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June 24, 2024

Water Is the New Gold

By Sreelekha Chatterjee

I woke up earlier than usual and moved to the kitchen to prepare tea using carefully measured 250 millilitres of drinking water that we’d purchased from the ration shop. It was the day when we’d collect water from the government water tanker that came at around 7 a.m. The water tanker visited our area thrice a week─Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Every household was relegated to only 40 liters each time. Perhaps that was enough for a period of two days which included a brief shower, two cooked meals, half a bucket for dishwashing and laundry, hand-washing and tooth brushing a couple of times. Water for the toilet flush had to be managed from the dirty water that accumulated from dishwashing and laundry. Gone were the days when water used to flow from the tap. Depletion of our city’s water reservoirs was perhaps exacerbated by climate change or burgeoning population. I didn’t know for how long I kept staring at the kitchen tap with the intentness that a sparkling drop would soon appear almost magically followed by a gush of water like earlier times, when suddenly I heard a scream from my husband Neil. Turning off the gas stove, I ran towards our bedroom. Neil was sitting on the bed, dangling his legs in nervous agitation with a look of horror on his face. The vault inside our wardrobe was wide open. We’d been purchasing drinking water that was rationed to be no more than 30 liters per household per week. Thus, the drinking water bottles were safely kept in vaults where previously we’d stored gold ornaments, money, and important papers. I clearly remembered having kept three bottles and now they’d vanished.

“We’ve been robbed of our water…” Neil somehow uttered these words, his lips quivering uncontrollably with anxiety, before silence spanned the room.

“Now what’ll happen?” I froze, rooted to the spot, before slowly recovering from the sudden shock, staring at my 25-year-old son Arun who’d reached the door of the bedroom by then.

“We have to call the police.” Neil said.

After a while a policeman arrived from the “Water Theft Crime Squad.” The officer questioned us in a routine manner, “Did the thief steal anything else other than water?”

“No!” we all said in unison.

“Do you suspect anyone?” The policeman pulled comical grimaces and resumed without waiting for our response. “Life-saving water tankers are being hijacked on their routes in spite of our water-theft patrols, and yours is only a matter of three water bottles.”

I’d a doubt about our neighbors. We were the inhabitants of the second floor. At the ground floor was a grocery shop and was not in our list of suspicion. The inmates of the first floor were an old couple. I remembered that on earlier occasions, whenever there was water scarcity the elderly woman would come running to ask for a couple of buckets of water. The residents of third floor were an aged mother and her son, daughter-in-law, and grandson. The occupant of the fourth floor was a middle-aged woman, mostly indifferent towards matters of our building. Anybody could be guilty of the crime; after all it was a matter of precious water.

The policeman left after a brief enquiry. Following that, the fingerprint experts arrived. They continued inspecting and analyzing latent finger-, footprints, and other necessary clues related to the theft.

Meanwhile, I’d kept a watchful eye on the clock. It was almost 7 a.m. Once the water tanker went away it’d be a couple of days before we would get to fill our buckets. As I was worrying about it, Arun motioned me to come outside the room.

“I’ll get water for us.” He said.

We’d been looking for a suitable bride for Arun. But none of the families who’d spoken to us about a suitable matrimony were interested after our city was hit by severe water crisis about a year ago. “My daughter will have to collect water almost every day of her life. How can we let our daughter perform such drudgery?” One of the parents had remarked, bringing in the inconvenient complexity that life had thrown at us.

Arun had gone to fetch water for a long time. It was almost 12 o’clock and he was nowhere to be seen. I was occupied with the police trying to find evidences of burglary on the wardrobe and at other places inside our flat, while my husband had been to the police station to file an FIR. After the policemen went away, I moved out of my flat.

The first person whom I met at the stairs was the elderly lady from the first floor.

“We’re sorry to hear about your loss.” She said in a serious manner, looking at me from beneath her lashes, while a smile lingered on her face. Her nose twitched a little as if from a bad smell that perhaps reeked from my body as I’d restricted to bathing only twice a week.

It could be possible that she’d sneaked into our flat and done the robbery when we were busy doing our household chores.

“What happened?” The elderly lady of the third floor joined us.

Just then the occupant of the fourth floor of our building appeared from nowhere shooting glances at us while moving down the stairs at her own pace. She’d a vacuous expression on her face as though we were strangers, but her eyes were filled with a curiosity that had always been an inherent part of her nature. A thought struggled through me─“What if she was the thief we were looking for?” I felt a cold dread pass through me as I recalled reported instances where neighbors had stabbed each other over access to water.

After a brief conversation with my neighbors, I reached the area where the water tanker had earlier come as I could make out from the water scattered on the road. It was a warm summer afternoon and I was almost drenched in sweat. I asked one of the ladies walking down the road only to find out that the tanker had left long ago. Wondering where Arun had disappeared, I tried to call him on his mobile but to no avail. The phone kept on ringing. Next, I called up my husband who was in his office but he also didn’t know anything about it.

I came back home and after sitting on the sofa for a while I went to Arun’s room. The bed was unmade as if someone had just left it. I quickly straightened the bed sheet and placed the bedcover neatly over his bed. My eyes went towards the study table. He’d kept a number of books over there without arranging them properly. As I was placing the books in order, I noticed a diary. I never knew that he was fond of writing a diary. As I browsed through the pages, I noticed that almost on every page he’d mentioned about somebody named Uma and how much he was in love with her. I was profoundly shocked, as he never expressed his feelings to me.

It was almost evening and Arun had not arrived. I tried to call my husband but his phone was not reachable. I decided to go to the police station on my own and lodge a complaint that my son was missing since morning. As soon as I opened the door, I found a policeman, Arun, and Neil right at the entrance of our flat.

“We have found your water thief.” The policeman pointed towards Arun, raising his eyebrows. I stood there perplexed, losing my power of comprehension when the policeman further added in a dry, cold tone. “He has taken the water bottles to his girlfriend’s house. We’d had a doubt and followed him only to find that he was the culprit.”

Silence prevailed long after the officer had left. While having dinner, Arun spoke at last with an air of sadness about him, “I met Uma while working on an office project. She hails from a poor family who live in the outskirts of the city with practically no amenities and suitable infrastructure required to lead a comfortable life. In spite of all odds, Uma is studying and hopes to ensure a good life for her family. Being a part of a poor community, the water tankers seldom visit their place, and purchasing water from ration shops is a luxury they cannot afford.”

That night, I couldn’t sleep. The following morning while handing over the tiffin box to Arun, I placed a 2-liter bottle of drinking water in front of him.

“This is all that I can share with Uma’s family for now.” I said, giving shape to the incomprehensible emotion within me. “I have been saving money from household expenses to buy gold for your marriage. Nowadays I save money to purchase extra bottles of water from private shops that sell them at a high price. After all, water is the new gold now.”

Article © Sreelekha Chatterjee. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-08-21
Image(s) are public domain.
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