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The Vanishing Tribe Of Bhistis In Kolkata

The Vanishing Tribe Of Bhistis In Kolkata

The water suppliers will soon be confined to the pages of history. 

Kolkata, 3 pm. The heat is scorching the streets. Most of the lanes wear a deserted look with people preferring to stay indoors till the onslaught of heat and humidity subsides. 
Jabbar cannot think of such luxuries. He wipes the sweat from his face with a gamcha (towel) and guzzles a glass of water. 

A few minutes of break under a tree has given him much needed energy to resume his work. The seventy-year-old is a Bhisti who supplies water in a masak (goat skin bag) to households and shops in the city. The 70-year-old has been doing the same job for the past 45 years. His father, Gulab, was also a water carrier.

Bishtis or water carriers. Image source: tiplopworks.comBhistis or water carriers. Image source: tiplopworks.com

But age has clearly taken a toll. He suffers from breathlessness and joint pain. He has returned to work only recently after undergoing treatment for three months in his village in Bihar. He wants to retire but has to continue to fund his medicines and feed his family. “The profession has been a sort of legacy carried from one generation to another. I was a minor when I started supplying water and have been doing the same work for a major part of my life. But my health makes it difficult to continue. I want to lead a retired life in my village,” he says as he walks away carrying the heavy masak tied with a leather belt.

The masak that can hold up to 30 liters of water is made of goat skin and costs about Rs. 3,500. It needs to be replaced annually as it develops leakages.

The goat skin ‘masak’. Image source: tiplopworks.comThe goat skin ‘masak’. Image source: tiplopworks.com

Jabbar is probably one of the oldest Bhistis in Kolkata as most of the clan have either migrated to other jobs or are too old or infirm to continue. Their numbers that once stood over 3000 have dwindled to a few hundred in the past decade. The Bhisti kuthi (building) that housed several Bhistis under one roof, now wears a desolate look with almost all the rooms locked. 
Tracing their history, the Bhistis were a Muslim group from Arabia who were known to have followed the path of Mughal ingression into India. Initially, they supplied water in villages without any charge. But with changing times, they adopted this as their source of income. The word Bhisti probably originated from the Persian word Bihisht, meaning paradise. Western and central images of paradise are incomplete without the depiction of rivers and gardens. Apparently, the name was given to them because of their ministering to Muslim soldiers at a battle.

After the downfall of Mughal Empire, Bhistis continued to work and were known for their loyalty and efficiency during the British rule. They have been immortalised in Rudyard Kipling’s poem `Gungan Din’. In Maharashtra, the tribe is often referred to as Pakhali.

A Bhisti from 1870. Image source: wikimediaA Bhisti from 1870. Image source: wikimedia

Decades ago, they also served as the employees of Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) watering roads and supplying water, but lost their jobs after being replaced by water bearing carriages. The situation continued to take a turn for the worse with each passing year. The old colonial era buildings began to be replaced with modern apartments equipped with water connections.

Bhishtis watering the roads in 1858. Image source: puronokolkata.comBhistis watering the roads in 1858. Image source: puronokolkata.com

Arshad who has been a water carrier for more than 15 years says that their income has gone down rapidly with the city’s changing landscape. “People who once preferred drinking water supplied from goat skin bags, now consider them obnoxious. Work has also suffered because of new water pipe fittings in almost every building. We were in demand as most of the old structures had wooden stairs and no elevators, but things have changed now. People don’t need us except some hotel owners where we still supply water. I don’t know what Allah has in store for us,” says the 50-year-old lost in thought.

Uncertain future due to water shortage and defunct pumps. Image source: amazonaws.comUncertain future due to water shortage and defunct pumps. Image source: amazonaws.com

Another factor that has contributed to their diminishing numbers is hand pumps getting dry or defunct with no efforts from the KMC to replace them. “Some people still like to drink water from the hand pumps because it is considered good for health but their drying up has further damaged our business. There are only a few pumps left from where we can draw water.  The Corporation has either removed them or has been too lethargic to make any repairs. Most of them are lying unused and non-functional in different parts of the city.  Several requests made to officials have been fruitless,” he added.  

Despite toiling hard for almost 10-12 hours a day, they earn a partly Rs. 250-300 and sometimes even less. “We get just Rs. 10 for supplying 30 liters of water in a masak.  We end up earning around Rs. 300 if we are able to make 30 trips on day. But that’s not always possible, as carrying a heavy load of water causes breathlessness and multiple aches in the body. Age also plays a major role as people like us are able to make just 10-15 rounds a day,” says Jabbar, who had just completed 8 trips.

Bhishti Jabbar and AmanBhistis Jabbar and Aman

His twenty-eight year-old son Aman, also a Bhisti, sympathizes with his father but expresses helplessness at the condition. “At this age, it is very difficult for him to carrying the heavy masak, but what options do we have? I have to look after my kids and arrange money for their education. Abba’s earnings help fund his medicines. We are all illiterates and have no expertise in any other job. We want our children to stay away from the menial work we do.”

Aman is not alone in this decision. The remaining Bhistis do not want their future generation to do the same work anymore.

Ansar is already educating his children for a bright future. “I do not want my children to lift water like me. I want them to be educated and have good jobs, maybe in big companies. Our life has already been spoilt but we want our children to earn a name for themelves and not be summoned as Bhistis that people call us,” says the 30-year-old before leaving for his job. 

As dark clouds hover over the sky signaling heavy rains in the city, a thought crosses my mind. These people who have quenched many throats would fade into the pages of history, and no one would shed a tear for them. Will their contribution to our lives and well being ever be acknowledged? Probably not, considering most of us never even knew about their existence until now. 

 

 

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By G. Singh
Cover photo credit: bp.blogspot.com