-wala, -vala, -walla, -wallah.

Indian city sidewalks are characterized by the presence of its array of workers, vendors and agents who qualify for this pervasive suffix. Chai-walla, dhobi-walla, rickshaw-walla provide tea, laundry and taxi rides – the list is as endless as the wants of an urban dweller – right through to the kaan-saaf-walla who cleans ears. These roadside entrepreneurs fuel the flourishing street economy of India with their diverse trades and assorted services.

Although many walla are somewhat mobile I fondly noted their grounding presence in neighbourhoods with which I became familiar while living in India. As I charged around by scooter, rickshaw or taxi, I could always count on nods of recognition by my local walla from their pavement perches and regular haunts.

I'm often taken by the intense focus on their trade from amidst the flurry of city life: the flair of the chai-walla forming arcs of steaming tea as he pours from glass to glass, the precision of the nariel-walla hacking the tops off coconuts, the calm of the dabba-walla as he negotiates metro traffic to deliver lunch boxes. At other times they are integral to the street-side commotion with their signature cries to alert all of their offerings and the banter of competing walla vying for customer attention.

Walla, and their female equivalent – walli, respond to a multitude of opportunities that urban neighbourhoods present. As vital as they are vibrant, walla are a constant feature of the urban Indian streetscape and act as functional anchors for the communities they serve.

This set and commentary informed my piece for CNN: Celebrating the Wallah & Walli of Mumbai's Streets.
120 photos · 2,126 views