Each time Ramu turned on the tap and saw the water gushing forth— spontaneous, clear, sparkling—he couldn’t restrain from putting his hands in the splashing stream for a few seconds, the cool wetness brushing against his calluses, unconsciously bringing a flitting smile to his lips. (Water somehow drew him beckoningly, benignly, for reasons warped in oblivion.)
With its oncoming velocity, it seemed as if the water was inundating all his troubles, smoothening the rough edges of his life with admirable energy, and in the process lending a succulent weightlessness to the body.
This was one of the wonders of city life which he was yet to get accustomed to. Having come to Bundelly two months back, he had been awed by almost everything— multiplex buildings towering tall, svelte cars gliding by, the colourful billboards that tempted seductively and the sky-high prices of even trifles such as guavas. But the thing which cast the greatest charm was the ready availability of running water. Dawn, noon, dusk, be it any time of the day, one always had access to this basest of liquids, the giver of life. This was nothing less than a boon to the young boy’s eyes, who knew too well the debilities which sprouted with the scarcity of water.
In his village in Sonepur, there persisted a constant hankering for water. It had to be drawn up either from wells or hand-pumps, both of which were far outnumbered by the number of families living there. During dry spells, the situation grew worse. With little or no rain, the wells had nothing to offer. If at all they did contain water, it was brackish and muddy and unsuitable for use. On such occasions, the hand-pumps or ‘tube wells’ as they were called in common Indian parlance, were the only resort.
From the crack of dawn, women started forming a meandering line to the nearest of the four pumps situated in Sonepur. Bringing with them empty buckets and clay pitchers, they waited for water that would be available at around ten o’ clock. In the intervening time, squatting on their haunches or sitting cross-legged on the ground, it was easy to closet themselves in enlivening gossip, alternately peppering the rumours that floated in the air, exchanging news of their daily lives, and discussing the recent performances of the jatra troupe.
As the minutes ticked close to ten, however, a frisson of restlessness rippled through the queue. Casting darting glances at the pump from time to time, the women tucked the free end of their saris around the waist, drawing themselves up for the opportune moment. Many at this point were joined by other family members, such as a mustachioed husband or an adolescent daughter or son, to help carry the water back to the hut. And as always, when the water did arrive, it never failed to spurt a bustle of commotion. There was shoving and pushing as people elbowed their way in. Voices were raised, expletives flung and the then person present at the hand-pump was intermittently accused of taking away more water than necessary. Ramu had often assisted his mother in such times. Intimidated at first, he had however, soon come to accept the situation as one of the onerous necessities of life.
A few months back, it was Suresh mamu, Ramu’s maternal uncle who had casually remarked that now that the pending construction at Vishal Housing Complex (the block of flats in which he worked as gatekeeper) in Bundelly was over, all the inmates, both new and old were on the lookout to hire a regular sweeper and cleaner. His widowed sister, Ramu’s mother had at once stopped him in his talk, making diligent inquiries about the job and after some deliberation, with a decided mind and a heavy heart, had wanted her son to try his luck there. After all, in these hard times, her earnings from the sweet shop where she worked were not enough. Ramu’s stint as a farmhand on Dheeraj Rana’s fields also brought in a meagre sum. With the money that flowed at the end of each month, however, they were somehow able to meet both ends. But she had to remember that there was a daughter in the house too, whose chances of a prospective marriage in the future depended on a heavy dowry. The thought was a nagging one, and often tugged at her disconcertingly. Remembering the proverbial saying of a cow being better than a girl as it gave milk, butter and curd, she heaved a sigh now and then. Deepali was already twelve and with each passing day, time was rolling inexorably forward. The money had to be ready in due course.
Being the only adult in the house, it was impossible for Ramu’s mother to venture elsewhere (leaving the children alone) for better prospects of work. If only she could work in the city, fortune would have reaped her with gold, she knew. On the other hand, taking Ramu and Deepali with her would also not be prudent as a poor lone woman with children in an alien environment was vulnerable in the extreme. And though it had come to her ears that many girls at Deepali’s age were employed as housemaids in the city, she felt anxious in letting her daughter walk the same path. She was a girl, wasn’t she? And that being so, she was subject to manifold unspoken dangers that a boy needn’t have qualms about. As a consequence, all her hope had funnelled towards Ramu, her teenage son and the only male member of the family who alone could row away their broken boat of a family to the shores of happiness and luck.
At first, Ramu was not a little unsettled at the thought of living in Bundelly, over a hundred kilometres from Sonepur, located in the neighbouring state and bereft of the warmth and familiarity of home. And yet, on hindsight, he knew why it was important for him to go. It was with the same instinct that made him guess why his mother never served him or his sister rice puddings on their birthdays like other mothers, why she avoided village gatherings as much as possible and the reason for her preference for the game of hide-and-seek over football in the slushy mud. Having been fatherless from a tender age, he had long since been initiated into the gravities of the adult world, much of which still remained unknown to companions his age.
His mother had broached the topic gingerly and after explaining the benefits that would come out of it, her voice choked a little. Deepali was glum and despondent, her face turned away in an act of guilt and commiseration. At that point, watching his near ones complicit in such silent suffering, Ramu’s heart had reached out to them and immediately, wading through the mist of anxiety, he heard himself say, “Of course I see the point! And to be honest, I’m already feeling a little excited at the thought of living in the city.” Whether the words produced the desirable effect or not on the listeners was difficult to say, but it did effuse mutual embraces, smiles amidst tears and wet kisses on the cheeks. Somehow, it made the bond between them strengthen and congeal, like dried cement on conjoining bricks. And Ramu knew that this was what would keep their threadbare family together always, irrespective of the encroaching physical distance.
