Rashid Mushahid goes by many names — he calls himself a hakim or a kaano ka doctor, most of Old Delhi refers to him as one of the lal topi waale, while his colleague, Jamal, simply calls him a kan melia or ear cleaner.
Mushahid, a member of the Banjara community whose ancestors migrated to Delhi from Uttar Pradesh’s Moradabad three centuries ago, says he has been keeping alive the “shahi kaam” of cleaning ears. His ancestors, he says, served in the “royal Mughal households” and were privy to palace intrigues and gossip. While the tradition has been reduced to a roadside service, it still has some takers.
Perched on a stair leading to Jama Masjid, Mushahid sports a red skullcap, a cloth satchel slung over his right shoulder and a green towel over his left. He happens to catch a glimpse of Kamal, a 24-year-old who lives on the mosque premises, cleaning and doing menial jobs there.
“I have always got my ears cleaned by kan melias. I don’t use earbuds,” says Kamal as Mushahid sits down to work, pulling out a slender ear pick and wrapping a wad of cotton around the spatula before peering down Kamal’s right ear.
The elaborate service, which costs Rs 20, involves several rounds of cleaning — once with plain cotton, the next with cotton dipped in hydrogen peroxide and, if needed, mustard oil. “Cotton earbuds in the market irritate the ear and can rupture the ear drum. What I do is clean and heal the ear if it is inflamed or infected. That is why I still have enough customers to make around Rs 250 a day,” Mushahid says.
But the ear cleaners resent the suspicion they are met with. “We have been providing an indispensable service for three centuries. But nowadays, people suspect we use unhygienic instruments which can pass on infections. That’s not true. We sanitise the picks with Dettol before each use,” Jamal says.
Mushahid says. “There are roughly 1,000 more like me, scattered across Old Delhi, Connaught Place, India Gate and the New and Old Delhi railway stations.”
Things, though, are changing. “I am in the trade but my children are studying, so they don’t have to join me,” says Mushahid.
The red pagdi his ancestors proudly donned has been replaced by a thin cotton skullcap. “The turban used up a lot of cloth and took a long time to tie. This cap takes a minute to stitch and wear,” Mushahid says.