Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
“It was “Din! Din! Din! You ‘eathen, where the mischief ‘ave you been?
You put some juldee in it, Or I’ll marrow you this minute, If you don’t fill up my helmet, Gunga Din!”
Rudyard Kipling’s spirited depiction of “regimental bhisti” Gunga Din comes with a sad parody of the derogatory gaze in which colonials held an Indian labourer. One wonders though if the Raj’s disappearance has made any difference to the ancient water carrying tribe: known as Pakhalis in Marathi, and Mashakwaalas or Bishtis in Urdu and Hindi. Fifty-year-old bishti Sarif Ahmad at Char Null Dongri flashes a cheap painkiller the doctor’s prescribed for him: “This eases the pain, but doesn’t heal anything.” His knees and hipbone have all but crumbled, he says, from carrying 30 litres of water across streets and up buildings for over 30 years. Three of the bishtis who work with him ask us for a job through the course of our meeting. They are dying to cast aside the burden of history which is bearing them down.
Ahmad is a “khandaani bhishti”, whose forefathers served the badshahs in Haryana from time immemorial. “When changes came, like the purdah being relaxed and women going to wells by themselves, we had to migrate for work,” he remembers. Thirty-six-year-old Sagir Ali from UP, however, is a second generation bhishti: “My father came here and became a bhishti and so have I.” Sagir Alaudddin Bhisti is another “khandaani bhishti” from Rajasthan. While Anwar Mia and Mubarak Ali, in their early 20s, have left low paying restaurant jobs to be bhishtis for the first time.
Bhishti groups operate in demarcated areas, with tacit agreements not to encroach upon each other’s field of operation. Bhendi Bazaar, Null Bazaar, Madanpura, Pila Haus, Foras Road, Kamathipura and Pydhonie vary in their bhishti populations according to demand. Hence the total number of bhishtis, quoted at anything from 70 to 150, is unascertained. They charge four to six rupees to deliver water to ground floor locations and eight to ten rupees for higher floors. The monthly earning of each varies from Rs 700 to 1,200. Rs 1200 has to be invested in a new 30 litre leather (goat or buffalo skin) bag or ‘mashak’ every six months. “But the advantage over other jobs is that you get instant cash, and that you’re not a ‘servant’,” most claim.
One reason many want out, still, is because business has been dropping steadily since residents installed motor pumps. “We only deliver if someone oversleeps — and forgets to fill water, needs extra water for house guests or if their motor stops working,” Alauddin Bhisti sums up. Also, their leather bags make them inauspicious for Hindu localities. But the overwhelming bane is the toll this manual labour takes on their body: “We are like thelawaalas. No one chooses such professions.”
The Bhishti Mohalla near JJ Hospital was named such when residential areas were compartmentalised according to the profession of the people from select communities in old Bombay. “But no one living in these houses is a bhishti anymore, though they have ‘bhisti’ as their surname,” Meherdin Bhisti who operates with Abdul Rehman and Naviser Bhisti from Bhishti Mohalla (pavement dwellers, all) says. Rehman, 57, and too old to work as a bhisti anymore, makes the ‘mashaks’ he once bore: “I sell only 15 to 20 bags a year.” But recent buys by exporters, marketing such pouches in Karballa in Iraq, might improve matters. “He is lucky to be alive,” remarks 50-year-old Ahmad, pointing to his colleague. “I sometimes feel when I sleep after a day’s work… I won’t get up.” Which brings us back to Kipling:
“So I’ll meet ‘im later on, At the place where ‘e is gone — Where it’s always double drill and no canteen; ‘E’ll be squattin’ on the coals, Givin’ drink to poor damned souls, An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din! Though I’ve belted you and flayed you, By the livin’ Gawd that made you, You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”
This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/vati