The hot dry season in India. … A corrosive wind drives rivulets of sand across the land; torpid animals stand at the rivers the sluggish, falling waters have exposed the sludge of the mud flats. Throughout the land the thoughts of men turn to water. And in the village of Rampura these thoughts are focused on the village well.
It is a simple concrete affair, built upon the hard earth worn by the feet of five hundred villagers. It is surmounted by a wooden structure over which ropes, tied to buckets, are lowered to the black, placid depths twenty feet below, Fanning out from the well are huts of the villagers —— their walls white from sun, their thatched roofs thick with dust blown in from the fields.
At the edge of the well is a semi-circle of earthen pots and, crouched at some distance behind them, a woman. She is an untouchable —— a sweeper in Indian parlance —— a scavenger of the village. She cleans latrines, disposes of dead animals and washes drains. She also delivers village babies, for this —— like all her work —— is considered unclean by most of village India.
Her work —— indeed, her very presence —— is considered polluting, and since there is no well for untouchables in Rampura, her water jars must be filled by upper-caste villagers.
There are dark shadows under her eyes and the flesh has fallen away from her neck, for she, like her fellow outcastes, is at the end of a bitter struggle. And if, in her narrow world, shackled by tradition and hemmed in by poverty, she had been unaware of the power of the water of the well at whose edge she waits —— she knows it now.
Shanty, 30 years old, has been deserted by her husband, and supports her three children. Like her ancestors almost as far back as history records, she has cleaned the refuse from village huts and lanes. Hers is a life of inherited duties as well as inherited rights. She serves, and her work calls for payment of one chapatty —— a thin wafer of unleavened bread —— a day from each of the thirty families she cares for.
But this is the hiatus between harvests: the oppressive lull before the burst of monsoon rains; the season of flies and dust, heat and disease, querulous voices and frayed tempered —— and the season of want. There is little food in Rampura for anyone, and though Shanti’s chores have continued as before, she has received only six chapattis a day for her family —— starvation wages.
Ten days ago she revolted. Driven by desperation, she defied an elemental law of village India. She refused to do the work tradition and religion had assigned her. Shocked at her audacity, but united in desperation, the village’s six other sweeper families joined in her protest.
Word of her action spread quickly across the invisible line that separates the untouchables’ huts from the rest of the village. As the day wore on and the men returned from the fields, they gathered at the well —— the heart of the village —— and their voices rose, shrill with outrage: a sweeper defying them all! Shanti, a sweeper and a woman challenging a system that had prevailed unquestioned for centuries! Their indignation spilled over. It was true, perhaps, that the sweepers had not had their due. But that was no fault of the upper caste. No fault of theirs that sun and earth and water had failed to produce the food by which they could fulfill their obligations. So, to bring the insurgents to heel, they employed their ultimate weapon; the earthen water jars of the village untouchables would remain empty until they returned to work. For the sweepers of Rampura the well had run dry.
No water: thirst, in the heat, went unslaked. The embers of the hearth were dead, for there was no water for cooking. The crumbling walls of outcaste huts went untended, for there was no water for repairs. There was no fuel, for the fires of the village were fed with dung mixed with water and dried. The dust and the sweat and the filth of their lives congealed on their skins and there it stayed, while life in the rest of the village —— within sight of the sweepers —— flowed on.
The day began and ended at the well. The men, their dhotis wrapped about their loins, congregated at the water’s edge in the hushed post-down, their small brass water jugs in hand, their voices mingling in quiet conversation as they rinsed their bodies and brushed their teeth. The buffaloes were watered, their soft muzzles lingering in the ritual of water drawing: the careful lowering of the bucket in the well, lest it come loose from the rope; the gratifying splash as it touched the water; the maneuvering to make it sink; the squeal of rope against wooden pulley as it ascended. The sun rose higher. Clothes were beaten clean on the rocks surrounding the well as the women gossiped. A traveler from a near-by road quenched his thirst from a villager’s urn. Two little boys, hot and bored, dropped pebbles into the water and waited for their hollow splash, far below.
As the afternoon wore on and the sun turned orange through the dust, the men came back from the fields. They doused the parched, cracked hides of their water buffaloes and murmured contentedly, themselves, as the water coursed over their own shoulders and arms. And finally, as twilight closed in, came the evening procession of women, stately, graceful, their bare feet moving smoothly over the earth, their full skirts swinging about their ankles, the heavy brass pots once again balanced on their heads.
The day was ended and life was as it always was —— almost. Only the fetid odor of accumulated refuse and the assertive buzz of flies attested to strife in the village. For, while tradition and religion decreed that sweepers must clean, it also ordained that the socially blessed must clean, it also ordained that the socially blessed must not. Refuse lay where it fell and rotted.
The strain of the water boycott was beginning to tell on the untouchables. For days they had held their own. But on the third their thin reserve of flesh had fallen away. More and more the desultory conversation turned to the ordinary: the delicious memory of sliding from the back of a wallowing buffalo into a pond; the feel of bare feet in wet mud; the touch of fresh water on parched lips; the anticipation of monsoon rains. One by one the few tools they owned were sold for food. A week passed, and on the ninth day two sweeper children were down with fever. On the tenth day Shanti crossed the path that separated outcaste from upper caste and walked through familiar, winding alleyways to one of the huts she served.
“Your time is near,” she told the young, expectant mother. “Tell your man to leave his sickle home when he goes to the fields. I’ve had to sell mine.” (It is the field sickle that cuts the cord of newborn babies in much of village India.) Shanti, the instigator of the insurrection, had resumed her ancestral duties; the strike was broken. Next morning, as ever, she waited at the well. Silently, the procession of upper-caste women approached. They filled their jars to the brim and without a word they filled hers.
She lifted the urns to her head, steadied them, and started back to her quarters —— back to a life ruled by the powers that still rule most of the world: not the power of atoms or electricity, nor the power of alliances or power blocs, but the elemental powers of hunger, of disease, of tradition —— and o f water.