“Stop troubling and get going,” Ma yelled at Dibbi from the kitchen. The sun was about to come out and along with her, Dibbi was always the first one to rise at home. Her morning chore was to get water from the spring 3 miles away. Up in the hills here, the 3 miles was not a smooth trip. Therefore, Dibbi would try to find various excuses to let her off this job. She prayed for her little sister, Jibbi, to grow up quickly and be able to hold a pail properly so that she could pass on this assignment to her.

“I always seem to get late for school,” Dibbi argued.

“If you stop dawdling as much, you would save some time. Now off you go,” Ma reprimanded.

There was just no more stalling. Dibbi picked up a pail in her hand and another vessel on her head and walked towards her destination. On the way, a few others joined in.

As soon as she was about to leave the village, about 17 odd people were heading towards the spring that was enclosed amidst a little valley- men, women and children. This was like a community trek that united some of them beyond the task at hand. The spring was enclosed in a little valley that needed to be reached after an arduous hike over a hill. Most people would prefer to stay quiet all the while, not disturbing the morning quiet. But not Dibbi. As soon as she would meet her friend Jeenu, she would initiate her chitchat. Mostly chattering about the dream that she had last night or her banter with her mother in the morning.

“I am just getting tired of these mundane mornings,” she began.

“Whatever happened now?” Jeenu almost rolled her eyes, anticipating a hopeless complaint that she might have heard a zillion times before.

“I can’t keep waking up even before the morning rooster crows. And then, I am required to carry water back home from this dull and tedious slog. Later, hurriedly get ready for school and then totter for another 2 miles, only to realize that masterji is waiting for an opportunity to pull my ears. I am done with.” Dibbi stated with a decisive conviction.

“Wasn’t this what you said three days ago,” Jeenu claimed.

“No, no. This time I am sure. I was 8 when I started coming with mom and by 14 she decided I could do it all on my own. Jibbi is almost 7 already. I think now she should start coming along as well. How is 7 or 8 any different, anyway?” Dibbi was sure her dispute was valid.

“I think you accompanied your mom because she could not leave you home alone.”

“You’re supposed to be on my side,” she chided.

“Ah, well. Truth hurts.”

“It sure does. This is our truth and it hurts, indeed,” Dibbi finally submitted and continued up the hill.

Jeenu smiled to herself, willing a final win to herself.

Their deft feet were used to the hilly track full of sharp slates that wedged out along the way making it tricky for them to cross over without forming a human chain. Almost involuntarily the various people held hands for the younger ones to cross over first while the older ones were the last to follow. And just so, upon their return as well, they would do the same. The village folk did not find this an out-of-ordinary activity but for a person who may watch them for the first time would deem them to be proficient at the task. The skill and balance required was the same as would be required for a well-trained acrobat. But this was not the only challenge one would face on the way. At the spring people would flock to get the first dip. Once they would fill their vessels, they would then pull out water for their ablutions as well and go about their business. Half an hour later, everyone would assemble again for their trail back home. For many, this would be their routine through most of their life. Not for Dibbi, as she would have maintained.

At home, Dibbi quickly got ready into her uniform, picked her bag, held Jibbi’s hand and dragged her out of the house. “I don’t want to be late again, hurry up,” she nudged her little sister. The little one cared less.

Dibbi paced as fast as she could, Jibbi trotting after her trying to match up to her steps. This was almost comical because neither seemed to care for the other though, in fact, they knew they had to be together all the time, as instructed by Ma. Ten steps behind, they heard the school bell ring that led them to a daft run towards their respective class. As predicted, masterji was quick to pick his cane from the table as soon as he spotted Dibbi running towards him. Dibbi noticed and deviated her steps towards the backside of the building. Masterji was not amused at all and so he followed her. The school building was simply a couple of rooms, which when jogged around once would barely take a minute. Masterji was quick to outdo Dibbi’s ingenuity. He nabbed her ear as she was about to jump inside the class from the window.

“You clever urchin. You thought you could get away from masterji?” He pulled her out from the classroom and made her stand in the sun for half an hour after that.

“Masterji, let me come inside. I promise I will be on time from tomorrow,” Dibbi pleaded after her time out.

