By Sumana Roy
26 February 2019
A short story.
Another drop wasting way. She hears it in her sleep and turns to the other side. Tempted to get out of bed and put an aluminium pot under the leaking tap, she sits up. Next to her is the man she married twenty-four years ago. His face is half-covered – he’s drawn the quilt up to his face. She knows that the man she married isn’t as young anymore. It’s not his face or hair or gait that tells her that. In this soundless dark, his sleep gives away his age. Tiredness has accumulated inside his nostrils and mouth, in orifices that allow escape. He tries to push it out in his sleep every night, but they are like stubborn stones inside a kidney. Though he’s covered by folds of sleep now, she knows that he’ll wake up as soon as she gets down from the bed. He’ll shout at her in his sleep, louder than he does when awake. She’s more scared of him now than she’s ever been before. It’s because of how he ascribes everything to her ‘abnormality’ – she finds it more hurtful than being called fat, or ugly.
She looks at the cell phone – 2:37. Another six hours for them to wake up properly. Even if there was a drop every minute – and she’s certain that there are at least three drops a minute, if not more – that would be 360 drops. That’s enough for a person to brush their teeth. No, she couldn’t let this water waste away.
She pulls her legs out of her nightie as if they were a folding table and tries to cross over the sleeping man. Just then her body betrays her – a cough erupts out of her, it’s like a ball running away from her, she tries hard to catch it, but it’s out of her reach already. The ball hits her husband and wakes him up. He is livid.
“What?” he asks.
The night – its unattested sense of purity – doesn’t allow her to lie. She’d decided that she’d say she was going to the toilet, but the truth forces itself out as if it were dysenteric. “Water’s leaking from a tap. Why waste…”
“Go to sleep right now! Enough of your madness!” the sleeping man shouts, freezing her movements.
She sits still, waiting for him to return to a deeper sleep. She touches the Baba Loknath locket on her chain and says a little prayer. This moment is important to her, important enough for a prayer.
When all looks well and the circumstances favourable, her feet land silently on the floor, no less important than Neil Armstrong’s on the moon. She waits there, for all sounds to disappear. Then she tiptoes to the kitchen and takes out a handi – the metal pot rings against the counter. She is angry with metals, that they, like infants, make sounds when disturbed. She tries hard to think of something that doesn’t make any sound when moved – no, even air and water make sounds. Suddenly conscious, she regulates her breathing to mildness. Only my heart doesn’t make a sound when it’s moved; everything should be like my heart.
The handi travels with her to the bathroom, its floors scaly from dryness. She places it in the basin and waits. Nothing happens, not for minutes. Impatient but telling herself that she isn’t, she touches the mouth of the tap to check for some hint of wetness. She can’t be sure. She turns it on full force and tiptoes back to the bedroom. The bedroom seems to have lost weight since she was away – it looks smaller now, in the darkness. She puts half of her body on the bed and waits, scared of waking up her husband. The bed creaks – all things betray, like all men. She waits, one half of her hanging outside the bed. A little later, that half joins with the rest of her body. The darkness helps this painless surgery.
She lies down and waits. For one sound that might justify her midnight expedition. But it doesn’t arrive. She eventually falls asleep.
When she gets up the next morning, her husband is no longer beside her. The day takes him away from her – she has no choice but to let him go. Scared that he’d discover the handi, she leaps out of bed and runs to the bathroom barefoot. It’s locked. She waits there, nervous and slightly sweaty, in spite of the November cold. Then she goes to the kitchen sink and turns on the tap. Not even a tiny drop flows out. She waits, hoping for the familiar music of her childhood, things taken for granted – ‘running water’ that the maid called “Rani water”.
Rani water, indeed. What prognostication.
It’s been nine days since a full-bodied drop of water emerged out of the taps. The water-carriers, the poor men who ferry water across town, collecting water from faraway jhoras and lugging them in containers hanging from their heads, have disappeared. Like the water in this town. There are rumours that schools and colleges will be closed from next week – the buildings stink from a distance, the toilets have no water, students have stopped carrying water bottles to school because water is now drunk only after meals, at home – and, if the situation doesn’t get better, possibly not in offices too. There’s been an unofficial rationing on the sale of bottled drinking water: No more than four bottles per family. The fifth only if one has a medical certificate to prove that there’s an ailing person in the family.
Standing on the balcony of Lama Building, not looking at Happy Valley Tea Estate below but aware of its presence the way one is of the sky when sleeping outside even with one’s eyes closed, she stares at the Kanchenjunga peak. Not its beauty, now frozen in the human imagination, but at the snow. Her deprived mind changes its state of being – from solid to liquid, ice to water. If only the mind had greater power.
