The Last Water Carriers of Delhi

It’s around 10 am and the first customers have started arriving at Meena Bazaar, exactly 39 steps away from Gate No 2 of Jama Masjid in Shahjahanabad, or as it’s now called Old Delhi. In Mughal times, the bazaar catered to the women of the royal harems, selling silk, jewels, bangles, and other items of opulence.

Today, the market has seen quite a transformation: The once spick-and-span lanes are now filled with dirt, the silk and jewels in the shops have been replaced by counterfeit brands and imitation jewellery. As I make an entry from the Chandi Chowk side, several old men are hurrying up inside the kitchen of the first shop on my left. Some of these men are holding mashaks (water bags stitched from goat skin) and some are holding plastic tankers. One of them is the man I’m here to meet, Nannan Khan.

Nannan Khan, one of the last surviving members of the ancient Sunni Muslim Bishti tribe, started selling water for 1 anna (a quarter of a paisa) when he turned 16. He started with a mashak but because of the rising cost of repair of the mashak’s leather (it costs nearly ₹2,500), it had to be replaced every six months. Nannan has now shifted to the more practical, if less poetic, plastic tanker.

Barely 50 kilos at the lithe age of 65, and dressed sharply in a white tunic and prayer cap, Nannan fills his blue tanker with 40 litres of water and carries it down 39 steps to Meena Bazaar, in addition to the heavy burden of history, on his creaky frame.

The word Bishti is derived from the Persian word behesht, which means paradise. The name was given to the community as they served water to Muslim soldiers at war, and because water is an important source of life, Bishtis were seen to be people from paradise. During the British Raj, Bishtis were employed to serve warring soldiers and help in road construction – they watered the pathway before the coal and tar was laid down. As time went on, technology improved, and soldiers didn’t need men sent by the king or The Crown to provide them with water. The Bishtis, schooled in only one trade for generations, performed a quasi-pivot: From soldiers and everyday folk on the streets to shop owners. They are spread across India, from Haryana to Uttar Pradesh, from Rajasthan to Bombay, plying the water trade to this day.

Nannan Khan’s first stop is a mithai ki dukaan, whose owner he’s familiar with. Nannan sets the tanker down in the kitchen behind the shop, and the owner directs one of the labourers to transfer water, as they will need it to clean utensils all day. Nannan sits down and lights a cigarette of a brand I’ve never heard of.

Barely 50 kilos at the lithe age of 65, and dressed sharply in a white tunic and prayer cap, Nannan fills his blue tanker with 40 litres of water and carries it down 39 steps to Meena Bazaar, in addition to the heavy burden of history, on his creaky frame.

Image / Parthshri Arora

“Har din yahi karte hain. Humaare baap yahin paani pilaate the. Khandaani bishti hain, ab humaara beta bhi pilaata hai. (We do this every day. It’s a family tradition. This is what my father did and this is what my son will do.)

The shopkeeper pays Nannan ₹40 for half the tanker, who then picks it up and goes looking for another shop to set up base in.

Throughout the day, Nannan goes from shop to shop, stationing his tanker at different places at different times of the day. Every day, he hopes that a shopowner, tourist, or one of the myriad visitors of Meena Bazaar nearby would want his water too, so he doesn’t have to lift the damned thing again. On some days he gets lucky, on most days he doesn’t. Sometimes during lunchtime, he gets food in exchange for a full tanker; sometimes he’s told to come back the next day. The only reason he is even needed today is because of problems related to the piped-water supply in the area. In an age of working weekend to weekend, Nannan works hour to hour in the scorching Delhi heat.

In his poem titled “Gunga Din”, Rudyard Kipling wrote of the Bishtis:

“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!”

Throughout the poem, the soldiers are assholes to Gunga Din, a Bishti, who was sent to provide support to them. They disrespect and beat him up, though when the end comes and they’re barraged by bullets, Gunga Din gives the soldiers water as they lie in the dirt.

Bishtis enjoyed a noble existence in society as water was a scarce resource, a fact our ancestors understood. It is why families kept bowls of water outside their homes for thirsting travellers, the same way we keep water in our balconies for birds. As water has become difficult to procure over time and smartphones have become key to our daily lives, we inhabit our fractured, single worlds that are tiny, self-sufficient universes. Bishtis then, are emblematic of the apathy we sometimes display to the world outside this bubble and our obsession with living on Mars, even as many Indians continue to live without water.

As our day comes to an end, I realise that not many poems are written for Bishtis today, who have been granted OBC status in India. Largely forgotten, carriers of history as much as water, Nannan Khan and his ilk walk around Old Delhi as living, breathing incarnations of yore, harking back to a simpler era gone by. Some of his friends have let go of their genealogy, taking up other odd jobs like that of an electrician or a driver, forgetting their royal duty. Nannan though, isn’t giving up.

He fills his tanker for the last round of the day, prepares to carry it and descend the 39 steps again, which suddenly seem daunting. He stops, shuffles, turns, and says, “Khaandani bhisti hain. Yahi karte hain, yahi karenge. (This is a family profession. We’ve been doing this for years and will continue to do so).”