Pot of Water
By Fehmida Zakeer
Nalini could see a long line stretched ahead — red, pink, blue, violet — snatches of a tattered rainbow littered in a haphazard line on the road. She placed her yellow and green pots at the end of the queue. She was late. Normally her pots would be somewhere at the beginning of the line or at least in the middle, but today they were more or less at the end. Ammini, her neighbour and good friend, stood almost at the centre, the place where she too would have been standing if she had woken up early.
Last night she had come home late. There was a party at Sarika Madam's house, by the time Nalini reached home it'd been eleven. Ramesh, her ten-year-old son was lying on his mat reading his school book. A small steel bowl stood at the corner with a few grains of rice swimming about in traces of translucent pink starchy water. He jumped up when he saw her, he knew she would be bringing home tasty food when she came this late. It had been almost twelve when she finally spread her mat next to his and lay down to sleep.
Now as she hurriedly walked to the place where the lorry was parked Nalini marvelled at the bleached brilliance of the sky. The new day had hardly begun, but the sun's blaze could have fooled anyone to believe that it was noontime. The lorry stood under the canopy of the raintree, a scaly tube as thick as a python snaked out from the lower portion of the barrelled lorry gushing out water. The driver stood aside amidst tendrils of curling smoke while his assistant worked the lever to control the flow of water and chatted with the women.
The crushed sarees and frazzled hair of the women gave away the fact that most of them had got up from bed and had come straight away. Some yawned continuously setting off a chain reaction while some scratched their heads or drew patterns on the ground with their toes.
Nalini hoped she would get her quota of water for the day. Her mother-in-law would be irritated if she did not get the water; Nalini knew Amma was planning to cook something special for her son. Ravi was expected to reach home by about eight at night. He would first drop off the cargo at the warehouse then go to the main office to get his wages, only after that would he come home.
The queue was only half way through when loud voices rose up in agitation from the front. She craned her neck in an effort to find out what the commotion was all about. "What do you mean only one pot! How come? Only half of us have taken water," Ammini was shouting red in the face, "you people want to sell the remaining water, that's what."
Nalini frowned. She saw the lorry driver flicking the lever shut before he turned and addressed them, "Look here, if I stop now there is nothing you can do. Take one pot and go." His words scaled down the angry mutterings of the women to sullen looks. The driver had connections in the ruling party; if he decided not to come at all, they wouldn't be able to do a thing about it. Nalini sighed, she would have to get water from somewhere else, but where?
Earlier when Ravi was driving the school van he used to get water from the school. The Principal made it clear that he would not tolerate it on a regular basis, but once in a while was okay. The relocation of the school to its permanent premises on the other side of the city not only robbed Ravi of his job but also their alternate source of water.
After Ravi lost his job, Nalini also looked for ways to earn some money. That's when she decided to accompany Ammini to the salvage dump nearby where garbage lorries arrived by the dozen, piled high with the refuse thrown out by city dwellers. Ammini taught her how to tie a piece of cloth around her nose and mouth and also to look out for things like iron bits, plastic bottles and packets. Sometimes her feet would get cut, but that problem got solved when they found some discarded footwear. Some days she did not get much, but sometimes she got good stuff, a discarded iron spatula or an iron box, once she even got a full knife set. Whatever she picked up, she learnt that getting money from the scrap dealer required nerves of steel and a quick tongue. The forage brought her about Rs. 50 every day, not much, but then every bit counted.
Now as she entered the house, Amma glanced at the empty pot sitting lightly on her fingers and asked, "You got only one pot?"
Nalini broke in, anxious to stop a full-fledged tirade, "Yes, but don't worry Amma, I will try and get one more pot of water from somewhere." She hurriedly stepped into her room to change her saree — the room was nothing more than a space cordoned off by a cane divider in the single room tenement. She had found the divider in the dump; it was almost intact except for a few places where the cane strips had given away from the crisscrossed design. Ravi had repaired the gaps using fallen twigs, he had wanted to paint it bright blue but she fancied gulmohar orange. She argued that the orange would brighten up their house. Inside the drab interior of their home, the orange screen was the first thing everyone noticed when they ducked their head through the low doorway and entered. Her neighbours and friends were envious of the privacy she had managed to carve out in the small space.