Uneasy, she looks at her skin — dry, from not having bathed in days. Returning to the dining space, she wonders whether she could use a bottle of drinking water for bathing. The thought, and the two choices, run inside her head from one end to the other, almost as if they were touching ear to ear, endlessly. It exhausts her, she is thirsty – one gulp of water, just one for now.
Her husband emerges out of the bathroom, wrapped like a gift, ready to go to work. He looks the same every day, as if he were an ATM. If he were a banker, he might have been granted leave, but he’s a policeman. She’s asked him twice already, whether they could leave the town and return only when water returned. He says he’s been refused. It is a time of Emergency. She regrets marrying a police officer. Marrying a sales representative would’ve been better.
“Breakfast?” she asks, like she does every day, taking out bread from the fridge.
“I’m tired of having bread for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” He turns away.
She feels accused, as if it were her fault that there was no water. People have stopped cooking because cooking needs water for boiling, for curries and gravies, and utensils need cleaning. Business has grown for bakeries – people are eating bread for most of their meals, along with moori and chips and chanachur, things that come in packets and don’t need cooking.
“Let’s go home to Malda for just two days. At least we can bathe and drink water and go to the toilet…”
Her husband is already out the door; her words never reach him.
Infuriated, she feels like throwing the bottle at him, but no, it’s a bottle of water. It’s more precious than everything else now.
When she walks to the glass door, to bolt it after her husband, she notices some commotion on the road. They live on Ladenla Road, the busiest street in Darjeeling. “Ki bhoyo?” she asks, in the little Nepali she’s scavenged for survival here.
Two young men respond in Nepali; the rest are too busy shouting at each other. There’s a red plastic bucket in the hands of one of the men. Someone is trying to take it away from him. They’re fighting over water. Drawing this conclusion, she walks back hurriedly to their rented flat and locks it from inside. And then, without giving it great thought, she takes three bottles of drinking water and puts them in the Godrej almirah.
Between phone calls, mostly to friends and relatives outside Darjeeling who cannot really understand what it feels like to live without water, who tease her about it, she cleans herself with Lakme cleansing lotion and cotton pads. From time to time, she walks or runs to the tap, opens and closes it, always surprised by what registers in her head as betrayal – taps are supposed to spurt out water as the nose is always supposed to be full of air. With no cooking to do, she arranges her clothes. Instead of the wardrobe, her attention is now on the pile of unwashed clothes that have spilled out from the laundry bag to suitcases and travel bags. She’ll have to buy new underwear soon – only a single set of fresh bra and panty remains. Is it possible to send bras and panties for ‘dry wash’?
“Hello,” she phone her husband, “Can’t we go to Siliguri for a day, check into a hotel, wash all our clothes, fill all our water bottles and cans, and come back the next day?”
“I’ve heard that the Chief Minister is trying to do something. We might get water in a day or two.” He hangs up.
She tries to remain calm. She’s never understood what policemen actually do when there are no thieves to be caught. What keeps them busy?
Losing control, she calls him again, “Are you busy?”
“Busy doing what?”
“What? Did you catch any water thieves?”
Her husband disconnects.
She won’t take this anymore, she will leave him, she will leave the town, she will… She pulls her legs out of a pair of warm salwars, then pauses for breath and pulls the nighty over her head. The cold gives her goose bumps immediately. Her nipples swell up. She rushes for her thermals. Uff, they stink. Only the kurta remains, made from warm cotswool. Then her yellow cardigan, and over it a black jacket. The dupatta wrapped around her face and head in a way that makes her unrecognisable to everyone, including herself. Socks – which she brings close to her nose to check whether they can be worn for one more day – and sneakers.
She is ready. “I’m going to Chowrasta to buy a bra,” she texts her husband.
The text fills her throat and mouth with the taste of tea from Glenary’s, but she shakes her head at the thought. All the eateries in town – even Glenary’s, the town’s mascot as it were – have been closed.
She will go to Senchal Lake, from where Darjeeling’s potable water comes.
She locks the door and drops the keys in the pocket of her jacket where they hit something in plastic. Two tiny bottles of water. In the inner flaps of her jacket are neatly folded plastic bags, a roll of sealing tape and a shaving blade. She has plans that she keeps even from herself. She will get some water. Anyhow.
The November air is sharp. The sky and its light, both bright, deceive. She keeps walking, her experience on the planet telling her that it is possible to grow indifferent to extremities of weather for a short period of time, that it’s like crying – one returns to normal, for one can’t keep crying forever.