Masterji was displeased but he knew how to relieve his nerves. He picked his cane and as if out of practice Dibbi offered her palm…and WHACK! This was a signal that Dibbi could enter the class and sit quietly at the back, nursing her sore hand. Along with the intensifying throbbing in her hand, her indignation arose in equal measure. For a few seconds, she just sat there, staring at the gash and then tears streamed down her cheeks. The hushed giggles from the other students added fuel to fire. By the time she left the school she was unsure of what she had studied that day. The only lesson that remained with her till she reached home was the one that was writ over her palm.

“I won’t go to school anymore, Ma,” she threw her bag in a corner and plonked herself on the cot, next to her mom.

“What happened, my darling?” Ma was quick to catch a cue and did her best to comfort her older daughter while keeping an eye on the younger one who had followed in.

“I can’t keep getting late for school and be beaten every day,” Dibbi was nearly in tears by now.

“I understand. But you can get up earlier and make sure you get there on time. I’ll ask Jeenu to accompany you for the water sooner,” seemingly Ma was too distracted from Jibbi’s antics that she was not clearly understanding what Dibbi’s apprehensions were. Dibbi just sat there gaping at Ma, as she got up and entered the kitchen to fix something for them to eat.

Dibbi threw her fist in the air and walked out of the house. Unsure, what else to do, she wandered off to the market at the only tea stall-cum-grocery store they had in the village.

“Come over, Dibbi,” Sattu, the shopkeeper called out. “What has your mother sent you for today?”

“Nothing,” Dibbi approached the shop and sat on a bench laid out for visitors. “I just came for some tea.”

“Of course, of course…here you go,” Sattu turned around to pour some tea in a tiny glass.

“But I don’t have any money, right now. I will pay later.” Dibbi was embarrassed to have stated this. If there was the most important thing that her parents had taught her it was to never take anything on credit from anyone.

“Er…okay…sure….no problem,” Sattu hesitated but offered her a glass of tea. Noticing that Dibbi was not her usual self, he probed, “Are you okay, my child?”

Chacha, why is the water spring so far away? Can we not get any water here?” Sattu was surprised to have been asked such a question.

“I think the village folk tried hard to get some water here, but our village is not exactly in the valley and so the government is unable to provide us with any water here. Therefore, we have to depend on natural springs. Unfortunately, it is on the other hill.” Sattu’s despondence trailed him off before he added, “why do you ask? Is something wrong?”

“Actually…” As soon as Dibbi began her rumination, she noticed masterji approaching the shop. She got up quickly and ran towards her home. On the way, she kept cursing herself to have involved Sattu in her notions. What if chacha speaks to masterji about what I was saying, she wondered to herself completely oblivious to the fact that adult conversations rarely involved the concerns of children.

Night fell but Dibbi was unable to get a wink. She kept tossing in her bed for a while.

“Sleep now, Dibbi. Otherwise, you won’t be able to get up on time in the morning. As it is waking you up is a task in itself already. Come on now. Sleep.” Ma called from her cot and turned around to hug the little one and slept off. Dibbi turned to the other side of her mat and closed her eyes. I just wish I don’t have to get any water any more from the spring.

The morning was not a usual one. The rooster did not crow and it was still dark outside when Dibbi got up with a start. “What time is it, Ma?” Dibbi moved over to the cot and shook her mother to wake her. Ma slid her hand under the pillow and pulled out a little winding watch. “Oh no!” she exclaimed looking at the dial. “We’re late, Dibbi. It’s 6 already. Hurry up or you’ll be late.” Ma quickly got off and rushed towards the kitchen.

“Ma, how about you go today and I’ll go tomorrow. I can take care of Jibbi and will get her ready for school too. I will cook the meal as well and clean around.” Dibbi tried her luck, even though she knew there was a bleak chance that her request would be accepted.

“While you are in school, I take two trips already. This is a great help that you extend, my child. Come on now, be a good girl and get moving.” Ma coaxed her.

“Okay, but I will not go to school then. I don’t want to anymore. I don’t like school.” Dibbi used a single breath.

Ma paused and turned towards her, “Baba is about to come in a few days. What will I tell him? He is away…miles away so he can earn for us; so you both can go to school. And if you refuse, what good is all of his hard work then?” Ma used possibly the best argument a mother could in the given circumstances. Dibbi was not convinced but she decided to get going nevertheless.

“You look rather dull today,” Jeenu noticed that something was bothering her friend. She paused for a response but on not getting one continued, “Is it because of masterji yesterday?”

This was all the trigger Dibbi needed. “Who does he think he is? I will never go to school anymore.”

