe’ (home remedies) that may lead to the making of a heroic dish. In India, there was hardly a tradition of documenting recipes. Our grandmothers relied on their children to carry forward the family recipes. All their cooking was scientific and logical and one did not have to pursue home science to create gastronomic wonders. They knew the kind of reactions that occur between various oils and vegetables, how to use a gas stove to create properties of an oven or steamer and even had knowledge of medicinal properties of food items. About 18-20 years ago, the kitchen was not a place of technical innovation but our moms never kept people starving in the family and rarely served undercooked or burnt food. This is not to say that those who are professional chefs are any less of a hero. Their efforts are commendable and it is important to appreciate their journey as well. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the immense contribution made by our ‘home cooks’ without whom families would famish. 

 

 

Moving out of the domestic space, we arrive at street food. The smell of aloo tikki, vada pao, golgappe, phirni and other equally mouth-watering street food embraces our olfactory senses and awakens the gastric juices in our stomach. Despite relishing every morsel of this food, we seldom acknowledge the creators of these wonders. They aren’t even called or perceived as chefs. These heroes do not have precise measurement utensils like teaspoons and tablespoons, do not work in a controlled environment and have no refrigerator or cold storage. Rather, they have to deal with the changing proportion of dust, heat, rain and grime. Green Mirchi fritters, atta and semolina crispy spheres, creamy Indian sorbet are some of the bestselling dishes in Michelin star restaurants. These exotic, mouth-watering names owe their origin to none other than the humble street food itself. Let me translate them into desi street food lingo. Mirchi pakora, golgappe and malai kulfi are what they are. Many of the top chefs master the intricacies of these dishes from the street food vendors who innocently and willingly share their recipese. Little do they know that their simple, yet delicious dishes served in steel plates and devoured with our fingers will land upon oak topped tables and cutlery designed by Jamie Oliver. In many cases, these vendors are thanked for their knowledge and recipes and the Michelin star chefs promote them through their television shows but they are still under-acknowledged by us. So, the next time we enjoy a lip-smacking plate of food out on the streets, a nice gesture would be to appreciate the efforts involved and not hesitate to address them as chefs. 

 

India is a colourful and vibrant country and our culture and diversity contributes to its vibrancy. This includes our melange of traditional attire with every region rich in its own trademark weaves, dyes, embroidery, material and patterns which are created by faceless people who imbue the cloth with their artistic skills and aesthetics. 

We regularly encounter the names of Tarun Tahiliani, Sabyasachi, Anita Dongre, Ritu Kumar and other top designers in India. All of them have contributed to the promotion of Indian fabric and weaves beyond the boundaries of our country.  Much of their work draws inspiration from the local artisans and weavers who carry the legacy of the beautiful craftsmanship of weaving and stitching. These artisans work on handlooms which are operated manually but this practice is slowly fading away with the introduction of machine manufactured fabric and patterns. They are more viable because they consume less time, effort and are less expensive. However, the charm of the handwoven fabrics is not lost on people wanting to bedeck their body with clothes that are an embodiment of our rich culture and skills of our countrymen. The increasing popularity and demand in India and abroad have helped in preserving this art which is an important source of livelihood for those involved. Thanks to big names like Fabindia, craftsvilla and eminent individuals in the fashion industry, rural artisans are being recognised for their finesse. So the next time we purchase a hand-embroidered  sari, shawl, carpet or any other such garment, let us applaud the weavers and hope that they receive their rightfully earned rewards and credits for their work. 

 

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Living in India, one often comes across latrines along the street, overflowing with ‘waste material’ - a euphemism for excreta, sludge and pollutants. It is a wonder to think of the labour that goes into the upkeep of the latrines as well as our streets. Manual scavengers are the ‘faceless’ heroes who are the ones providing us with a clean space. It is ironic that they are perceived as ‘unclean’ when it is our dirt that they are busy cleaning. Many of us cringe when we think about  cleaning our own bathroom even though it is waste generated by us. These ‘sanitation heroes’ go deep down into the latrines cleaning up not their, but our grime. There is a law prohibiting manual scavenging but it would be fatuous to expect its thorough implementation. To be on the safer side of the law, workers are employed and termed as ‘cleaners’ and not manual scavengers. Unfortunately assigning them a different name does not change the reality of their conditions. These ‘cleaners’ continue their escapades in latrines, every minute of their lives prone to numerous diseases. There are a number of activists who have devoted their lives to emancipate the scavengers and help them take up a dignified job.  We can do our bit by contributing towards being hygienic and environment-friendly and ensuring that the waste we generate is disposed of as per guidelines. The next time we see a manual cleanliness hero, a simple thank you from our lips is the least we can do for the heroic work that they engage in to provide us with a place worth living in. 

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There are numerous people out there, working, toiling, accomplishing commendable tasks on a daily basis and who contribute towards making this world habitable, hospitable and lively in their own ways. Most of them lead their lives hidden behind a veil, creating melodious tunes from unknown niches. As citizens of a world that is characterised by human relationships, we can do our bit by acknowledging the impact that they have on our lives. We can give them a sense of recognition and respect, a recognition that they are valued for the people they are and the work they do. They are all heroes in their own humble and huge way, heroes performing heroic acts every single day and it is time to reach out and make the faces behind the harmonious tunes be known.