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Water, water everywhere

Manu Bhattathiri | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 30, 2016
A river runs through it The film Masaan had several scenes that were shot on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi.

A river runs through it The film Masaan had several scenes that were shot on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi.   -  The Hindu Archives

All about the process Do we really need sparkling water, spring water, mineral water, purified water, fruit water, artesian water, fluoridated water, sterile water, well water, groundwater? How far will we go with UV, RO, infrared, ionisers, carbon filtering, microbial filtering, water polishing, water softening? Photo: G Ramakrishna

All about the process Do we really need sparkling water, spring water, mineral water, purified water, fruit water, artesian water, fluoridated water, sterile water, well water, groundwater? How far will we go with UV, RO, infrared, ionisers, carbon filtering, microbial filtering, water polishing, water softening? Photo: G Ramakrishna   -  The Hindu

All in the same boat: It’s not the drowning feeling we need. It’s the feeling of dying of thirst, something that we have already subjected many of our fellow animals to. Photo: D R Sandeep Kumar

All in the same boat: It’s not the drowning feeling we need. It’s the feeling of dying of thirst, something that we have already subjected many of our fellow animals to. Photo: D R Sandeep Kumar   -  The Hindu

Literature and films need to turn it down a notch when it comes to glorifying water. Because, contrary to what pop culture would have you believe, human beings do not own it

‘High and fine literature is wine,

and mine is only water;

but everybody likes water.’

— Mark Twain

One of my earliest observations about water was that it leaks where you want it to hold, and blocks up where you want it to flow. Think of leaky taps and blocked drains to see what I mean. If, I said to myself, I were to make this thing, I would make it a trifle more viscous. A little thicker than now, but a little thinner than oil. Maybe the consistency of milk. (Maybe with a dash of colour, too — see how good white looks on milk).

Now this is not to say that I had anything against water even in the form it is in; it was just that I found it too plain. It did not seem to justify the kind of fuss we make about it. You know, the thing about it being life, about every droplet counting, and the planet as well as our bodies being mostly filled with it, and stuff. In my observation, water was a colourless, odourless liquid that even takes the shape of the container you pour it into. Where was all that character we give it? I wasn’t stupid, see, and I knew that water drowns one in large quantities and keeps one alive in smaller quantities, but that was that. Hold a glass of the stuff up at the sun and you wondered what all that poetry was about.

Water cleanses, my friends at childhood said. But, I returned, is it the ultimate cleanser? Then why did we invent soap? Who has ever stepped on shit and washed himself with just water?





It quenches the thirst, my friends at adolescence persisted. Pray, tell me, I asked, then why do we have Coke and tea and coffee and beer?

Even into adulthood I realised that when we use terms like ‘mouth-watering’, we are taking the credit out of one thing and draping it on another. Because we are, in fact, referring to saliva, not water. Saliva is what stands for delicious food. Saliva. It might be largely made of water, but it’s not the same thing, or you could bathe in it, could you not?

I have nothing against water, but I did believe — and still do — that the whole thing needs to be watered down, forgive the pun. I know about the Bible and “(…) but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life,” but the Bible has been known to exaggerate before (it’s where you hear the patter of feet on water). In fact, I think literature largely exaggerates when it talks of water like it is the salt of the earth. When Leonardo da Vinci exclaimed, “Water is the driving force of all nature”, he obviously had the brashness of great thinkers, for he seemed to think absolutely nothing of the wind and the sun and the tectonic shifts that created mountains.

Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke (who was sweet enough to write under the pen name Isak Dinesen) declared: “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea”. Well, folks, let’s see her replace chemotherapy with salt water.

Water is not the single force that sustains our lives, nor is it something magical or enigmatic, like they would have us believe. But, finally, it was on one hot March afternoon that I realised what exactly it was that irked me about the whole thing. It wasn’t just that we read too much into water. That we do with most things — the moon, the clouds, the winds, Grecian and other urns, the seasons... It wasn’t that; or it wasn’t only that.

