Water, a scientist may say, is not volatile. But some Indians know it is. Like Aabid Surti who as a kid used to spend every morning waiting in a queue outside his house. Though it was the same queue each day he could never predict its temper. These were otherwise friendly neighbourhood uncles, chattering aunties and friends who would lend him cricket bats. But for 10 minutes every morning, when the lone tap near his chawl decided to relieve itself, good relations vanished. The common tap became a battleground. Whoever filled up enough to last the family for a day, won. Others fought, cursed and returned home like defeated soldiers.
Surti, an award-winning painter and author, now lives in a modest flat at Mira Road that has many taps. Though he still gets water for 10 minutes every day, he doesn’t have to wait outside with a bucket. Yet, the 72-year-old has a gut feeling that the water tap battle will only get bigger.
Indians, he has learnt, are careless about water. If a tap leaks, we just dont seem to care. This thought kept dripping in Surti’s mind till he finally found a solution, a month ago.
He decided to seek out leaking taps in every house in his locality and fix them. But that wasn’t possible until people were convinced he was not a cranky old man. So, he first approached a local plumber, who agreed to help him out in his mission for Rs 150 per month. Surti, an accomplished cartoonist who created the lovable simpleton Dabbuji in the sixties, then enlisted his assistant graphic designer Tejal’s help. Her “social’’ nature, he knew, would work as an asset. He also gave this newly-formed informal door-to-door service a name and a slogan—Save every drop or drop dead.
The painter, who even won a lakh of rupees as cash prize for one of his books, then designed the logo of a huge water drop and got it printed on plain white T-shirts, posters and pamphlets.
The money from the sale of the T-shirts would be used to pay the plumber. The next step was to get permission from the secretaries of residential buildings. This approval, which he got from several buildings, made it easier for the residents to trust this frail man with saltpepper beard when he began knocking on their doors on Sunday mornings.
A month has passed now and Surti’s five-hour weekly routine is pretty much set. Every Sunday, he zeroes on three buildings, dons the water drop Tshirt and starts ringing doorbells. When they answer, Surti introduces himself and his purpose. If they complain of a dripping tap, his plumber quickly fixes it. “In return, we get so much love,’’ says Surti, who takes Tejal’s help in gracefully declining offers of free lunch and tea in every house.
Almost every house he goes to surprises him. Once, the door was opened by a young Bhojpuri film actress who invited them in to watch one of her films on DVD. Another time, he met a film producer who claimed to be his fan. Though he never expected it, the exercise sub-consciously benefits the writer in him. “It’s amazing how they live,’’ says Surti, who has written over 80 books in Gujarati and Hindi. “Some live like beggars in their flats, they don’t care about their clothes or cleanliness. Some have houses that resemble museums, they clutter their rooms with everything possible.’’
He has always banked on daily life to inspire him. Once, he vented his unrequited teenage love on 500 sheets of paper and eventually sold it to a raddiwala, who was thoughtful enough to send the pages to a publisher. That was Surti’s first Gujarati best-seller. Even in Dabbuji, the comic strip that he created after his marriage, the artist borrowed heavily from everyday humour. Once, someone had pointed at him and asked his son, “Who’s this gentleman?’’ His son, who was four, innocently quipped “He’s not a gentleman. He’s my father.’’ The gem was quickly added in his next strip.
There was even a time when Osho would generously quote Dabbuji in each of his speeches. Then, one fine day, Surti asked him for royalty. Osho stopped quoting Dabbuji but Surti still meditates under a picture of the spiritual guru every day for almost two hours. “That’s the secret of my youth,’’ says the agile man whose family lives in Pune.
Though he could have easily afforded a luxurious flat in Mira Road, Surti chose to live in a one-BHK flat in a locality which consists mainly “of the weaker sections’’. Little things like preparing his own tea, playing instrumental music for his guests, cutting newspaper clippings that interest him and watering his plant make him happy.
In the Dongri chawl where he grew, he learnt the importance of valuing everything he had. Even today, the lessons have stayed. Every time he opens his tap, he reminds himself of the women in Rajasthan who walk miles barefoot for a pail of water. “Where there is water, there’s no awareness,” he says.
Recently, someone gifted him a book on water called the Blue Lotus. It talks about how ownership of water by a few powerful people like the municipal corporations could lead to commercial battles. That gives him enough adrenaline for next week’s routine of climbing several stairs.
So far, Surti and his team has covered more than 100 flats in the Mira Road area. It’s an exhaustive exercise but this man has his ways of dealing with it. “Every alternate week, we choose buildings with an elevator,” says Surti, who always tries to keep in mind the comfort of his team members.
Except for a few lonely senior citizens who closed the door on him, the response has been largely positive. “We have got so many calls that we are booked for the next one month. The others would have to figure in the waiting list,” he says, winking at Tejal.
He also extended a simple invitation to this reporter. “I have the pamphlet format on a CD. You simply have to change the phone number at the end and you can easily start such a service in your own locality”.
GENTLEMAN EXTRAORDINAIRE: Aabid Surti, an award-winning painter, author and cartoonist who created the lovable simpleton Dabbuji in the sixties, seeks out leaking taps in every house in his locality and fixes them
Sharmila Ganesan | TNN