‘I was happier when I was earning Rs 15 a day’

In a special series, Rediff.com looks at India through the lives of her people.

Today: Abdul Nabi, who has been cleaning people’s ears for 40 years in Mumbai.

When he started out, he used to charge 1 anna per person; now he charges Rs 20. He never asks his customers their names or what they do and is among the last of a dying profession.

Abdul Nabi, ear cleaner

IMAGE: Abdul Nabi’s place of work is the Bandra talao in northwest Mumbai. There are very few ear cleaners in the city now. Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

I have been cleaning ears in Mumbai for 40 years. I have been sitting in this place at the Bandra talao all my working life.

Those days the talao was very dirty. It was full of weeds. You could hardly see the water. The poor used it as a public toilet. Early morning the stink was unbearable. What to do? We still sat here.

Much later Ramdas Naik (the BJP MLA who was murdered in 1994) got it cleaned. Now they have removed all the dirt in the water. They have tiled the place. The entire area is protected by a grill so people cannot dirty it.

When I first started out we used to charge 1 anna for one person. Now we charge Rs 20. Those days we made five rupees a day which worked out to Rs 150 a month. (Just then a customer arrives and he asks us to excuse him).

My elder brother also cleans ears (he was sitting next to him, busy with a customer).

I remember those days when I used to earn fifteen rupees a day. It was enough. Those were days when everything was cheap.

Now I earn Rs 300 to 400 every day. I was happier when I was earning Rs 15 a day. I could save Rs 10 every day. Now I cannot save anything even when I earn Rs 400 a day. It doesn’t last, food items have become so expensive.

The Ear Cleaner from Bandra

IMAGE: Abdul Nabi works all days, including festivals. Much has changed around him in these 40 years, he says.

I have lots of regular customers. Some have been coming to me for 20 years. I never ask them their names or what they do.

The rich and the poor come to me.

I don’t think this profession will be around for more than ten years. After that people will go to doctors to get their ears cleaned.

I use diluted hydrogen peroxide, lavender oil and mustard oil to clean ears. Hydrogen peroxide is used to clean the ear and I finish it by using mustard oil. When a customer says his ears are itching, I use lavender oil. It stops the itching.

I charge everyone Rs 20 irrespective of what oil I use.

The Ear Cleaner from Bandra

IMAGE: Many of his customers have been coming to him for years.

I bring my lunch from home. I eat it under a tree near the talao. I usually eat with my brother and another ear cleaner who sits next to me.

For me every day is a working day. I am here on Sundays and on festivals. What would I do at home? You will find me here from 9 am to 6.30 pm. When it rains I go and stand outside a restaurant. Once it stops, I come back here.

There are only two ear cleaners where I live, my brother and me. There were very few ear cleaners in Mumbai in earlier days too. There are even fewer now.

I stay at Bharat Nagar in Bandra East. It is a slum. There is only one room. None of my children clean ears, they work in the construction industry.

I am not educated. My father did not send me to school. My children studied up to the 10th standard. I never sent them to college.

Once a year I go back to my village in Gulbarga, Karnataka. Two of my children live there with their families.

The Ear Cleaner from Bandra

IMAGE: Abdul Nabi uses hydrogen peroxide, lavender and mustard oil for the clean-up.

I like my work by the talao. People come here to see the talao in the evening. Some come to fish. Lots of children also enjoy fishing.

I see them talking on their phones. I do not have a mobile phone. I never had the need for one.

I will do this work for another three years and then return to my village. I have some land where I will do some farming. It is getting too expensive to stay in Mumbai.

Abdul Nabi spoke to A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com in between attending to his customers one afternoon.