The dump yard had given her many things besides the screen. When she had first come as a bride, the floor of the hut was bare, a dark brown colour, the wooden threshold just a demarcation between the ground outside and the inside. Then she discovered broken ceramic tiles piled up on one side of the dump and used them to line the floor from wall to wall. True she had to fit tiles of different shapes, colours and sizes but together she and Ravi managed to cover the entire floor without any gap. Everyone who had come to see their new flooring agreed that it lent a touch of glamour to their humble dwelling. Taking cue from her, others had started salvaging for discarded tiles and now almost all the huts in the area had tiled floors. Of course, the burst of construction activity on the main road gave them access to fancy tiles in a range of colours and designs.
The construction boom not only gave them access to fancy tiles but also opened out unimagined avenues of work. Ramanna, who lived in their colony got a job as a watchman in one of the apartment complexes. Ramanna had been Ravi's father's close friend and though Ravi's father was no more, he came home often to enquire about their well-being. One day he came to their house with the news that the ladies in the complex where he worked, were looking for housemaids. When he heard this, Ravi urged her to go, "At least one of us will have a regular job."
The first person she met was Sarika Madam. Nalini stood at the threshold of the lady's apartment distracted by the number of doors that led from the hall. The hall itself was twice the size of her hut; the walls on the sides had a door each, possibly leading to bedrooms, on the left side of the wall opposite the main door was a passage that led deep inside and dissolved into subdued light, probably leading to an open terrace or a balcony, and on the right side was a room, which she realised later, was the kitchen.
Sarika sat on a huge sofa and reeled off the job requirements, "Sweeping and mopping the house everyday, washing clothes and dishes besides cutting vegetables." Nalini was to go in the morning and in the evening, for all this the lady of the house mentioned a sum which was less than what she expected. Nalini stammered and asked for a bit more but Sarika's forehead creased, "No this is all I can give." She added a second later, "You can take home food that is left over." Nalini thought for a while and nodded her head, she really did not have any choice but she did not want to seem too eager either.
At that time she did not know that cutting vegetables would get stretched to cooking food, that morning would become late afternoon, that evening would melt into nights especially when her employer threw parties, like last night.
She hurried down the narrow path to the main road. Once there she would have to cross the four-laned highway to reach the entrance of the private road that led to the monstrous white apartment complex. She quickened her pace, the school bus would come at eight and she had to make breakfast and also lunch for Madam's son to carry to school. As she entered the compound, the mesmerizing blue of the swimming pool in the middle arrested her gaze. At this hour, it was empty but for a few men who were furiously going up and down the pool whipping up a frenzy of water. Later in the morning and in the evening, through the kitchen window she would spy women and young girls lolling in the pool. Now it reminded her of the extra pot of water she needed to get to see her little family through the day.
Nalini busied herself in making food, she did not really mind this part of her job — a snip here, a quick toss into the pan and food was ready. At first her eyes had popped when she saw the contents that tumbled out of the colourful packs — she had seen such packs in her rag picking days, empty and hollow, having long outlived their purpose of existence. Now she found that the amount of covers emptied in the house almost rivalled the number she used to pick from the dump. Even now Ramesh who went to the dump after school in the hope of making some extra money, brought only a quarter comparatively.
Madam had instructed her early on to stuff empty packs into a tall bucket kept for this purpose in the storeroom. Now the container overflowed and she had to press down hard to shut the lid tightly on top, she often wondered what Madam planned to do about it.
The sun was high in the sky when Nalini finally sat down to eat her first meal of the day. She ate quickly, but her mind was on the conversation she had with Sarika a few minutes earlier.
"A pot of water?" Sarika had enquired with her eyebrows raised to her hesitant question.
Sarika tilted her head and pursed her lips, then she said, "No I don't think so Nalini, even we have a water meter you know and we have to pay for the water we take," she shrugged, "you understand don't you?" Her eyes were narrowed even as her hands played with the jingles on her dupatta.
Nalini nodded and turned. Her shoulders drooped as she went back to washing the dishes. The bell rang and a few minutes later, Sarika called out, "Nalini please bring the big bucket from the store room."
Nalini rolled the bucket over to the sitting room. She was surprised to see the scrap dealer sitting on the floor near the threshold. A pile of newspapers lay at his feet and he was busy weighing them. Sarika had settled her ample frame on the huge leather sofa, a tall glass of cold coffee stood on the glass-topped table in front of her. Sarika gestured to Nalini, "Empty the bucket."