“But what causes the delay almost every day? Why can’t you hurry?” Jeenu asked the most obvious question.

“It is Jibbi. She takes tiny steps and can’t walk faster.”

“Is that all? I can help you with that. I will come over to your home every morning and we can go together. We can take turns to pick Jibbi and carry her for at least some of the distance. That should help resolve. What do you think?” Jeenu was quick to offer help to her chirpy friend, who was presently pesky.

Dibbi flashed the brightest smile at her and both the friends picked up the pace to catch up with the rest of the crew. But the joy seemed short-lived. When they reached the spring, they found that the adjoining areas along with the spring had been cordoned by barbed wires and a signboard was placed before it that read- DO NOT ENTER.

The dismayed villagers were forced to return without any water this time. The uncertainty loomed large and the only place they could head over to get an answer was the sarpanch of the village, who stayed a little further away towards the valley. A few adults decided that they would get together and figure out what was the reason for the spring to become inaccessible for them and so they marched further downhill.

“Jeenu, I think this is because of me,” Dibbi whimpered as they headed towards school.

“What do you mean?” Jeenu, who had Jibbi piggybacking her, turned to her.

“Last night at bedtime, I wished that there is no spring I have to go to fetch water from and today morning this happens.” Dibbi’s guilt-laden logic was beyond Jeenu’s comprehension, “you must be crazy. How is that possible? You are just thinking too much. Let’s just hurry or else I will also get late along with you.” Jeenu goaded the sisters to speed up towards the school. Masterji was delighted to see the girls well before time. But Dibbi’s heart kept dithering towards the issue that bothered the whole village, because of her.

As soon as she returned home, she asked Ma where she had got water from. She was told that a few women folk got together to bring tubs full of water from the nearby village. It was an arduous task but seemingly the village women were more than what they seemed. The panchayat office had sent a message, through the men who had visited them, that the land where the spring was had been undertaken by the government for some electricity project that would come up soon. Seemingly some of the nearby villages needed more electricity and therefore water was to be used for the same in this part of the area. Dibbi was perplexed. Did this mean that there won’t be any water for them anymore? Ma explained that they may have to visit the nearby village for water until the government figures out an easier option to their village. This was infuriating for Dibbi. Especially because this meant for her to get up even earlier than before to go and get water.

Was there an alternative? Seemingly not. So the next morning, about half an hour earlier, Dibbi got along with the rest of the village folk to head over to the neighbouring village.

“All my fault, I tell you. Had I not wished for the spring to not be there all of this would not have happened.” Dibbi murmured while Jeenu continued following the tracks of the elders in the group. The journey downwards was easy but to fetch filled pails and pots up the hill was tougher. This was all that they did not want. But that challenge would come later. Before that, they had to tackle the flux of water bearers from the village they were borrowing water from. And looking at the queue at the village well, the girls were sure that they’d miss school.

Dibbi and Jeenu put their vessels in the queue and kept pacing one step at a time as the logjam started waning. When it comes to water, no one is generous in this part of the world, is what they discovered. Water was scarce even for this village and now that there were outsiders to share it was not a welcome thought and soon a conflict began. What ensued was a messy brawl amongst the men and women of both the villages and the children were left to witness the ugliness that adult humans can display when desperation reaches its extent.

The girls were conflicted now, whether to act and side with the folks from their village or attempt to get water and get going. After all, they had school to attend! And so they decided it was better that they let the adults decide on the matters of the world while they get going with the chore at hand. Just as Dibbi and Jeenu were about to place their vessels closer to the well, a burly teen boy stood in front of them. “What do you think you are doing?” he roared.

“We just need a little water and then we will be on our way,” Jeenu offered.

The boy did not seem amused, “And you think I would let you? You must be joking. Go back to where you came from, you beggars.” His retort did not go down well with Dibbi and she was about to smack the boy when Jeenu intervened, “Look, it is just a matter of four vessels. Let us have it, please. We have nothing to do with the brawl in the background. We just want to get the water and get to school as quick as possible.”

“Ha Ha…please let us have the water…please…” the boy mimicked. “Why don’t you get well in your village? Go now go…” the boy turned around towards the well to pick up Jeenu’s vessel and then threw it in. As a reflex Dibbi pounced on the boy, enraged. The boy failed to gather his balance and…PLONK….fell in the well. As if the button on the people from both the villages was pressed off, they paused to gather the scale of the conflict. That was the last that Dibbi fetched water for the family or even went to school.

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