The hand pump,
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
and the Bulbul Tharang
At thirty minutes past midnight, the alarm clock started ringing. Saba got up and put it off in darkness. He was perspiring heavily. The blades of the ceiling fan were moving around so slow that he could distinguish them as they moved. Electricity had tripped, he guessed.
Saba sat on the floor, trying to orient himself. A scourge of mosquitos rose humming into his ears and surrounded him, trying to get a foothold on his face and arms. He shook them away, wildly turning his frail frame back and forth, beating his exposed torso vigorously with his hands and slapping his cheeks. He picked up his vest from the floor and wore it hurriedly. As if drawn by an unseen force, he walked into the kitchen with unsteady steps in the dark.
A stench like that arising from an open jerry can of petrol was in the air. Kerosene might have spilled in the kitchen, Saba felt. He quickly checked the stove on the kitchen stone slab for any leakage. It was dry. The oblong kitchen slab was also devoid of any moisture. Maybe it was a phantom odour made up by his weak olfactory senses to annoy him, hard of smelling since he was a schoolboy of five. Saba was on the other side of thirty.
It was then he heard the lizard crocking on the wall behind. He instantly knew amma* had come. He felt the lizard staring at him impatiently.
“Be quick. Carry the buckets downstairs. The queue for water would become lengthy by the time you reach there”, amma muttered.
“I am going, amma .. I am going”, Saba replied plain bored with all this, as he bent down and looked for the iron buckets under the kitchen slab. There were three such buckets and a brass bowl and another two plastic buckets, waiting there for him. All these, he had to take downstairs for fetching water.
The iron buckets still had some water, close to two litres, taken together, Saba reckoned. He lifted them one by one carefully and kept them on the kitchen slab. The overpowering stench of chlorinated water in darkness made him feel sick.
Saba next searched for the copper cooking utensils. There were at least five of them around of different sizes, each with a specific capacity. As he was stretching his hand trying to feel their presence, he could recognize in the darkness, a coffee filter, two ladles, a porcelain cup and a few stainless plates. After sustained searching for another few minutes, he took them out from the tin container for storing rice, lying empty near the door.
He filled up a couple of the cooking utensils with the remaining water in the buckets. Filling them up from the buckets was not an easy task either when it was dark all around. Some water spilled on his feet too. Amma would not like any wasting of water, he remembered.
Water is precious. Amma had emphasised this at least ten times daily when she was alive. With her here in flesh and blood, it was a different scenario altogether, Saba observed. She
*amma – mother never wasted any water and the whatever stored in the tiny apartment that is Saba’s dwelling, never appeared to be in excess any time. The copper bowls were used only for cooking and not for storing chlorinated residual water from the day before. Of course, after amma expired, no one cooked there.
As Saba searched for the piece of cloth on the floor to dry up his feet and the water spilled on the slab, amma became restless. “You have all the time in the world for that cleaning. Not now. It is now time for fetching water. Run, my boy”. The lizard was sounding more noisy and agitated. It was squeaking for long.
The iron buckets though empty were heavy to carry. He was keeping the small ones inside the large ones and the combined stress on the shoulder muscles sent a nasty pain shooting all the way down to the groin. Saba was worried how to carry these buckets back after collecting water. He might get muscular cramps or still worse, might slip down on the stairs. The buckets would then empty themselves on the staircase rendering all these efforts futile.
More than that, it might not be possible for him to visit the house of the seven maidens, with a swollen groin.
‘You can fantasise about those seven sluts leisurely afterward. It is now time to fetch water’, amma was screaming at him behind his back.
Water scarcity always cast a shadow on the daily living of Saba and his amma; also the whole town. When amma was alive, almost all her awake-hours were spent fetching water, spending it diligently, evolving contingency plans in case the water supply became erratic and curing brackish water, making it soft for drinking and for cooking, by percolation through a series of clay pots half filled with sand. Whatever amma spoke to Saba and others invariably would become related to water scarcity. Once caught in the vortex, she would come out of it only when she fell into a spell of disturbed sleep late at night, tense with worries about water.
Amma told Saba he could think about getting married, with water scarcity behind them, once the rains arrived. He accepted her counsel without any grudge as he himself wished his faceless wife to be and the children they would beget should never suffer from shortage of water. Amma would get up without fail at midnight to wake him up and send him downstairs for fetching water at the hand pump in their apartment complex. She could sense any attempt by anyone to touch the hand pump down below and would immediately alert Saba that water had started coming. That continued even months after her demise.
Saba came to the drawing room with the buckets and switched on the lights. Electricity had resumed albeit with a low voltage, with the incandescent bulb burning dimly. The cement floor appeared rough and cracks were there all around. Something coarse lying scattered on the floor was sensed by his feet. He knew what it was. The priest when conducting yesterday the monthly memorial ceremony for amma scattered them on Saba sitting cross-legged on the floor and beyond him, with holy chants evoking celestial beings to ensure her smooth passage to heaven. Saba knew she would prefer hanging around here than passing onto heaven, as long as the water scarcity would persist. She, in fact, opted to have a reduced version of the memorial ceremony which involved no cooking of offerings and no feast thereafter to the priests but confined to uttering the core chants without lighting a fire and offering two kilos of raw rice, a new dhoti and a single unripe banana to each priest. Amma might be reaching heaven late but would not allow needless spending of water for her sake, to cook and clean up.
