“Mohabbatwallah paani, maalik ka paani, thanda paani.”
On Mumbai’s dusty, always crowded railway stations, the words shouted out are as much manna from heaven as the promised sip.
As 73-year-old Rajkumar Singhania calls out to the thirsty at Thakurli railway station, a few dozen smiles break out immediately around him.
Dressed in his white kurta-pyjamas, Singhania hands out bottles of cold water to eager hands.
Carrying nine 2.5-litre bottles in two large canvas bags, Singhania boards the 8.54 am slow local to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, heading to Masjid Bunder where he works, long past retirement age, as a cashier at a private firm.
Inside the train, as he continues to offer his bottles of water to the crush of commuters, the regulars begin to tell the few who don’t already know him that this is Rajubhai Paaniwallah.
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In fact, Singhania is the unofficial ‘waterman’ of Mumbai’s railway network, spotted every day shouting out his evocative slogans and an invitation, “Paani le lo paani.”
So, there are few on the 8.54 am slow local who don’t know him already.
For six days a week, without a break for about 30 years, Singhania — a name few recognise him by — has boarded this train and conducted this same ritual, now a labour of love, repeating it on his ride back home from work.
“It is so hot these days and so many places have water cuts. I know people who walk to the railway station to save money, sometimes several kilometres. By the time they reach Thakurli station, they are thirsty. It is for them that I carry the water,” Singhania tells The Indian Express.
Ask why, and the septuagenarian says, “Yeh malik ka kaam hain, main kuch nahin kar raha. (This is God’s work, I’m doing nothing.) I only carry water from home to the station.”
He calls the daily distribution of water to thirsty railway commuters his “nasha” or intoxication.
His daughter Vaishali, though, has a more matter-of-fact explanation.
“Dad used to carry a bottle of water for himself. When people on the train would ask for water, he would hand over his bottle and have hardly any water left for himself by the end. So my mother started giving him an extra bottle for commuters,” says Vaishali, in her late twenties.
The family had not even the faintest idea what that extra bottle of water would lead to.
The gradually rising number of water bottles Singhania carried peaked when he was, in his own words, “healthy like Dara Singh”. That was 150 smaller bottles of water with a dash of rose water, a bag of 75 bottles on each shoulder.
At one point, the good Samaritan expanded his line of work to include a first aid box, offering on his commute a quick fix medication for minor ailments such as a fever or an abrasion.
“Those days I would return home on the last train and reach around 2 am. I would sometimes meet people running a fever or having a headache. I would wonder how at that late hour they would find any medication. That is when I decided to carry a first aid box,” says Singhania, seated in his 1-room-kitchen residence located a 5-minute walk away from Thakurli station.
Having retired several years ago, Singhania continues to work to keep himself active. Vaishali believes her father goes to work only so he can serve water to railway commuters.
“His office has allowed him a first class railway pass but he travels by second class. He says people in the first class compartment are wary of drinking water offered by a stranger,” she says.
At office too, he declined when an air conditioner was to be installed where he sits.
“The machine would have been kept where I keep my three pots, two filled with water and one with grain for birds to eat,” he explains.
While Singhania is now easily recognised on the train and at Thakurli and Masjid Bunder stations as Rajubhai Paaniwallah, others in Thakurli know him too.
Vaishali recounts an incident that took place when she was in Class III. Her friends were returning home late one
night and were thirsty.
“My best friend told me about a man distributing water in the train. I started laughing and told her that was my father,” she remembers. The following day, her friends and their family came home to meet Singhania.
Always willing to talk about his drive to quench people’s thirst, Singhania is, however, wary of any attention and avoids publicity. “People will ask whether it’s because of the publicity that I carry water, so I avoid it,” he says.
In 30 years, only once did he take a break, for a few months. That was in 2011, soon after his wife, who helped fill his water bottles, passed away.
“When he resumed work, people would ask him for water and he’d feel so embarrassed that he began to travel in the luggage compartment,” says Vaishali. Finally, after much cajoling, the now somewhat unwell Singhania persuaded Vaishali to let him carry two bottles.
“Beti ko maska laga kar aaj nao bottle carry karta hoon (I’ve sweet-talked my daughter into letting me carry nine bottles now),” he says.
Vaishali’s concern stems from Singhania’s week knees and diabetes, but she also wants to see him satisfied and doing what makes him happiest. As a train rolls past at some distance, she adds, “That may be his lifeline, but he is my lifeline.”