"There are a lot of packets besides two months worth of newspapers this time; you must give me a good price." Sarika told the man.
Nalini scooped out a handful of packets and put it on the floor beside him. He started segregating the colourful wrappers. After a while, he looked up and said, "I'll give you Rs.100 Madam." Nalini's eyes almost popped out, one hundred only for paper waste.
Sarika raised her voice, "You cheat, this is two months paper waste and you are offering me only Rs.100. Give me Rs.200."
Nalini watched as Sarika alternatively sipped her coffee and bargained with the man. She held on till they agreed on Rs.150 and he handed over three crisp fifty rupees notes. Nalini watched her as she folded the money in half and proceeded to make a hollow tube out of it. Sarika rolled the money tube on the sofa continuously as she instructed him to come again next month without fail.
After he left, she got up reeling off instructions, "Nalini I am going to sleep now. Close the door when you leave. Don't forget to throw the garbage out."
As Nalini turned to go back into the kitchen, a movement caught the corner of her eye. Sarika had forgotten the money on the sofa, the rolled up notes tethered on the edge for inestimable seconds and then fell down.
Nalini bent and reached for it, "Madam..."
But Sarika had already gone inside the room and closed the door. Nalini unfolded and smoothened the rolled up currency notes and placed it on the glass topped centre table. She took a crystal figurine from the side table and placed it on top of it to prevent the notes from flying off.
Nalini took out the garbage bag and went down. She heaved the bag into the bin at the edge of the wall. As she was returning, she saw the gardener at the far end of the compound. He was standing on the lawn and unhooking the hose from the tap; water flowed out of the tap at full speed spraying droplets all around. A minute later, she saw him fill a bottle with the clear water. He did not belong to their cluster but was known to everyone in the vicinity. His loud voice and distinct smell alerted everyone to his presence especially after sun down. She stood hesitantly and wondered whether to approach him.
His faced was screwed up with the perpetual scowl he always had. She put aside her doubts and decided to try her luck. By the time she reached the edge of the small lawn, he had closed the tap and was now lighting his beedi. He did not look up at her approach, instead he sucked deeply and blew a puff of smoke into the air.
'I need a pot of water — can I take from here — I can pay you money.' Nalini began.
He looked at her up and down, then took a puff again. "How much will you give?" he asked amidst a cloud of smoke.
Nalini coughed, a reek punctuated the ashen haze billowing around him and she stepped back a little, wrinkling her nose.
"You tell me sir..."
"Ok then — for one pot of water give me Rs. 50"
Nalini inhaled sharply, she had expected maybe a 10 or a 20, but a 50? She shook her head in disbelief.
"Please, that's too much — I'll give you ten."
"Fifty or nothing," he turned away scratching his head.
Nalini walked back to the apartment, the folds of her cotton saree swished and wound around her legs more than once forcing her to slow down. She went into the kitchen and wiped the counters. Nalini placed her plastic tiffin box filled with the day's leftover breakfast and walked to the front door. She stopped near the glass-topped table for a while and looked at the money lying on it. The crisp notes fluttered in the slight breeze coming through the window. She lifted her eyes and looked towards the closed bedroom door.
She let herself out of the apartment and walked towards the gate. Ramanna came out of his tiny grey coloured wooden cubicle and asked her, "Why were you talking to him?" he jerked his head towards the gardener.
"In the morning, some of us got only one pot of water today, so I was asking him whether I could take one pot from here..."
"And — what did he say?"
"He wants fifty rupees."
He looked at her and shook his head, "That fellow is not the helping type."
He looked past her to the horizon for a minute. Then he scrunched his eyes and pointed to a glinting dome in the distance, "There is a hand pump in the cluster next to the bus stand, I don't know if water is available through out the day, but you could try there."
Nalini knew the bus stand was a good half hour walk away, but her shoulders lifted at this piece of information. The intercom buzzed in the watchman's cubicle and Ramanna hurried inside. Nalini shielded her eyes and stood looking at the dome for some time. She squared her shoulders and walked out of the place. She decided she would go home and take the empty yellow plastic pot, then she would go to the bus station.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 4 Oct 2010