The Caste of Water

Shankar stared at the burning cloudless sky that stared him back. There was no sign of rain till his eyes could reach. He has been on the lookout for dark clouds for more than a month now. Every day, since morning, he would gaze at the sky at intervals for any cloud movement and irrevocably looked down in disappointment. However, his hope never dwindled, “it would rain soon”. 

But there was more waiting in his share, far more wanting. The puddle was on the verge of drying up, stripping him and the likes of him on this side of the road, of the indispensable necessity of life- WATER.

The size of the landholding was minuscule, barely an acre, barren and so hardened that the cracks went deeper than it showed.  It was the same for everyone on this side of the road, the road they barely crossed for they were forbidden on the other side. 

They were only welcome to work on the fields, the greener tended fields which were burdened with grains during harvest. The people on the other side had some magical thing called “tube well” which oozes water even when it went without rain for months. The only drawback was it made a screeching noise while vomiting water.

Shankar walked towards the green fields, to work in the greener pastures for the strong and the mighty of their land, so that he could satiate his and his family’s hunger pangs. He loathed being a daily wage earner. Slogging the entire day under the blazing sun for someone else and getting a few pennies at the end of it all, which didn’t even fetch a whole meal for his family. On top of that the baseless restrictions of movement and action he had to encounter on the other side were annoying. 

There were many like him on this side of the road, who had some land but all barren with not even a single weed on it. So, there was no way out than to work on the fields on the other side. They were not allowed inside the residential area of the village, forget about temples and holy places. No one on the other side has ever touched them, not even one of them. They were not served food in utensils; leaves of banana or lotus were their platter. They were not supposed to appear in front of the others in the morning when they leave for some auspicious work as mere sight of the people on this side in the morning was considered a bad omen. 

They have seen such a plight since birth as their birth itself was a wretched one when they had to emerge from the womb of a low birth. There was a special word for it- “caste.” This side of the road was meant for the low caste people who, for ages, have been alive in flesh and blood but dead in their conscience. They have accepted it as their way of life. A few voices who revolted against it were quietened by their own people in fear of losing their source of livelihood. It didn’t hurt anymore to serve the high births even when they treated them inferior to the animals. The high caste people, the ones whom God gave the privilege of being on top, the ones who owned the green fields, the ones who had magical powers like tube wells, the ones who were the noble souls, had been dominating the low caste families since forever and that has been the tradition of the land.

However, the source of water had been a matter of concern on either side of the road. The greener side had tubewells, but the water was too salty to be consumed by humans. So, it was only used for watering their green fields. There was a well on the side of the road where the high caste families resided and miraculously the water was sweet, perfect for drinking. And on this side, the side of the low births, there was a pond, a big one, big enough to serve the whole village. But scanty rainfall had reduced it to a puddle, with dirty muddy water. The low caste families depended on that water as they were not allowed to even wander around the well. If they happen to touch that well, the water would become impure and the high caste fellows won’t be able to use it. In fact, a board, set near the well read, “People from Ujwali are not allowed to fetch water from the well.”

Ujwali meant brightened but light was far away from the lives of its poor residents. The other side, Bithala, was the hamlet of the rich and the eminent- who owned everything, even the lives of the lowly. The womenfolk of Bithala fetched their drinking water from the well and those from Ujwali travelled six kilometers to a stream and fetched water, but a pitcher or two was not enough to quench the thirst of the whole family. 

On rare occasions, however, Ujwali saw a surge of food and water, when the high caste folks performed Daan- a kind of donation to earn goodwill in the eyes of God. Someone from the other side came to this side of the road and kept the food items, all on leaves of banana and the sweet water from their well, on the edge of the road. Then, the villagers of both the villages sat on either side of the road, their respective sides, and a priest chanted some hymns. Once, the ceremony was over, the villagers of Ujwali ripped into the feast. However, they wondered what goodwill the rich earned by feeding them once and preying on them on all other days.

***

“How many of you are here today?” Mahajan shouted as Shankar and his peers neared the green fields.

Shankar replied, “We are ten in total, My lord!”

“Okay. Get to work and don’t stray around passing time. I will be on a constant lookout. Do your work sincerely.” The Mahajan retorted. 

He was a short well-groomed man, always in white, and held a black pouch just below his right armpit. He was the caretaker of the green lands, on behalf of all the families of Bithala. He was also an important voice of the village council and often the final decision in the matters of land.

“Water the fields today…. using the tube well.” He had a grin on his face when he said the second part of the sentence. 

“Handle it very carefully. Don’t break it. In a few days we will install an automatic one, that will pump out water on it’s own. It will not need the likes of you to pump it.”

“Yes My lord! But we will lose our livelihood.”

“Not at all. You still have a lot to do- showing, tending, harvesting. Who will do all that?”

“You grace My lord!”

The earth was fuming that day. Even an hour under the sun could result in acute dehydration. Hence, the count was small for the workers.

 Shankar looked up again. There were stray clouds scattered across the sky but no sign of rain. He was about to look down in disappointment when… something caught his eye- something that kindled hope, something that he had longed to see. A haze restricted his view of the hills on the far north. It appeared as a translucent screen, covering the entire stretch of the hills. He guessed what it was. In fact, he knew what it was. It rained in the hills. It rained incessantly, indiscriminately and endlessly in the hills. 