Saba found a small snail moving upwards on the old calendar hung on the drawing room wall. On the dusty radio cabinet, a paper cone was lying half open. It was the partially consumed pack of roasted peanuts he purchased at the street corner when coming home last night. Saba felt like munching a handful from that as he went downstairs though it might not be that crisp as it was the day before. ‘No, not now, move quickly else you won’t get any water today’, amma warned from the kitchen again.
As he was climbing down the stairs, he could see the empty pots in a single file kept in front of the water pump. He could have come a little early, as amma was coercing him to do.
When he reached the pump, he saw the ground floor neighbour, a man in pyjamas with a trimmed salt and pepper beard, sitting on a wooden stool near the lamp post, reading a paperback edition of a large book. He was wearing a shirt wrinkled at the lower half. The bearded neighbour would have worn it to work the day before, tucking it into his trousers at waist, Saba guessed.
Near where the bearded neighbour sat, were the bicycles and scooters of the residents of the apartment complex, parked haphazardly. There was also a fish cart, a contraption looking like a three-wheeled bicycle with a large square basket shaped space in front for carrying sundry things, like packs of rice or jute bags of red chillies. A middle-aged woman was sitting in the empty basket of the cart and was practicing to play a stringed instrument that people in this part of the globe call a bul-bul-tharang, presumed to be of Arab origin. She was the grocer’s wife, the resident of the ground floor apartment opposite to the bearded one’s on the right flank. All the five bright red plastic buckets at the head of the queue in front of the pump were hers, as Saba was aware. No other resident had such dark red-hued buckets in use.
Two lungi clad middle-aged men were sitting cross-legged near the pump almost at the feet of the bearded neighbour. They were playing a crude version of checkers with the board drawn on the floor with a piece of chalk. Saba knew them as the bank manager and the veterinary doctor, both being first-floor residents.
As he went around them towards the pump, he could not help counting the buckets and other utensils lined up. There were a total of 25 items there. Even if it could be assumed the four residents waiting there had placed five buckets each, there was a surplus of five, Saba observed. Someone else would have placed theirs there and walked back for a cat nap.
As Saba kept his empty iron buckets at the tail of the row, the bearded neighbour looked up and smiled at him. Saba smiled back. At this juncture, as usual, he would close the book and exchange a few pleasantries with Saba. After that he would proceed to smoke a cigarette. He might have thought of proceeding to smoke a cigarette immediately after closing the book, may not be a show of good manners towards the author of the book.
‘Appears you are a tad late”, he told Saba, closing the book. Saba replied in a friendly voice, “You are right. I slept. And, is this a new book you are reading?”
“No, it is the same book I’ve been reading all along. One Hundred Years of Solitude”.
Saba took the book from him. It is a book in a language Saba does not know.
‘It is in Malayalam’, the bearded neighbour told him sounding helpful. Saba looked at the back cover. There was a photograph of a thick grey moustached man with his name at the bottom of the picture, in English: Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
“Is this fiction?” Saba asked in a tone seeking confirmation of something he already knows.
“In a way, a long story also, a direct translation from Spanish into Malayalam not the regular Spanish to English to Malayalam stuff”.
The bearded neighbour lighted a cigarette, offering the packet to Saba, as usual. Saba politely declined. He looked at the book cover again. Something in him told him that the moustached man on the cover would be a smoker of Havana cigars.
The yet to be refined music notes of a film song were coming from the fish cart. It was the same note played again and again. It appeared that the woman in the fish cart would not proceed further unless she was able to play that particular note flawlessly.
“Doc, a customer of the bank had kept a pack of herrings inside the bank locker yesterday. The whole place was stinking like hell this morning. I had to go after him and beg to remove the pack. Took me the whole day”, the bank manager was rolling the dice as he said this.
“You said last year around this time, someone came for safekeeping butter. Now it is kipper”, the vet said, shaking the dice before casting them at his turn.
“I find an extra set of buckets. Whose could be those?” Saba asked generally.
The vet pointed to his back. There, apart from the bank manager’s and the vet’s, there were two other flats on the ground floor, one being that of an assistant director for feature films under production and the other, of a clerk in an auditor’s office. Saba was not interested in finding out who of those two had left their buckets in the queue.
“It is half past midnight”, the bearded neighbour was looking at his watch and announced. He again sat on the wooden stool, opening the book where he kept the bookmark. Water would come down the pump soon. He seemed to be in a hurry to read as much as possible before it starts flowing. For the past three months, he was found reading the book every night. Even if the water scarcity lingered on for another four months, he would have enough pages in the book to read, Saba thought. If rains would come, he might not have time to complete reading the book. Saba felt sad at that possibility occurring.
“The audit clerk came here sometime back to place his buckets. However, he immediately rushed back home, clutching his chest. It’s quite possible he experienced acute chest pain or a generic gastric problem”, the bank manager scratching his waist said.
