Does anybody remember these water cans? If you are as old as me, or older than me, you would remember these as the Milton water cans that you would carry along with you on long journeys. If you had the kind of middle class existence that I did, you would remember your mom diligently filling it up before a 3 day journey with the Indian railways. It was as much a part of the journey as the scenery, or the conversations, or the railway food – the bhel, pakodas, the bondas.
This was of course much before carrying dabbas and water cans became unfashionable. And why not? After all, the Milton casseroles and water bottles had evolved from the good old steel dabba, and before that, the good old banana leaf (Lunch would be packed in banana leaves, tied up with a string, and then wrapped up in newspapers). So is fashion – very fickle. What was once considered hip, is no longer so, and what is considered in good taste today, might be looked at with a disbelieving expression in a few days.
To return to the Milton water can, I never realized when we stopped using it. I don’t even know where our good old green colored water can is today. My mom says that it’s probably saved and stored by my dad who insists on saving up everything – right from a 20 year old VCR to a 40 year old vase which is shaped like a leopard. In other words, its probably lying someone in the lofts at home, which means that it will be a part of the hoard of things that my dad will run over his hand and look at with nostalgia. As will I. What can I say – nostalgia runs in the family.
Mind you, the Milton water can does NOT really have all good memories associated with it. Those days people would have a heart attack at the concept of actually buying water. At every major railway station, there would be a sink with a few taps from where you could fill your water bottles. When the train stopped at these stations, you would have this mass exodus from the train running towards the tap, trying to fill up their bottles before the train moved. And when the train moved, they would again run towards the door, and you would watch with bated breath to see who made it and who didn’t. While this sounds amusing now, as a child I would be quite terrified when this happened. My dad would be part of the crowd at the station filling up the water bottles, and till the time he came back to the compartment, I would be on tenterhooks. There was this one time where he didn’t return for a long time, and I was convinced that he was left back at the station; giving in to the drama of the situation, both my mom and me took turns at wailing, me attempting the high volume version, and my mom doing the silent tears Nirupa Roy kind of version. Playing our parts with élan, it of course didn’t occur to us to pull the chain. It was actually an anticlimax when my dad returned, looking all happy and handsome, after a long shave in the train loo. Till this date, I have never understood, how my mom managed to talk to him after that. Or how anyone can even remotely think of shaving in a dirty train loo, and even better, do it without nicking himself.
So yes, Milton water cans are not associated with all good memories. When I turned a bit older, I was allowed to get down the station and fill up water. At that point, I hated the fact that the sinks were really dirty; it was a struggle to fill up the water without looking at all the people around who were spitting or doing things which I really don’t want to think about now. Over the last decade, I stopped travelling by train and started using buses. It wasn’t by design or choice, but I wasn’t complaining because the buses were clean (most often), and since it was an overnight journey to Kerala, I could often manage to travel without using the loo (again, most often). Over the past year, I have started travelling by train again, and was surprised to find how enjoyable it was. It actually shouldn’t be that much of a surprise, considering how much I loved train journeys when I was a kid. But it was a surprise, nevertheless.
One of the things that I caught on recently was the fact that nobody seemed to carry the Milton water cans. How could a railway journey be complete without one? People seemed to bring dabbas with them, they seemed to bring entire families with them, they seem to carry books, cards, ipods; they even seem to bring along stories and conversation with them. But the Milton water can seemed to be extinct. And then it dawned on me. I wasnt carrying one as well. As I looked at the essentials I packed, I also had a couple of Aquafina bottles with me. So did everybody around me. The Milton water can was no longer part of the journey.
Over the past few journeys, I have rediscovered my love for train journeys. Some things are still the same – the noise, the food, the conversations. Some things have changed – tatkal, more trains, IRCTC, and of course packaged water bottles. I now notice that most stations do not have taps with drinking water. Instead, almost every small station seems to have a vendor selling packaged water. In the things that haven’t changed, I can add the fact that people still run down the station – but that’s to buy water.
I should be happy. It’s how I had wanted things to be. Quick access to water and that too clean water. If that could happen only at a price, so be it. And yet, I am not. It’s how I wanted things to be, and yet it’s not.
I have to only look at the amount of plastic bottles lying around the railway track to know that something is wrong. Yes, part of it could be resolved by having a good waste disposal system, or even just adequate waste bins in trains, but just consider the amount of plastic being produced. The Indian railway has one of the largest railway networks in the world, ferrying the population of the second populous country in the world. If we are producing plastic to cater to the travel needs of this population, how much plastic are we producing and dumping every day. We can clean up the tracks, but where are we going to dump all those bottles.
I have to admit that I don’t have a clear cut answer to the problem. Yes, I don’t like looking at dirty sinks, and am definitely not looking back at the railway stations of the 80s with nostalgia, but there has to be a better solution. With time and technology and education, we should ideally be looking at creating a better world right? Or at least not one that would be worse than what we got 30 years back. Maybe we should have water filling stations with good and clean water; have filtered water in trains; use Kent water purifier – am not sure what, but am sure we can do better.
Looking at it, even from an economic perspective, do we really want to be a nation where we can only buy bottled water. This in a country where the railway prides itself to be carrying people from every section of the population, and where the average spending can be as low as Rs 28 a day (as per the stats). In a tropical country where the weather can be brutal and killing, does it make sense to insist on having only bottled water in our railway stations. Should we consider the fact that this water is not affordable to many, and that people could end up using water which is more more harmful and unhealthy. Things to ponder on….
Now a few of you may say that I am being cheap. I can’t argue with that, there’s too much evidence to prove it. But consider this – we were a country where we would always get free water (or complimentary water if you are particular on semantics) in restaurants. Once upon a time, the only time you would order bottled water was when you were out for dinner with your phirang clients, or when you were in quite a shady place. Now much of that is changing…I understand that health and hygiene requirements are important, but isn’t there a middle ground? If we have to make things better, and yes by ensuring that we get clean water in a bottle, it does get better – can’t we think of getting clean water in other ways. Water that can be accesible to everybody?
Yes – so getting back to the Milton water cans. I think we should get them back in fashion. It’s not just the romance and nostalgia of old times(though there’s that too), it’s also the need of the hour. And guess what? When I went looking for pictures of these water cans, I discovered that they are still being produced. They even have a cool name – Kool Musafir. Loosely translated, it means The Cool Traveller. Apt, isnt it?