Pani Pulau

On the road…again!!!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester

By Dick Pellek


Pani Pulau

Snippets of memory, the stuff of legacy stories…  That was the theme of a recent chronicle by the Footloose Forester.  Today another snippet of a distant memory was jarred loose during a period of physical activity. Truth be told, many chronicles originated during periods of physical activity in years past and the Footloose Forester did not often waste the opportunity to jot down notes and await further developments into crafting a credible story to share.  Today, that snippet was revived from his Peace Corps days in Pakistan.

On a short show-and-tell trip (otherwise known as a dog and pony show) to the fringes of the Cholistan Desert, the Footloose Forester was ushered into a very modest field station administered by the Ministry of Forests and Waters.  It was far enough outside of any town that it was anybody’s guess what the mailing address might be.  There was no electricity and no running water at the desert outpost.  Dignitaries and important officials probably arrived by Land Rover by following faint tire tracks in the sand, and supplies probably arrived by camel caravan.

The temperature outside was probably in the mid-90s when we arrived, but inside it was even hotter, due to the absence of wind.  To make life inside tolerable, however; the Conservator of Forests hired a man known as a punka wali whose job it was to pull a rope that circulated air from a large folded carpet above the desk of the Officer in Charge.  The carpet was a substitute for a fan and the punka wali was the employee charged with turning on the circulating air.

Even at his post in Bahalwalpur, on the border of the Punjab and the Sind Desert, it was more comfortable to sleep outside at night during the warmest months, from April through October.  The Footloose Forester did not have a problem moving his charpai like the one shown below into the courtyard for the duration.  



The rope bed called a charpai was light and easy to move around


Another low-level employee at the field station was the pani wali whose job it was to fetch drinking water for the Officer in Charge.  There were very few people assigned to the desert outpost, but it was clear that the duties of the punka wali and the pani wali were separate and different.  The station itself and job status that went to being assigned there were not things to brag about.  The Officer in Charge may have had territorial responsibilities but one could not tell by looking around.  What was obvious was, when he gestured to the punka wali to pull the rope, a sudden waft of hot desert air circulated inside the small field station.  And when the Officer in Charge was thirsty, he called to the pani wali who no doubt was outside seeking the coolest spot he could find.
The day that the Footloose Forester visited, he remembers sitting for perhaps 20 minutes in a chair next to the desk of the Officer in Charge.  The Conservator of Forests and his tour guide had gone elsewhere to attend to some issue or other.  Three times the Officer in Charge called out, “Oh Mia” to get the attention of the pani wali.  When the pani wali finally appeared, the message from the Officer in Charge to the pani wali was terse: “pani pulau (bring water).”   The Footloose Forester remembers the incident clearly because there, on the desk of the Officer in Charge, and just out of an extended arm’s reach, was a full glass of water. The Officer in Charge went thirsty for 20 minutes instead of getting out of his chair and reaching over for the glass of water.  Make what you will of this story, but Footloose Forester believes that the Officer in Charge of that desert outpost, one constructed of sun-dried bricks, wanted to demonstrate that despite its modest appearance and remote location, he commanded a workforce of subservient underlings. 

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