She’s never been there before. She’s heard the name, inevitably at moments of crisis – when there’s a water emergency, or when a dead body’s been discovered in the lake. Google’s told her everything she needs to know about the place. She knows the numbers – 11 kms from Darjeeling town, an elevation of 8160 feet, opened in 1915. The lake that is housed in the wildlife sanctuary is fed by a mountain spring. The route she’ll find out – she’s walked through Ghoom and Jorebungalow before. The only way to get anywhere in Darjeeling is to walk, anyway. (She can climb up through Hooker Road to Mall Road without stopping for breath even once, she reminds herself with pride.)
On the way, past Chowrasta, then straight ahead, towards the train station, past the street where one must stop breathing, because the stench of centuries of urine soaked in walls makes it impossible, she keeps walking. She’s walking fast. How long can it take? An hour’s walk at the most? She could’ve asked her husband, but she didn’t. In any case, now it’s impossible. She’s left the phone at home. There was no space – the water bottles in her pockets, the house keys, the folded plastic packets. And what if she lost the phone?
Walking away from the town makes her feel liberated but also oddly sad. It feels a bit like leaving an infant at home. What if it wakes up before she returns? She feels that way about the taps. What if they begin speaking in their familiar colloquial while she’s away? Has she turned off the taps? It’s too late – she can’t walk back to the flat anymore.
She walks fast, faster than she’s ever walked before. Soon she’s left everyone behind – she’s now the only human on the road. Tourists have stopped coming; there are hardly any vehicles in sight. When she can’t breathe anymore, she stops – a tiny gulp of water from one of the tiny bottles. Darjeeling has made even her thirst thrifty. She begins walking again. This time a new sound besides the shy squeaks of her sneakers accompanies her – it’s the sound of water inside the bottle. Full bottles don’t make sounds, half-full bottles do. She smiles as she makes a note of this, to tell her mother and cousin, the only two people who laugh at her jokes.
As she walks intuitively towards the lake, two things begin to happen: the number of humans becomes inversely proportional to the number of trees. Here it is darker than it is in the town. Trees eat light, she always knew. Here they’ve eaten almost all of it. She wonders why she’s suddenly scared of the trees here as she’s never been in a city, not even in Darjeeling’s Botanical Gardens. She thinks of the water running through them and feels jealous. Is there no machine that could extract water from trees, from its xylem (or is it phloem? she cannot recall), like they extract sap from rubber trees? And then the thought of animals inside the forest arrives – are they still alive or have they died?
But no, thoughts won’t stop her, nothing will. She must reach the lake soon. The cry of an animal somewhere – she can’t recognise what animal it is, except that it must be an animal, for trees don’t shout. As she walks, not letting anything get in the way of her feet, not the cold, nor fear, nor her thoughts, she stops – where could the animals be getting their water from? Should she enter the forest to check?
Year after year in Darjeeling – though it’s only been three years she’s been here– she’s heard the same thing: Senchal is dry, lake pura dry chha, ek drop pani chhaina. But surely the animals don’t feel the same way? They’re not as stupid as humans – they don’t drink water from a tap. If only humans had continued to drink water from the ground, there’d have been no water crisis. And now they’re looking for water on Mars! Everything they kill and exhaust on Earth they look for in space. Fools!
But this is not the time for such thoughts. She has to keep walking. She changes idioms and proverbs as she walks, now beginning to run out of energy: not light at the end of a tunnel but water at the end of a journey. How much longer to the lake?
Two months ago, when the water crisis had just started, it came as a surprise, because it was immediately after the monsoon, when one didn’t need to worry about water, the reason why Dasai celebrations had never been affected by water shortage. With nothing much to do, she had begun to look for stories about water problems that the British engineers, missionaries, botanists, civil servants, teachers, tea planters and, of course, their families might have faced, in letters they wrote to friends and relatives at home in England, but also in various presidencies and sanatorium towns in India. But there was hardly any such news in these letters. It is possible that the white men were not even aware where their water had come from – through pipes, or carried in giant buckets by thin men and women who lost use of their brains from carrying such heavy weight on their heads. Locals call these innocents ‘laata’.
She knew a few of these water-carriers – she’d bought water from them a few times. Would she meet any of them on the way? Where were the streams and jhoras that they said they got their water from? Had these people become animals again, who knew where water sources were, from instinct and intuition, instead of relying on visual signs like taps and pipes?
That thought recharges her – if they can, she can, too.
