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kcoelho at email.arizona.edu
Tue Jun 14 01:02:27 IST 2005
Ashokamitran's novella "Water" ("Thaneer" in the original) is a prose documentary set in the drought-stricken summer months of 1969 in Madras. I am reviewing it here for two reasons: first, it is built, to a large extent, on the same images and textures that I have in mind for my project. And second, it drew me almost too easily into its present, telescoping time, suggesting a changeless city and casting an ironic light - or shadow - on all the putative developments of the intervening 35 years. The work first appeared in serialized form in the journal "Kanaiyaazhi" in 1971, and then in its entire form in 1973. I am reading a version published by Katha in 2001, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom.
The book is a detailed realist-impressionist depiction of the struggle for water on the streets of Madras, through an almost claustrophobic focus on a single street whose existence (and near destruction) revolves around the daily quest for water. Its protagonist is a single woman in her late twenties called Jamuna who lives alone in a rented room on the street. Her restless tossings of ambition, hopelessness, self-hate and compassion are mirrored and inflected by the action on the street outside. Water, in this book, is social and symbolic material, medium, metaphor. It drops into every conversation - as central character or casual idiom; it is not only background to the action, but propels it (for example, characters make decisions to move or stay on the street based on the water situation). Worries about water punctuate every scene; strategies to capture water form and dissolve social relationships; hope, despair, cruelty and compassion, play out on the street between landlady and tenant, relatives and neighbors as the water alternately gushes and withholds itself. Jamuna's despair over her sister leaving the house and moving to a hostel is expressed in worries over water: hotels and hostels were supplied with water from drums, rarely cleaned and "filled in the dead darkness from some decaying well. That water could contain roots, droppings, rubbish, leeches, snails, cockroaches, even frogs. Chaya had gone away to that hostel. Was this the water that she was drinking?... Chaya. Chaya" (p.43). Subtle changes in the water situation mark the passage of time, or rather, produce effects of timelessness - "it was now months since the water had stopped coming out of the taps." (p.44).
The street comes alive in the darkness just before dawn when the pumps start to flow. Women, awakened by the sounds outside that signal the beginnings of the brief release, are instantly in the fray, churning urgently back and forth across the street, pleading, fighting, negotiating, building up or calling on favors, as one pump stops and another continues to yield. The whole range of social relations and norms is indexed and invoked to claim priority in the queue - age, property rights, states of ritual purity. Yet, always, the need for water, the right to water is vociferously asserted to counter these claims.
The street gets almost reluctantly knit into a neighborhood through peculiar "gifting" relations around water - a particularly enterprising and particularly desperate woman noses out a still-yielding pump hidden in somebody's bathroom down the street, and marshals all her conversational skills to procure a bucketful.
At some point the Municipal Corporation lorry arrives to install a tank on the street, and a new set of gender and social relations develop around this source, as the lorry driver and workers negotiate their stakes with men in the neighborhood, and avenues for petty entrepreneurship are slowly recognized. Then, in the name of improving the situation, the street gets dug up, ostensibly to clean the mains. But the Corporation team also uncover - as they expect to -- the "nipples" that have been illegally attached to each household connection - these are small pieces of extra tubing that intrude into the street water main, in the hope of sucking water out of the pipes when levels are lower than usual. Residents had paid hundreds of rupees to corporation workers to intall these a few months earlier. Now the corporation supervisor systematically removes all these connections. The excavation sends the street into a spiral of chaos - electric lines are damaged, plunging portions of the street into darkness; vehicles get stranded in the trench which remains uncovered for days. A drainage line gets broken by a worker's spade and the hapless resident of the house is forced to repair it.
But the street excavations also provide a source of hope: residents have heard that new pipes are being laid in some places and that "places like Mylapore and Mandaveli are not suffering so much!" (p.60). The supervisor of the digging team informs them that the entire pipe system on this street was only recently laid, and that a few pipes would soon be renewed. It turns out that his brother-in-law had been hired to dig a borewell on the street, which yielded nothing. The supervisor defends his relative: "Saar, I am told they dug to a depth of eighteen feet. Tell me, what can anyone do if there is no water left underground?" (p.60). Ultimately, then, hope drains away into the unknowable underground, even as it is being publicly policed in messy excavations. The public is also aware of the leakiness of this underground order: residents remark on how one of the houses on the street always has water. "They say there's a little water flowing out there, somehow" (p.20).
Once again, what struck me in all this was how much the descriptions resonated with contemporary landscapes of thirst in the city. Or, how little has changed despite all the hype about infrastructure improvements funded by close to 1000 crore rupees since the 1980s, much of this loaned from the World Bank. Most Chennai residents would still claim, as a character in the book does: "This water business has become a terrible struggle" (p.23). Yet, for some the problem remains trivial, as it is for Bhaskar Rao, a film producer in the novel. When Jamuna refuses to go out with him because "Today is the day they start giving us water from the tank," he responds: "Such a fuss, and it is only water. I tell you, I'll bring huge cauldrons of water tomorrow, in my car" (p.33).
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