With his graying mustache, hennaed hair and jolly smile, Raghunathan Zagde resembles a happy gnome as he troops about the hilltop Bhandarwada reservoir in Mazgaon.
Dodging heavy patches of algae, the cheerful 52-year-old reservoir operator treads a slippery path as he makes his way from his huge, warehouse-like office in the garden to one of the 15 bulky underground pipelines.
Then he climbs nimbly into a 6-ft-deep control pit, to open or close a valve. This time, he is opening up supply to the Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT) compound.
Zagde makes at least four such trips a day, collectively controlling the flow of 100 million litres of water to three wards in the city — an area stretching from Reay Road to the Naval Dockyard.
“My job demands great discipline. I can never be even a moment late, or hundreds of households won’t receive water on time,” he says. “But after four years here, even though a copy of the schedule is always tucked into my pocket, it has been photocopied in my mind.”
Wake him up in the middle of the night, he says proudly, and he can still tell you at what time, how many times a day, which valve connected to which pipelines carries water to which ward.
Born to a mill worker and a homemaker, Zagde joined the municipal drainage department in 1982, earning Rs 449 a month. He had just failed his Class 10 board exams and was glad to have a contract post with the municipal corporation, based on the reference of a distant uncle then employed with the BMC. He secured a permanent post in 1989, as an operator at a reservoir in Worli. Four years ago, he was transferred to Mazgaon.
For his 6 am shift, Zagde wakes up at 4.15 am in the one-room Sion quarters he shares with his wife, Rohini, and their three grown children.
After a quick bath, a prayer and a cup of tea, he walks to the Sion station, takes a train to Dockyard Road, then walks the five minutes to his office.
By 6 am he is in uniform and ready to record the meter readings of the tank and two compartments that store the day’s water, sourced from Bhatsa river in Thane.
Working with five other operators per shift, Zagde checks the water levels every half hour, opening and closing valves in between per schedule.
At 10 am, he takes a 20-minute break for a chutney sandwich or vada pav with chai. Zagde’s shift ends at 2 pm, but he always waits to get home for lunch.
“I don’t mind if I eat at 3, as long as I can eat at home,” he says. “With age, one has to take care of one’s health.”
After lunch, Zagde relaxes with the newspapers, watches the news on TV or goes grocery-shopping. Then comes his favourite part of the day: dinner with the family.
“I’m a simple, easy-going, God-fearing man,” he says. “I know so many people who scramble for more. But I was a Class 10 flop. This job has supported my family and paid for my children’s education. I am grateful to God.”
With six years to go for retirement, Zagde plans to see his children settled, then ‘elope’ with his wife to his hometown in Ratnagiri, spending his post-retirement years tending the family’s coconut, mango and cashew groves.
“Mumbai has given me everything,” he says, smiling. “But I can’t imagine a post-retirement life here.”
(This weekly feature explores the lives of those unseen Mumbaiites essential to your day)