Now, it was just a matter of hours, or maybe minutes when the rain would travel to their land and drench it enough that the thirst slaked for many months to follow. The sowing season still lingered in fragments and with utmost care, a good harvest was still possible. Soon, they would plant their own saplings, grow grains and hoard plentiful in their granaries. They would have full meals, sometimes even more so that they too had paunches like the rich. Just a few more minutes…

But, suddenly, Shankar felt shaky. He sensed so light-headedness that he collapsed to the ground. He looked around and saw everyone, like him, was seated on the ground holding their heads. 

Villagers of both the villages came running out of their homes and all of them assembled on the road, TOGETHER. Some of them held each other to prevent themselves from toppling over. The earth shook furiously, and with it shook everything that was on its face. The intensity of the earthquake was so strong that the walls of even the mud houses bore cracks. No one had ever experienced such a strong earthquake ever in their lifetime. It seemed as if the ground couldn’t tolerate the diminishing relationship of mankind and it wanted to spew out chaos to let the mortals know the instantaneity of their existence. The moment they saw death approaching, all differences were lost just to stay alive.

 After about a minute of tremors and terror of a lifetime, the earthquake ended. Horrified faces looked for their family members and a few tried to ascertain the damage. It was not much as there were no skyscrapers or concrete jungles. But the damage was within each one of them- the high caste people were petrified to learn they were corporeal, not immortal and low-births were scared to lose an earning or a working hand. But amongst all these they failed to notice the dark clouds that engulfed the sky above them. It was only when it started to rain, they realized it was the end of the tremble and the onset of the pleasant drops from heaven. The high-born folks ran back into their dwellings, but the lowly people stood there soaked in the rain till their souls were wet. 

It rained continuously for two days filling up their pond, fields and lives with water. They drank, bathed and swam in their water, their own source of water. The pond brimmed with clean water which cleaned the layer of dirt that surfaced on the essence of the people who resided surrounding it. The scarcity was no more on this side of the road. 

But, on the other side…. Things changed drastically.

It was only when the rains stopped, they came to know there was an acute shortage of water on the other side. They had travelled to the stream, six kilometers away, for water. Their well had suddenly dried up and the tube well exuded only air. Their magic had failed and somehow, they had irked the Gods which resulted in such a calamity. Priests and elders of the village were busy conducting rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices to please the Gods so that the water came back. Some of them tried to sound sane by reasoning it to be the earthquake which caused the groundwater to shift, but they were rebuffed by the elders. According to them, God has taken away their water and he can only return it back.

The rain water was somewhat recompensing for the loss in the last two days but now there was no water on that side. The rich were not used to the acute dryness and the consequences have been far worse than it had been on this side. Women and children were falling sick and the men were soon to follow. Ceremonies and sacrifices went on for days, but the water didn’t return in their well or the tube wells. At last, the elders decided to request the people of Ujwali so that both the villages could use the water. 

When Mahajan went to negotiate with the villagers, he was flatly rejected. They said, “When we were dying for a few drops of water, you denied, branding us as impure, but now you want to drink the water in which we bathed, and, God knows, what other things we did? We will not give a single drop of water to Bithala. Go fetch it from the stream.”

It was an insult for the high-born rich folks when the slaves who licked their boots till the day before for a piece of stale Roti were now raising their voices denying them something which by mistake went to the other side. It was not how it should have been. The high caste people have always commanded but now, they had been reduced to beggars by a bunch of dim-wit low births. They were the worthy intelligent beings of the land, the masters, and they have always been on the profit side of the equation…. Always.

The next day, Ujwali woke up to a huge barbed boundary around the pond that was set up within a night. The board that read, “People from Ujwali are not allowed to fetch water from the well” was moved from the well to the pond. Policemen guarded the area, and no one was allowed inside the boundary without the permission of Mahajan, and… he stood at the edge of the pond, grinning.

The whole of Ujwali barged towards the pond, infuriated and abusing Mahajan; he might have bribed the Collector. But as soon as they faced him, they mellowed down as he was guarded by a few armed policemen. 

Shankar asked, “My lord! What have you done? It was our source of water for years. You are misusing your power against deprived beings like us. If you don’t let us use this water, we will die of thirst. You must spare the pons for us or we will move to court.”

Mahajan replied, “Very well! You may move to even Supreme Court if you want but before that have a look on these papers” and pulled out a bunch of agreement papers from his pouch.

He continued, “These are the papers of the agreements your fathers, grandfathers and ancestors had with our elders. I have read each one of them and all of them collectively state that the entire stretch of land has been mortgaged to us for loans. All of your elders had taken loans from our fathers and they also state that if your fathers fail to repay the loans, the land belongs to us. Did anyone of you ever repay the loans of your forefathers to me?”

There was utter silence. 

He started again, “So, the land belongs to us and if you wish to get it back, repay the loan. The minimum outstanding amount that I have calculated, which includes the principal and the interest for all these years is two lakhs which Gobar’s father had taken and now he must repay. Others have much higher amounts to repay.

For the time being, you may stay in your house, but you cannot use this water. Go fetch it from the stream.”

There was nothing more to listen to; they left the place soon after. As they moved away, a woman was heard speaking to another in a hushed tone, “God knows why Gandhiji called us Harijans. Someday it will end up being an abuse.”

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Nilutpal Gohain

Nilutpal Gohain is a bureaucrat with the Government of Assam. He started his literary journey recently after his quest for bread and butter. Many of his short stories and poems have been published in literary journals such as Muse India, Spillwords, Setu, The Hans India etc.
Nilutpal Gohain

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