Published in the Indian Express in 2006
Three kilometers away from the hamlet of Khurdai, in village Maran Mau is a pond that dates its origins to the Mughal period. “The Shahi Talaab”, is where over four generations of farmers as little children have learnt to swim and dive. Every summer the skinny brown boys who take their cattle out to graze, like their fathers did, in the surrounding fields, find solace in enjoying mid afternoon and early evening swims in this talaab. “There are seven wells under this pond and it is about thirty feet deep, the water level can be observed by the number of steps it covers”, explains forty six year old Sageer, a mechanic whose family has lived in Maran Mau for over three generations. “When we were little children, we used to start running from that mango tree and dive into the water, I learnt to swim here and so did my sons and little daughter”, says Sageer pointing at a nearby mango tree.
Walking up to the talaab’s edge he elucidates why the talaab is divided into three zones. “The area on the right which is a little covered by bamboo foliage and the wall is meant for women, the central portion without stairs and a slope is meant for cattle whereas this area to the extreme left is meant for men and boys.” Standing on the edge of the stairs is a group of four friends, the tallest Sohail, a fifteen year old who works as labor, takes lead and jumps of the highest stair with a loud splash, the other two, Arvind and Virendra who say they are twelve years old and don’t go to school, jump into the talaab with their clothes on, leaving only dusty blue slippers near the stairs. The youngest boy, Mahendra, who works for Sageer and goes to school screams a lyric of a popular song and jumps in after them, “Look at me! I am swimming backwards!!” everyone laughs at the little boy.
Oddly, in the women’s quarter is a mazaar of “Syed Ali Baba”, it is said that he was the caretaker of the pond. Bathing her four year old son in the water is Sumitra, watching from the stairs is her father in law Ram Swarup who says, “He is my only grandson, the doctors say his mental illness is incurable, and he cant even walk, but we bring him here every Thursday to bathe.” The child smiles sweetly as his mother distributes Prasad to everyone, the little boys who dive line up for their share. Sageer enlightens us on the medicinal properties of pond water, “People with skin diseases and rashes come to get cured with this water, pond water helps cure those diseases and every Thursday, patients with ailments such as arthritis and mental or muscular disorders come here to bathe and offer Prasad at the mazaar”. Soon enough, a line of believers, women with little children, old men and young boys descend upon the Shahi Talaab to cure themselves. Ram Swarup says, “It’s cheaper than visiting doctors, my grandson responds well to these baths and is always happy to come and spend a evening here.”
The Shahi talaab acts as a community pond for fish rearing as well, the poorest villagers can avail from free fish here! According to the locals, the pond is incomplete because the gentleman who was making it died soon after the construction of one half of the pond. The other end has a slab or two for washer men. “This pond has been part of our lives for as long as I can remember”, says Sageer, staring at a black snake bird dive for a silver fish as everyone silently watches the ripples subside.