Now about this hot March afternoon, the one in which I discovered I had motion sickness. We were at a fair on the city outskirts when my daughter wished to try the giant wheel. Given to being a sport till the end, I climbed and sat next to her on that huge, unnatural, counter-intuitive contraption. The trouble began when the thing was midway to the top. I felt a tremendous tug inside my tummy and the world swam beneath me. Cursing Richard Dawkins for cementing my heart with cold logic, I began muttering prayers after a long gap, clutching my daughter’s hands so hard that she almost squealed. But the world continued to swim and the giant wheel became the wheel of a bicycle ridden by a drunkard, me the ant clinging to its spokes. When we reached the closest to the heavens I barfed. My stomach turned inside out and I watched droplets of lunch approach terminal velocity. Someone from another world beneath mine yelled up curses.

As we descended, my thoughts went: “Bad lunch and why climb this, but I couldn’t have let her do this on her own, God! Will people beat me up? What if this thing topples or cracks at the hub? If we sit and this thing starts rolling like a coin and falling, will I vomit more? Shouldn’t even think about it, you fool! Good pleasant thoughts like gardens, nice smells... is this stream of consciousness? Stream of consciousness! Aha! But what I wouldn’t do to jump into a stream right now? Stream not of consciousness or anything that profound, but a stream of cold, crackling water… and drink, drink, drink O!”

My throat was completely dry, like cracked-up, parched land. And coming down on that wheel I felt the full blow of contemplating a world where potable water was fast disappearing. No amount of reading about it could have brought me this big a shock, as I watched the land in front of me, and the horizon like a ring of fire under that pitiless sun. I imagined rubbing soap on to dry skin and almost felt the taste of raw tea-leaves in my mouth. I think I vomited twice more after we were on solid ground, but my head was clearing.

“Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it,” I told my amazed wife and daughter, quoting Laozi, the ancient Chinese visionary. It had come to me, the reason why all this brouhaha about water had always troubled me.

All this philosophising about water makes us think we own it; and that is the trouble. By attributing some divine qualities to it, making it sacred, singing about it in our poetry, dancing to its trickles in our cultures, by weaving politics along its banks and writing speeches inspired by it, we have tended to claim singular ownership of this natural resource. Conversely, it is precisely to lay our claim that we humans sing about things. It gets worse, for indeed it is in our character that we cannot own something for too long without eventually destroying it.

If humans still lived among the animals in the jungle, I would say we would be celebrating the one waterhole with such hue and cry, we would think nothing of building a fence around it and keeping it exclusively for us. And then we would worship it and suck the hell out of it with such piousness of heart that we would one fine day see that it has gone dry on us.

Suck! It’s that particularly repugnant word which reminded a Joycean character of the ugly gurgling sound of dirty water as it disappeared in a small whirlpool inside a hotel sink. But that’s what we are doing — sucking all the water right off the earth while actually giving ourselves the licence to do so by singing about it and glorifying it.

Tell me, dear readers, do we really need sparkling water, spring water, mineral water, purified water, fruit water, artesian water, fluoridated water, sterile water, well water, groundwater? How far will we go with UV, RO, infrared, ionisers, carbon filtering, microbial filtering, water polishing, water softening? Aren’t we getting rather too specialised and finicky for a species that will be primarily responsible once a rich, wet planet turns barren and lifeless?

I would say if we could get down on all fours and lap up water from a puddle like a dog, we would be doing ourselves a service. Because, then, our love for water would be more unconditional, and perhaps a little more worthy of the poesy we create around it. We would then be able to sustain ourselves on almost any kind of water, like the rest of creation, without worrying about the typhus. Hippos lie in water all day and they do not need skin specialists or antibiotics. We dry ourselves with dryers and towels quickly, and then celebrate water like it’s something not of this world.

Water is a resource that we cannot live without. So while drinking from a puddle might be a little far-off, can we at least repair that leaky faucet, close that tap more fully, re-use our pasta cooking liquid, blow our cars clean, take shorter showers, use a broom to clean the porch, and generally get it into our streams of consciousness to conserve water?

The end is glorious only when we think it’s far away.

To put the fear in ourselves, let’s not create in our literature the pralaya — the D-day flood that will take all of us into its great depths. Let’s imagine an end far less glorious. Perhaps humans will die — one here, one there — in different parts of the world, out of thirst. I think it’s not the drowning feeling we need. It’s the feeling of dying of thirst, something that we have already subjected many of our fellow animals to. At least when we fear thirst we might be closer to the truth.

Manu Bhattathiri is the author of Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories

Published on December 30, 2016
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