Thirst6 min read

Indrapuri is a colony on the outskirts of the city. More dust than tarmac.
That summer afternoon the dust hung in the air. The main street was barren. Only if you peered hard, would you find an occasional stray dog panting in the shade.

Though there were more than thirty houses, no one was outside.

As if just to disturb the stillness, a middle-aged woman opened a door and stepped out into the blinding sunlight. She walked slowly to the community tap.

With mute understanding, several other doors opened. The utensils were placed neatly in a line.

Women chatted and exchanged news. Kids played. Grandpa chewed his tobacco stick. The routine appeared well rehearsed.
~ * ~

They had been lining up for water like that for years, though they all knew that the tap was dry. It was the water tanker that they waited for.

In other parts of the city, too, the water supply was a problem. But in Indrapuri, the people waited for the tanker throughout the year. Thrice a week.

But in summer, the tanker made it only once a week.

~ * ~

A bored kid spotted the yellow tanker first.

The crowd surged. The dogs came to life.

The driver parked the tanker near the tap. Grandpa kept his tobacco aside carefully and stood by his utensils. The women finally started chatting.

For a moment the street smelled wet. Then it was time for the tanker to leave.

Just then a kid screamed. He had slipped and hit himself against the curb. But it was only a scratch. Grandpa came forward and tied a small cloth around his forehead. The driver stopped and gave him some candy. The crowd smiled.

Then the engine roared into action, and the street became silent once again.

~* ~

No one had noticed the stranger. Or his camera that clicked away silently.

Yadagiri worked for an evening newspaper. The newspaper sold more near traffic lights than at newsstands.

He was on his way to photograph a monkey at the zoo who had bitten a guard. Or was it the other way round?

It was good that he had stopped for a smoke when the tanker had arrived.

~* ~

At his desk, he took stock. The photographs he had taken at the zoo were no good. The monkey had not been cooperative; nor had the guard.

Surprisingly, the Indrapuri photos had come out well. Especially the one with the kid. The new Editor liked grim faces, poverty, dust, cracked earth and stuff like that. It sold well to the masses, too. And it could, perhaps, fetch him an award.

~* ~

The Editor himself wrote the caption: “Boy spills blood for sip of water?”

~* ~

Bhageeratha Rao, MLA, lazily scanned the papers that his assistant had left on the table. He had a hangover, but the coffee was not helping.

He had switched loyalties to another party when the tide turned. He had won the seat, but the party had lost. He could not become a Minister. “Why couldn’t they make a member of the Opposition a minister, even if it meant amending the Constitution?!” He was dreaming about the Chair when his eyes fell on the photograph.

He read the name of the colony: Indrapuri… It took him a while to realize that the colony was a part of his constituency. His eyes took on a gleam. His headache disappeared. So did his plans of amending the Constitution.

The coffee tasted better now.

~* ~

In the Assembly, it was the fag end of Question Hour. The Opposition members were badgering the ruling party. The ministers were trying their best, but were tired with the booing and the desk thumping. The backbenchers were waiting for the whole business to end. Some were snoring.

Bhageeratha Rao rose to speak. He got up slowly. His crumpled khadi clothes slowly straightened themselves, as if they were relieved of a burden.

“Mr. Speaker Sir! The water problem has increased tremendously,” he said, waving the newspaper.

Nobody seemed to notice. Some of the members smirked. “What’s new?” everyone seemed to ask silently.

There was no reaction, not even from his party colleagues.

But Rao continued, “Sir, I cannot explain the hardships they are facing just to get a sip of water,” he said.

He was surprised at the ruling party’s reaction: There was none. But he knew how to get one.

“If the government cannot provide basic amenities then what is the use of ‘so called’ development?”

This managed to get some response from his party members. He reminded the House that many farmers had committed suicide recently.

The discussion strayed. There was a heated debate about the government’s performance, or the lack of it, in every field, and the irresponsible behavior of the Opposition parties. The irrigation minister then remarked that the previous government was largely responsible for the water scarcity. This was the opportunity that Rao had been waiting for. Shouting that the ruling party was making irresponsible statements, he led a dramatic walkout.

The member who awoke last followed hurriedly.

~* ~

The crossroads near the Secretariat was abuzz. Flags, cutouts, banners… were everywhere. Bhageeratha Rao sat in the makeshift tent with his party colleagues. They had seen to it that empty pots and utensils were spread all over the place. It was a field day for the press.

Rao announced that he was staging a protest against the water scarcity problem plaguing the city. As the cameras clicked and the TV crews followed his every move, Rao placed his weight gingerly in the middle of the road. He prayed that the police would come early, before the TV crews left.

He tried hard not to smile. His pictures would look good on the front pages.

~* ~

The protesters had blocked all traffic. Thousands of vehicles were stranded in long lines. The noise was deafening.

The police talked incessantly over their walkie-talkies. They were doing their best in the sweltering heat. But it would take a few hours before things became normal.

The driver of the yellow tanker knew this too. After all, this was not the first time he was stuck in a traffic jam that Bhageeratha Rao had caused.

The driver was way behind schedule and was on edge. How would he reach all four colonies on time? Should he take a detour? But that road would take him almost as long too.

His thoughts were interrupted by a jolt. Someone had hit the vehicle from behind. He got down cursing and surveyed the damage.

It was pretty bad.

But, who cared? He had decided not to go on anyway.

~* ~

The people of Indrapuri slowly dispersed from the community tap — the sun was going down. The women were irritable; they had not really exchanged news. The bored kid kicked a stone aimlessly. Grandpa picked up his tobacco stick again; he was wondering whether the tanker would now come every two weeks. 

                                                * * *

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  Published in Sulekha