Water: Going retro

The water carrier is back and the Karachiites’ prayers have been answered.

Intezar Hussain February 09, 2011

Remember behishti, the water carrier? I had believed the man from paradise had reverted to the paradise along with his water skin.

When I saw the thirsty pursuing one in a TV programme, therefore, I was quite incredulous. Lord, can this be real! But yes, there it was; in fact, there were several of them.

So the water carrier is back – the Karachiites’ prayers have been answered. That was what the programme was about: unable to ensure dependable water supply by any other means the people of Karachi have been forced to recall the water carriers. As for the water carriers, they appear to have been waiting for the invitation, secure in the knowledge that the tankers pressed into emergency service were not a sustainable solution.

That is how the times confound you. One tends to believe that once an epoch has ended all that was associated with it is gone. But the days gone by return and confound you. Take the water carrier. Of course, it was not just the water carrier. There was a whole civilisation built around him. Once the water carrier was gone, also gone were the pitcher and the pots – round as well as long-necked – as were the well, the bucket and the line. Imagine the days when water carrier was about the only outside male allowed in the female quarters of the segregated Muslim households.

In summers, water carriers at Delhi’s Jamia Masjid’s steps would tempt the thirsty by offering “the elixir of life”. Water carriers also sprinkled the parched streets. No wonder then that we called him behishti, the man from paradise.

But the times changed and brought us that which made us forget all about the earthen pitchers and the water carriers. We had our fridges and freezers. Having thus spoiled us the times changed back, depriving us of the facilities that had made us forget the water carriers and the water skins they carried on their backs.

But water supply is not so critical a problem for Lahoris as it for the Karahiites. So I don’t see the water carrier making a come back in Lahore any time soon. Given the increasing gas load shedding, meanwhile, the chances are bright for the blow pipe. Remember the earthen stove that used wood for fuel? Because it takes longer to cook in earthen pots over wood fires, keeping the fire going was an issue. The fire would so frequently grow dim and require blowing on with a pipe, often cut out of a bamboo. During the rainy season when firewood was wet, the blow pipe became a lot more relevant.

And where did one get the firewood? At taals, of course. But what with electric stove and the discovery of natural gas, the kitchens in our homes morphed dramatically. Gone were the days of firewood, earthen stoves and the blow pipe. But not so gone after all it now seems. The gas is now playing hide and seek and on some days one is forced to wonder whether there would be enough available at all to get a fire going to cook some food. If the trends persist the day is not far when the blow pipe and the earthen stove will make a come back in Lahore’s kitchens and the firewood yards in its neighbourhood markets quite like the water carriers have done in Karachi. We’ll also get back our woodcutters.

So, back to the past. Or is it to the future? Whatever!

*Translated from Urdu

Intezar Hussain An eminent Urdu fiction writer who writes short stories and novels, and also columns for newspapers in English.
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