Unlike other village boys who worked in the city, Ramu was lucky to have his uncle near him. In fact, it was Suresh mamu who had helped convince the inmates of the flats that Ramu was the perfect person for the job at hand. He could sweep the corridors and staircases of the buildings, empty their garbage cans into the big common vat, tend the overlooking garden and being a young boy, could also run errands for them. But what had ultimately tilted the scales in Ramu’s favour was that he was a minor—and hence could be doled a comparatively lesser pay than an adult in his place. This had magnetically attracted the well-off residents of Vishal Housing into hiring the boy for good.
In Bundelly, Ramu started his chores early in the day, which began with the cleaning of the sprawling concrete compound. Except for an occasional remonstrance now and then, the residents appeared satisfied with his work. At night, he slept on a mattress in the room shared with Suresh mamu and almost immediately drifted off to sleep. Often he dreamed of home— the straw-thatched hut with the bamboo fence around it, the rutted red road, colourful kites flitting in the sky, and the south westerly breeze laden with the odour of jasmines. His mother was lighting the coal oven, his sister peeling the dried cow dung cakes off the wall for their cooking fuel. Then with the stealthy stride of an intruding stranger, dusk descended on the village. And as oil lamps and lanterns flickered to life in the tenements, it turned Sonepur into something magical and romantic—appearing to the distant observer’s eye a cluster of glowing dots against the blanket of night.
At such a time, the cows were in the shed, leisurely chewing their cud, the bells around their necks jangling in accord from time to time. Now and then, a goat bleated mildly. And when the hour struck, cutting across the tranquil serenity, the conch shell from the shrine of Krishna gave three lingering peals to signal the call for prayer. Ramu imagined himself with folded palms and a bowed head, whispering ‘Jai Shree Krishna!’ (Hail to Krishna!) in reverence.
Though he was taken in by the advantages and amenities which Bundelly offered, Ramu nevertheless missed the open environs of Sonepur—where one could roam about freely, gaze at the setting sun in the horizon without being obstructed by tall buildings, take long baths in the emerald green pond and run wildly when trying to fly a kite. The doors to houses were always open and the absence of a doorbell never caused any inconvenience in the least. But here, he felt cooped up and claustrophobic. Even when sent on errands, the shops to which he went lined narrow, congested roads where heads bobbed up and down in confusion. The air weighed down with dust and noise, and mongrels, thin and skeletal, scavenged around for food.
The village had been primitive but it was clean and welcoming. In the city, there was no one he could trust, his mamu warned. People with kind eyes and sunny smiles could be the scions of the most horrifying activities in the shadows. He heard terror tales of kidnappings and maiming of children, trafficking of women and of rich businessmen who had to be protected by armed bodyguards against danger. On his own, Ramu also learnt that whereas poverty in the village did not divest a person of pride, in the city, it degraded the soul. It made the division between the haves and have-nots into a yawning chasm, while ineffably branding the impoverished as weak.
However, stitching all these paradoxes of Bundelly together, Ramu adapted himself to the place as best as he could. In the evenings, when haunted by the thoughts of his friends playing football or kabaddi back home, he drank in the sight of the boys of the apartment playing cricket with expensive bats and balls and gear. A girl riding on a swing reminded him of his sister. And the krishnachuras and bougainvilleas in the overlooking garden compensated somewhat for the lush greens that his eyes were used to.
It was the garden that Ramu liked most of all. Along with the few trees that grew there, there was also an assemblage of various potted flower plants. Sunflowers, kaaminis, juhis, sandhyamalatis and bright orange gendas. As the plants grew in size, Ramu had to change them into bigger pots, carefully filling in more soil and adding humus for fertility. He loved the smell of the damp earth, the feel of the papery leaves against his fingers and with an unrelenting stand, picked out weeds wherever they happened to grow. Tending the garden, for Ramu, was never wearying and instead, formed one of the most cherished parts of the day.
Today, as he attached the hose pipe to the tap and started watering the plants, Ramu’s eyes strayed abstractly to the water. He watched it wet the soil around the trees, that of the smaller clay pots and the bigger ones with equal ease. No matter what the perimeter of the earth, the water never failed to seep into the depths, adjusting itself to whatever area was available. And this seemingly miraculous phenomenon occurred in its own quiet way, sidelined and unnoticed, while at the same time making the soil richer and better! It suddenly made Ramu realise the thing about water that actually drew him— its invincible fluidity. Mobile and limitless, its flexibility was matchless, absolutely indomitable. And it was this very quality that encapsulated the secret mantra of life; for getting along its undulating terrains, the potholes as well as expanses, and making it till the journey’s end. Being fluid was the only—and perhaps the best way to survive, and buoy up the speck of one’s existence to the vastness of the universe. For no matter what the bends in life, if one were water, he could pour himself into any vessel, fit into any space, thus triumphing over the odds whatsoever. And hadn’t Ramu himself, too, responded with the same malleability to his father’s death, to his dropout from school, and his own move in Bundelly? Intuitively, he knew he shared this common feature with water and it was what had helped preserve the core of his being, making him whole in a life of fragments. And as the thought coursed through his mind, Ramu felt his strength mounting like gathering waves on a seashore and turning him into a man.
Bundelly: a fictional metropolitan Indian city
jatra: a jatra troupe is a travelling group of actors who move from village to village performing plays on various mythological stories and legends, commonly employing loud make-up and accompanied by live intermittent songs. (prevalent in India)
kaaminis, juhis, sandhyamalatis, gendas: varieties of flowers found in Indi
krishnachura: a kind of tree found in India with red, cone-shaped flowers
Krishna: name of an Indian god
kabaddi: an outdoor game commonly played in the villages of India
mamu: an endearment used in referring to the maternal uncle in Hindi
Sonepur: a fictional Indian village
sari: long piece of fabric worn by Indian women