Saba’s amma was a chronic sufferer of chest pain. The day she passed away and that previous to it as well as the one after it, saw the whole street go without water due to a major supply system fault. The disappointment of not getting water would have triggered amma’s death, Saba believed.
Amma’s origins were in a red soiled village down south, with never-ending water scarcity. As such she appreciated the value of water and was in a celebratory mood when a little more than what is usually provided was made available. Also, any short supply would make her deeply sad. She bathed, washed clothes, cooked and boiled water for drinking as well as provided warm water to Saba for his bath, all from the daily supply. After her death, he was having extended showers using most of the water fetched daily. At times, unable to perform such meticulous water management as amma did, Saba had his morning ablutions at his office, before starting work. While the office canteen provided him with the daily breakfast and lunch, he was having his dinner at a tiny restaurant in a cul-de-sac near home, mainly patronized by the herd of knife grinders roaming in the town. Yet, he felt it was his duty to procure water at the pump as otherwise, amma would not be at peace.
Once every fortnight, he would bathe at office when returning from work. On those days, he would catch a bus and traveling ten kilometres, would go to the house of the seven maidens who ran an eatery also, among other things. After having a dinner of steam cooked par-boiled rice, spicy tamarind soup seasoned with sun-dried cut vegetables, spicy, sautéed eggplant and roast lentil papads, he would enter into an inner room. One of the seven maidens would be waiting for him there exuding a faint smell of tooth powder and carbolic soap. It would be an unmitigated pleasure to sing together with her the old movie songs while indulging in foreplay. To ensure the lines of the songs were not forgotten when they were about to experience a climax, the songbooks would be kept at easy reach near the sprawling double bed. As all the maidens were accomplished singers and the best in the art of lovemaking, Saba looked forward to his visits there, in spite of the charges, somewhat on the higher side. At times he would peak very early and would thereafter lie listening to the girl singing alone, till midnight.
A door opened behind and someone came out. It was the wife of the audit clerk. She stood for a second facing the men over there. Her eyes fell upon the woman on the fish cart, still practicing the same musical note on her bul-bul-tharang. Approaching her, she stood silent, waiting for the music practitioner to look up at her. As that did not happen, the audit clerk’s wife struck the handle of the pump gently once to call her attention.
“Do you have a telephone in your house?”, the audit clerk’s wife asked the practicing musician who is the grocer’s wife, in a subdued voice. As the bul-bul-tharang was silent, Saba could overhear that.
“Yes, we do have one. Why are you asking?”
“I’ve to call the doctor. My husband again experiences excessive lactation. His boobs are swollen causing enormous pain to him”.
“Swollen boobs? Why should that occur at all in men?” the grocer’s wife enquired as she played the tune again on her instrument. Saba noted her face was bright perhaps with her delight in getting the notes right or on asking the most logical question.
“In my husband’s family, men also get it for generations”, said the audit clerk’s wife as she affectionately touched the shoulder of the grocer’s wife. The latter placed her bul-bul-tharang carefully on the fish cart and got up. Both of them walked arm in arm to the grocer’s house.
Saba had had all along watched the audit clerk with an ample bosom and back, something extraordinary for a man, walking slowly to the bus stand carrying large accounting journals stuffed in a cloth bag, till a couple of years ago. He then was found taking a shared cab avoiding buses and local trains.
Saba thought that the mischievous hands of co-passengers on the crowded buses might have playfully grabbed and squeezed his man boobs for fun. He faintly remembered the audit clerk saying something to that effect when both shared a cab once, returning from the town.
“I’ve won”, the vet got up, shaking his clenched fists. “If the water supply gets delayed, we can have one more round of the game”, said the bank manager. The grocer’s wife came to the pump. She created some space for her to stand by moving the buckets to her left. She lifted the covering shield off the pump, pulling it up. From a small brass utensil, she poured some water into the pump and replaced the shield. She then stroke the pump vehemently for a full two minutes as water with its distinctive chlorine stench started trickling out. Saba noticed the pump too was singing the same notes, the grocer’s wife was practicing.
The doctor entered with his medical chest when the water started pouring copiously. He was clad in a dhoti tucked up to his knees.
“I think I had stepped on faecal matter while walking down here. May I get some water for cleansing my feet?” he asked, addressing no one in particular. There was no response. “May I get some water for washing my feet?” he asked again, raising his voice. Saba heard him but chose not to answer, like others. The doctor muttering something incomprehensible left his pair of sandals at the entrance to the audit clerk’s apartment and stepped in.
With all her buckets filled up to the brim, the grocer’s wife looked cheerful as she carried them off to her place. When she came for her last bucket, Saba was looking at the audit clerk’s house, waiting for his turn at the pump. The grocer’s wife too looked in that direction and smiled at Saba. He was remembering all his happy moments with the seven maidens.
“This Marquez guy is fascinating. No other author has until now given me so much satisfaction”, the bearded neighbour told Saba as he started striking the pump. His book was lying on the stool with the back jacket facing the world. He was looking at it as he pumped water. Saba thought he derived his strength to pump water with force, from the photograph of the moustached author, on the book. He could sense the lizard calling him in his flat. Amma would have been agitated as he is yet to get his share of water.