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Memories: Water under the bridge

August 18, 2012

As per the saying, I have literally had water from many wells.

It began with my childhood village Batrauli’s lone water well in the village square of a few houses and huts. There was always one individual drawing out water, with a bucket tied to a long bamboo pole, balanced with counter weights, for the fields and for those wanting their pots and earthenware filled. It had been there since my great grand father’s time and somehow the water from this well never ceased.

During summer, my grand father would get the well-water to sprinkle on the square to cool it, charpoys would be laid out, and we would sleep under the stars and twinkling fireflies.

When my father moved from the village to the big city of Delhi, we no more had the luxury of fresh well-water. It was brought to us in goatskin bags or mashaks, by water carriers or bahishtis with amazing agility of balancing large water filled goatskin bags on their backs strapped over their shoulders, making several deliveries on the run. Another thrill was the sound of the gushing water being poured into buckets.

Circumstances changed, and our family moved to Karachi, where our water supply took a new shape. They had a pipe coming out of the ground, between two-block row houses. We would queue up with an assortment of buckets, cans and jars, and wait for the water to start pouring out magically at the appointed time. The daily ritual was a good get-together, and occasional altercations with someone suddenly deciding to cut the line. Later, the water supply was arranged for each house at the expense of our daily community socialising.

Yet one more move to Ankara for studies, where my association with water supply took new dimensions. There were no baths in the hostel, so I got introduced to beautiful historic marble public baths, the feel of real hot water, and soft Turkish towels. There was one more surprise, of glass-bottled drinking water with a price tag. These were small bottles, which meant paying for two or more at a time. Things changed during the senior year at university, when someone from the embassy staff let me share his apartment, giving me the luxury of water taps in all the bathrooms and the kitchen.

From Ankara, fate took me to Holland, where I had paying guest accommodation necessitating visits to public baths. This was Europe in the early 60s, and showers in homes were not common.

I travelled for three weeks in a Beetle to Pakistan and camped overnight. Iran offered a unique experience where in thewilderness I saw a shepherd crawling on all fours to a pond with his dog doing the same. In the Iran of those days, most towns and even parts of Tehran had running water in brick-lined narrow aqueducts along the houses, connected to ponds inside. Ladies would be washing clothes and dishes along the aqueducts. To get drinking water, I was advised by a local to follow the aqueduct well outside the town right up to an artesian well source, where I would fill my jerry cans for onward road journeys.

While there was plenty of water in Iran, the scenario changed completely as I passed through Balochistan where I realised the value of water. In some places, the only source was the water tanker train, coming in once a week.

Back in Karachi, things were more advanced as there were water connections in toilets, kitchen and hoses for lawns. The water was coming from a lake off the mighty Indus River.

The lure of well-water brought me to Daharki, with an innovation of recycled water for landscaping. That meant lush green lawns for our houses on one end of the desert.

In Jeddah, I learnt about desalinated water from the sea. Although very expensive to produce, we never had to pay for it. Trips to Makkah meant bringing Zamzam water for drinking.

Next stop was the USA where except for tall buildings in Manhattan which had large cylindrical overhead wooden tanks while most towns had an uninterrupted water supply with lots of pressure. There was no need of underground storage tanks, pumps or overhead tanks, as was the norm in Pakistan.

Three quarters of the earth is water, but oceans are not drinkable. Most fresh water is at the poles but inaccessible. Of the remaining, the majority is in the great lakes of North America. The rest of the world is left with very little water. Hence the legend about a Bedouin lost in a desert, desperately wishing to melt his gold to quench his thirst may not be too off.

Finally, my humble request to European restaurants is to please stop asking me the choice of bottled water, plain, with little gas, more gas, or Perrier. It is too confusing for me. The other note is for fancy Pakistani restaurants, that plastic water bottles are an eyesore in pictures, with all the fancy china and cutlery.