Sohini Basak has poems and short stories in The Lighthouse Journal, Paris Lit Up, Ambit, Litro, The Ofi Press, Helter Skelter, and elsewhere. She tweets sporadically @Sohini_Basak.
Somebody sweeps off ground glass to the side of the newly-pitched road, this is what wakes me up. One in the morning and no one is sweeping our newly-pitched streets, there is no ground glass. The sky is fluctuating, not the streetlights. I go back to sleep. I wake up again, this time at seven and like every other morning, expect the taps to run out of water. It will happen, one of these days, I will go to the bathroom and brush my teeth only to find out that there is no water to rinse out the disgustingly mint foam. As I stand in front of the bathroom door, the dread of the day (for this might just be the day we run out of water) passes on from the tips of my fingers to the rickety steel latch and makes it cold. I stand still and strain my ears for other signs. Yes, there is something odd about the usual morning din in the neighbourhood, it is not very pronounced. Last night’s fluctuating sky seeps into my drowsiness, and I imagine walking into the kitchen to see my wife standing in front of the stove looking worried. “There is no water, I’m boiling cold water from the fridge for tea,” I imagine her saying, to which I reply what else did you expect, Ma Ganga to do rounds in our neighbourhood, pouring out water from a little plastic bucket?
It occurs to me that I cannot remember what colour the plastic buckets in our bathroom are. Still, I am not ready to push the bathroom door open yet. Downstairs, the chirp of electric birds, the wife opens the door to the maid. On the other side of this door, no goddesses or rivers, only obnoxious pink buckets. Or default green. All empty. Downstairs, the two women talking. I know the conversation very well, I have imagined it for months, if not for years. The maid will come in, wringing her hands, her glass bangles making that awful noise, saying how there is no water in any of the houses she has been to work since morning and my wife will very loudly, projecting her voice into the stairwell, say “Shono!” which is not my name, but a slyly conjugated verb to listen that has become my name and so automatically I will inch towards the staircase and I will listen to the two women talking and after they finish their bit, I will say what did you expect, PC Sorcar to hold a Water of India masterclass right now? I will then ask Runu to not waste everybody’s time waiting here because it would be futile, and ask her to only come in the evening if the water problem has been solved. My wife will raise her eyebrows at the word “if” (I won’t be able to see this from the top of the staircase of course, but the maid will and she will mirror her mistress) and switch on the TV, and then project another astonished “shono” in my direction via the stairwell which acts as an amplifier, this time to inform that all the Bengali news channels are reporting from this, that, et cetera districts to report on the water crisis. Breaking News, she will report and I will, for the hundredth time in my life say that for those channels the 25th of every December is also Breaking News material because it is Christmas Day but because of the immediate water woes, or because I am not very articulate these days, or because the stairwell is partial and does not carry my voice as effectively, my wife will mishear the joke, or observation, or whatever it was I was trying to express and she will think that I am confusing the seasons again. But that happened just one time, and in another country.
My wife will now climb up the stairs in order to rub off some of her anxiety on to me and finding me calmly doing the crossword on the balcony wickerwork chair she will look more disappointed with me than the missing water. She will ask, but how will we cook now, or bathe? This has never happened in our neighbourhood, we are not in Rajasthan! Of course we’re not in Rajasthan, I will reassure her and to prove that my sense of seasons is all good, add, arrey baba we were in Jaisalmer in winter, 1980. What good food. Four, across: Azure. She will think that I have completely lost it and put on her sari and go out to buy bottles of mineral water. When she comes back, she will say that she could only find five bottles of mineral water in the entire marketplace. So I got some bottles of Frooti just in case, and this watermelon. It’s an impossible day, she will say.
This is where I will say that all days are potentially impossible until they are over.
Or, this is where I will say I told you so, I told you, since summer 1991, that we will run out of water.
But I did get some good banshpata, she will say next, and show me a bag containing fish. This might be the last of fresh fish she will say, deftly rationing the stock into three smaller plastic bags before putting them into the freezer for the bleak future.
I will fish out my laptop, open the folder titled PROOF and read out to my wife bits of the reports that I have been collecting. She will raise her eyebrows and frown whenever the nouns Bangladesh, Teesta, and future occur. In conclusion, she will smile weakly and say, oh the taps will be running by the afternoon, you don’t mind a little ground ginger in the banshpata jhol, na?
I will stop myself from telling her that I wouldn’t mind a little ground glass in my banshpata, but instead say what is more important: but Meena, suppose they don’t, suppose the taps don’t resume their water supply, not today, not tomorrow, not in the foreseeable future. I will ask her in order to make sure she knows how to survive.