Yes, she can now sense the presence of water, it cannot be too far away. It is true that water is not like light, that its presence can’t be seen from afar, but one can hear it walk, as on a seashore, or fall sadly without fear, when trapped inside a filter or coffee machine. She knows that she is near water. No, that’s not completely true. She feels that she’s near the presence of something that holds water, like one senses that people live in houses from the clothes hanging out to dry in courtyards. Just a few more minutes and she’d be able to see it – it’s just that water’s address isn’t always as fixed as a human’s might be.
She takes off her jacket – the long walk has squeezed water out of her, her body’s dripping in sweat. She’s angry and curious – she’s hardly drunk any water today, where has the sweat come from? There is more water inside her body than there is in the taps and pipes and tanks in Darjeeling. Is it possible to convert sweat to drinking water? She’s heard about a Japanese – or is it African? – company that can convert urine to drinking water. Why not sweat? What if she could cut her sweat glands and use that water? Why isn’t it possible to collect sweat like one collects blood in bottles?
The shawl covering her face and head, the scarf that was wrapped around her neck until a little while ago, and the jacket, are now in her hands. It seems it’s been years since she’s bathed. Memories of jumping into the Ganga in Malda, her Malda, the town of her childhood, with the sweetest mangoes in its orchards, come to her – a clump of soil breaking from under her feet and falling into the river almost at the same time as her body dives into the water greedily on a summer day. How much water there was in the river – it was a universe, bigger than anything imaginable, bigger even than the sky! Unlike rooms and houses and other places on land, it’s never refused her entry.
She doesn’t realise that she’s crying.
“More water! Where is it coming from?” she shouts at herself angrily, staring at the tears that are now in her palms. She turns her face towards the sky just to check if she might be able to force the tears back to where they’d come from. Not a drop of water must be wasted.
She thinks she hears a cow moo, but it is followed by the same rigid silence and the unchanging view of sharp pines pointing their arrow-like snout at the sky. The road seems like a dictionary – she won’t ever be able to get to the end. Hurrying towards a bend, hoping to get a sighting of water, she stands like a person who can’t remember what she’s lost.
Instead of water there are lines, like graphs from her college economics textbooks. The haze of fog separates these upward climbing graphs from each other. It takes her some time to realise that these are mountain ranges. She takes out a plastic bag from her pocket – fog is water, if she can trap parts of it (what else to call them except parts?) in her bag, they will turn into water later. The plastic bag flares up, its handles like ears, its body energised by air – but no water accumulates inside it. She waits for the fog to travel towards her, for it to behave like water, easier to catch, but no such thing happens. She cannot take it anymore – there’s so much water in front of her, the clouds and the fog, the icy peaks of the mountains, but they are inaccessible to her as water. It’s like god being everywhere but actually invisible. No, it’s worse. She can do without god, she cannot do without water anymore.
Tiny yellow birds fly past her, beginning their descent not far from where she is. That is where water – the lake – must be? She begins walking, angry that the road she has to take is not the same as the birds’, that they will get there before her. What if they finish drinking the little water there that remains?
When she sees water at last, it is like sagging skin on the lake. She doesn’t recognise it, like one sometimes can’t an aged actress, from having only seen her tilted young face on a giant screen. Confused, she wonders why she’s here. She’s forgotten. The shawl and the jacket and the empty plastic bottles and packets have all fallen on the way. She doesn’t remember them.
She only wants to bathe. She wants nothing more. The birds have left. So have the clouds. The sky is naked, like it is at this time of the year, naked for a few moments just before it swallows light for the day. The yellow sweater is wet in parts, underarms and the back, from sweat. But her clothes might as well be a part of her. She has no consciousness of their separateness – they need to bathe along with her, as the rest of her body, her hair and feet. Swallowing the remaining dryness from inside her mouth, she dives into the lake.
“Why did she jump into a dry lake?”
“If the lake hadn’t been completely dry, her body would never have been recovered. The people of Darjeeling would’ve been drinking…”
“She must’ve thought it was the Ganga…”
“At least her death brought the Chief Minister and water to Darjeeling – let us be grateful for that.”
“Was it suicide? Her husband is a police officer who…”
“What was her name? Maybe we can name this place after her, Shahid Something, like Shahid Bhagat Singh, you know? Tourists would love…”
“How about Water Martyr Point when we bring tourists from next year?”
“That sounds like Matar Paneer…”
~Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree (2017), Missing: A Novel (2018), and Out of Syllabus: Poems (March 2019). She writes from Siliguri, India.