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A Chronicle of Water
By Malini Nair
Where water (pani) dictates the life of every woman

I am twenty-six. My frail frame and my leathery skin, stripped of the glow of youth, is a result of the merciless tropical sun burning it crisp as I walk, laden with pots from dawn to dusk. My protruding belly is a cry for nourishment. I must seek that indispensable elixir of life because I am a slave to community norms. Water, or “Pani”, as we call it, dictates my life. It also takes the lives of the very women who seek it.

I was born in the monsoons as the sky turned dark and thunder boomed. The people of my village stood outside their huts, willing the rain gods to shower their bounty on our arid lands at least this year. Mengaon, our village situated on a hill, is literally bone dry. Nobody knows like us the ache of parched throats trying to swallow nothingness.

“Bhagya!” My Baba named me. It meant “good luck.” I was a robust child who arrived with a full-throated, lusty cry. The first few years of my life were spent running wild in the village with other children. Baba worked on his land, where he grew millets when the Rain Gods were kind. Aai would spend the day weighed down by domestic chores before trudging for several hours to fetch water for our family.

“Bhagi, I have to leave now! Aai would whisper into my ears during the inky hour before dawn, as I lay in the embrace of slumber on our cow dung polished floor.

“Aai, why do you leave so early?” I would ask, clinging to her worn-out saree.

“Water my child; the women are leaving, and I must leave with them. It is not safe to walk alone on the lonely roads.” She would pat me with her wrinkled hands. The big sindoor on her forehead and the black thread around her neck signified her married status.

She would be gone for hours, leaving a simple meal of millet bread, salt, and sliced onions. The nearest well was twenty kilometers away. Aai’s feet would be blistered when she returned. I would listen entranced to the plaintive song the women sang together as they walked, their pots balanced perfectly on their heads. For some reason it made me cry.

I was five when Aai and Baba had a hushed conversation.

“Bring a Panibai.” I heard Aai’s gruff voice.

“What about feeding an extra mouth?” Baba was angry.

“I cannot do it all any more.” Aai’s voice had a finality to it.

I remember the morning when a slightly built woman with an expressionless face walked into the house, her head bent. Her name was Suki. She was now Baba’s second wife. Her only role was to fetch water.

A part of the house, separated with a piece of cloth was Suki’s room. She took instructions from Aai. Most men in the village had two to three wives.

I learned that Suki had been abandoned by her husband and his family because she did not bear any children. Suki hardly spoke, and Baba almost forgot her existence. She was Aai’s slave. But then both Aai and Baba were slaves to water. I wondered why water was a woman’s responsibility.

By the time I was ten, I could cook and manage household chores. When I turned sixteen, the village head spoke to Baba about my marriage.

Baba’s crops have been failing these last three years. A day after the topic of my marriage came up, I found Baba hanging from the tree without leaves in the middle of our field.

My marriage plans collapsed. I was the bearer of bad luck from a house of unnatural death. Aai mourned, and my brothers worked the fields. Suki was a silent witness to all that was going on. Her life began and ended with her simple meal and the endless walks with the water pots.

Soon after Baba’s death, Sakaram, a middle-aged owner of the largest plot of land in the village, came to meet Aai.  “We are willing to accept Bhagya as a Panibai,” he announced.

Aai looked sad, but she knew her choices were limited. Sakaram already had a wife and a Panibai. I was to be the second Panibai. As a water-wife, I was not expected to live with my husband or bear children. I was nothing more than a water source, belonging nowhere and flowing along with the tide. I was owned, but I owned nothing.

There was no wedding. The village head gathered the people and made his announcement.

“We will always protect our women from dishonour." Sakaram has kindly agreed to take Bhagya as his second Panibai. The men whispered.  The women were silent.

While I was leaving with my two sarees and some millets that Aai gave me, I glanced at Suki. Our eyes met as I walked into my new home.

A curtained area was set aside for me, and I was now under the control of Sakaram’s wife. The first Panibai was sick and could not manage the arduous task of fetching water anymore.

I woke up before dawn to join the women. Suki walked silently by my side. My feet broke into blisters. The sun was merciless, and I doubted if I could make it back with the water pots.

“Let us sit for a while. You are not used to this.” Suki’s kindness brought tears to my eyes. I should have been kinder to her. We sat under a huge water pipe. The songs of the birds soothed my heart, and I wanted to sing my pain away.

“This pipe takes water to the big city far away. They need lots of water,” she said.

“And us?” I asked.

Suki was silent, and her eyes were far away.

“Why did you marry Baba?” I asked Suki.

“Who will respect an abandoned, barren woman?” Suki asked me.

Three years passed. My life revolved around water. My only awareness of my body was a deep, persistent ache. My face acquired the same expression as Suki’s.

One morning, I woke up to a raw, full-throated voice. He sang with an abandon that pierced my heart.

“The road is endless,

The hills are high.

The darkness envelopes everything.

And the loneliness is deep.

How do I find you?”

I wanted to find him. A strange energy propelled me as I found myself singing softly with him. I found him by the side of the village temple, a slight man with a white robe and orange head gear, lost in his music, his slender fingers strumming the Ektara in perfect tempo with his voice.

I sat a few feet away from him, closing my eyes. I wanted to follow this music all my life. I had no words of warmth to go back to. I had never experienced the touch of love. I had no hope of rocking a child in my arms.

The wandering minstrel opened his eyes. He looked peaceful.

“When does the road end?” I asked him. He looked deep into my eyes.

“It does not.” He said it with a soft smile. “The journey continues until the river is one with the mighty ocean."

“What if the journey itself is cursed?” I asked.

I hummed his song. Softly, my unrehearsed, raw voice emerged from the depths of my soul.

He was silent for a minute. “Your voice is beautiful,” he said.

“Teach me your song.” I told him.

“I am a traveler for life. I will leave tonight."

“Can I come with you?” I asked him.

“Can you live like a tree without roots?” He countered.

“I want to break the roots that bind me. I want to flow like water,” I said.

“Who are you, and where are you from?” I asked.

“Every village is mine, and no village is mine. I am alone.” He answered.

“I am just the journey.” He added it with a little smile.

We walked together, the minstrel and the Panibai. He sang his divine songs, and I absorbed the mesmerizing magic of his melodies as we walked.

We arrived at a village temple the next morning. Our voices soared together, singing of the glory of the divine. The priest emerged with a pot of water.

I cupped my palms and drank, feeling the water course through my veins and soothing the wounds in my heart.

The priest brought us the temple offering of the day on a banana leaf.

The morning worshippers walked in. Our notes emerged together. It felt like the delicate shrouding of the mist on the mountains. I was at peace.

The coins dropped into our bowl.

“Call me Bhagya”. I whispered to him. He nodded with a smile.

My hesitant hands reached out to his. The warmth coursed through my body.  He pulled me up, and we walked.

Panibai - water-wife

Baba - Father

Aai - mother

Ektara - A single stringed musical instrument

Sindoor - The vermillion adornment on the forehead of a married woman

Image by Thomas Griggs

Malini Nair is a Management and Human Resource professional, running her independent corporate consulting company, after a long and successful corporate stint. She is a Leadership Coach and Corporate Trainer. Her interests vary from reading, classical music, travelling, theatre and cooking to name just a few, with a very special soft corner for story-telling. Malini lives in Mumbai and enjoys spending time with her family. 

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