She will think of impossible solutions: ask the neighbours — as if they will have any to spare for us; go to the next town—has she forgotten the Breaking News already? It’s a state crisis, it will be a national crisis soon, and they will be flinging chairs at each other in the Parliament. Poor souls, my wife will say, anyway the capital is always out of water and if they have to sit on those chairs and think on empty stomachs she will say, — I will wonder why they (whoever they were in her context) would have empty stomachs and also wonder how anyone, even hypothetical beings with potentially empty hypothetical stomachs managed to evoke immediate sympathy from Meenakshi.
Then I will tell her everything. I will tell her that I knew this day was coming, I mean how could she not see this coming, at the rate that the Sinhas washed their cars, and bought five new sprinklers and kept them running all day? How could she not when Runu forgot to turn the tap off every day after she had finished cleaning? The obnoxious green (or default pink?) buckets are always overflowing in our house. Suppose these things happened in all the houses, in all the neighbourhoods, in all the blocks, towns, districts, etc.? Just multiply Meena, just multiply. And all she will say, E baba, it will be a sad Holi for the children this year.
Then I will sweep the ground glass to the side and tell her everything. I will tell her what I have been doing all this time. No I won’t tell, I will show. I will take her to Babai’s bedroom, and ask her to take the trunks out from under the bed. I myself cannot because my wrist hurts and my orthopaedic has forbidden me to bend. Once she takes out our son’s old trunks, she will wipe her forehead with the end of the sari and say how are these so heavy, have you been keeping things in these? Babai kintu—did you email him and ask about the old magazines? E baba why is it locked? What have you done with Babai’s magazine collection?
I will then ask her to take the key out from its secret place. I will tell her everything. I will tell her how I have hidden the key inside her old harmonium. Good old harmoniums, the best place to hide fluctuating skies. So I will say, Meena, go get the keys from the next room, this way you will learn. She will look tired of my games and I will say this is for our good.
When she is back with the keys, hanging from a four-across-azure dolphin keychain, I will tell her everything. I will ask her to open the trunk and she will and then she will be surprised to find the most beautiful things inside. Bottles of mineral water. Bisleri. Aquafina. Kinley. Himalaya. Even three Indian Railways bottles from my trip to Kerala. I have been saving these. Most beautiful. Clear water in clear plastic bottle-shapes with bottle-caps blue green pink and white. Clear water tumbling, conjuring clear bubbles if you shake the trunk. Potable water, collected and saved to postpone imminent disaster. Saturated Fat: 0g. Trans Fat: 0g. Total Fat: 0g. Purity guaranteed. I have been waiting for this day.
The entire trunk? She will ask, her face glowing, unable to hide her relief.
Then I will tell her everything: about the earthquake in 2008 and how, when she had gone back to sleep after the first tremors, I had been awake. I had packed a bag with the necessities. It is also there, a bag with some dry fruits and insurance cards and enough cash and some medicine with first-aid and the credit card you thought went missing, all in that other trunk. One must be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.
Now she is curious: and what else did you pack? What about our photo albums, at least the ones from our wedding and Babai’s mukhebhaat? What about your certificates and Babai’s report cards?
And I will say, Meena, one must be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. Babai is thirty-three now, why would he need his report cards? And why can’t he take his report card and those silver-fish infested comics with him if he cares so much about them?
No, I will change the topic, and say, there is one more suitcase in the attic. Actually that one should be used first. That has bottles from last year. I will tell her everything. Will I tell her about Osaka, summer 1976, Mizu et al.? No, that can wait. But I will tell her how I have been saving these new, or almost-new bottles of water for this very day. Replacing them every six months because who knows what microorganisms expired water might grow. But remember, this is only for drinking and cooking. I will remind her to find other ways of getting water for other things.
Babu, have you turned into stone in front of the bathroom door?
The bathroom door. A latch made of steel, or dread. International tamper proof seal. Babu has not turned into stone in front of the bathroom door. The cheeky maid has come to sweep the dust off the floor. Imagining that Runu will sweep off the dread along with dhulo, I finally get the courage to push open the bathroom door. I check for the signs. Yes, the floor is dry, and the two buckets are only half full. Obnoxious pink both of them, one translucent. This could be the day, this could be the day I would have to tell everything to my wife. I turn on the basin tap and a slow trickle of water first starts, then runs out. I turn the tap off immediately. Zero wastage. I put a pea size bit of minty toothpaste on my toothbrush and almost immediately, I hear the sound of rain. Fluctuating, I go out of the bathroom, and look out of the window. No it is not raining. It is only the Sinhas starting their sprinklers. The noise of the sprinklers is like the noise of the rain, I note. But then, the noise of what is like the noise of ground glass? I watch the Sinhas’ garden ground soak and turn into mud. A tiny patch of redundant earth. I watch the five sprinklers water the garden gloriously and note that it is not raining over Andandapur Road, that it will not rain over this town for a very very long time, I have known this for years. The sprinklers have known this for years and now they hiccup, choke on redundant mud, sprinkle water in spurts and then stop. It will not rain and I will have to tell her everything. Four, across: Packaged Drinking Water.
Illustration: Shakthi Nataraj