Will Kolkatas Bhistis vanish behind pages of history?
Have you ever seen the Bhistis roaming city streets on a scorching summer noon, with their goat-skin bags full of cool water? Once upon a time, they were a regular on deserted city lanes supplying cool drinking water to shops and households that they carried in their leather bags to keep the water cold. But with the onslaught of refrigerators, water-purifiers and every street shop selling cold filtered and bottled water, Bishtis or water carriers are no more needed.
Most of these water carriers came from adjoining Bihar. The profession for these people have been a sort of legacy for generations, Some still try to hold on to the profession, though the scope is limited in city life today. Take for example Ramu kaka of Central Avenue. This old man still carries water to the few shops dotting the area that entertain him and give him some money, needed for his medicines. He had come to Kolkata with his father at the age of ten, and even today when his health fails, he tries to carry the heavy masak to serve his clients. The masak or the goat skin bag can hold up to 30 litres of water. Once upon a time there were around 3000 Bhistis in Kolkata. Today, their numbers have dwindled.
It is believed, the Bhistis were a Muslim group from Arabia who followed the Mughals to 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. After the downfall of Mughal Empire, they 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.’
Even a decade ago, the Bishtis were employed by Kolkata Municipal Corporation for watering roads and supplying water, but they lost their jobs after being replaced by water bearing carriages. Also, most of the handpumps from where they used to get water have dried up.
Despite their hard work, payment is negligible. For almost 10-12 hours a day, they earn a paltry Rs 300 and sometimes even less. Carrying the heavy goat skin bags also need a lot of energy and the older generation of Bishtis find it difficult to make more trips with them. Yet, they try to hold on to this work, that they have done down generations. Though their children will perhaps move away to greener pastures and try to educate themselves unlike their illiterate fathers and grandfathers.
Will then the Bishtis of Kolkata fade into the pages of history?