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Water hospitality on track

The advent of packaged water and, lately, water vending machines at prominent train stations have together brought a sea-change in the availability of potable water for travellers, relieving them from worrying about it anymore. It would nevertheless be fascinating to reminisce about how people in the olden times managed their drinking water needs during long journeys. It was perhaps inconceivable to them that this elixir of life might one day be sold for money in pre-packed plastic bottles.

Water as a commodity was scarce in our mostly hot and dry countryside of Rajasthan, and so long as it looked clean, no one bothered much about its purity like they do now. The contentment that showed on one’s face after gulping a glassful of cool, refreshing water was beyond words!

Nearly all train stations had at least one water tap, which more often was ‘out-of-order’ or discharged unclean, tepid, or nasty water. At many railway platforms, native Good Samaritans, who firmly believed serving water to the thirsty was the best form of benevolence, had set up manually-run water huts. Passengers used to crowd at these water holes to swill a plentiful themselves from their cupped hands and also refill their pots and jars. At some stations, local urchins occupied the other side of the platform, carrying water in pitchers or, later on, sealed polythene sachets to earn a few rupees from selling water to those who did not want to venture out of the train. Many would feel restless if the flow of water at a tapped outlet was thin or if a fellow passenger was filling a large container. At stations with a brief train halt, those at the water outlet would keep an eye on the train signal.

Many passengers carried a cloth-lined metal jhaari, which sometimes had a separate insert for keeping ice to let water remain cool for longer. It was later that I learned the best way to enjoy the luxury of naturally-cooled water all through the journey: a water-filled canvas bag, if tied to the coach’s open window grill, can yield cool water even in extremely hot weather!

I vividly remember one hot summer day in 1970 when an elderly guest from Bombay visited us in my hometown, Sojat Road, in Rajasthan. He was to take a train to Delhi the next day in the afternoon. While seeing him off at the station, my father insistently placed an earthen water jar and a tumbler under his seat to meet his need for drinking water.

All through the long journey, he sipped naturally cooled water from the pot, inviting the envy of fellow passengers. Later, he wrote a letter profusely thanking my father for such an unheard-of and priceless ‘water hospitality’!

(Published 19 December 2023, 22:57 IST)

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