It was cool and dark in the cavern. I had not seen the sun for centuries since sliding underground, between the rocks into this crevice. High above through the rocks I could hear a high-pitched whirring sound that paused a few seconds, then resumed. Over many hours the sound grew louder till Splash! The roof of my world fell down.
A metal proboscis came through the gap, entered me and withdrew. Then a pipe took its place. Slowly I felt myself being drawn into the projection, unable to stop myself or hold onto anything. It was a like being born, only I was already alive. I didn’t want to be born. Far above, a clanking grating sound beckoned me, an unpleasant change from the eons of silence I had dwelt in.
I emerged into bright scorching sunlight through a metal pipe and splashed into a bucket. There were human faces I had not seen for centuries. So, this is what mankind looked like now – clothes had changed, language had changed as had their attitude towards me. I remember being taken as a fact of life in my earlier spell on the surface; I was an exotic commodity now.
The thing I had emerged through was called a handpump, sunk in a remote village in India. It was an invention so people could get me without their having to work too hard. I remember living at the bottom of a well earlier – people would throw down pots and hogsheads to fill me and use in their homes. I was invaluable, an integral part of life. They valued me greatly because they had to work hard to get me.
The handpump changed all that. Moving a lever up and down sucked me up from the depths, sometimes from as deep as 80 M underground, where I had lived for centuries. Many times, I absorbed minerals, some good and others bad. The good ones made me useful. The bad ones such as those containing arsenic and fluoride made human beings sick. If I had too much of these, human beings got terrible sores on their feet and hands that didn’t heal. Or their teeth and bones became deformed. I felt guilty, but was helpless. I had been sucked out of my lair by the Device.
The human beings tried to solve their sickness by painting these handpumps red; labeling them unfit for drinking. But if I was nowhere else to be found, humans use these handpumps even at the cost of permanent health damage.
I was used to flowing free and living free. If I was caged in a pit or a depression on the ground, I rotted and stank. When I seeped back down into the ground, ashamed of my stinking existence and seeking to clean myself, I found myself being drawn towards yet another Device. Human beings sank these Devices without thought, near places where I stood and stank, near rivers where I flowed and near ponds where tiny animals kept me fairly clean.
I existed everywhere – in the clouds, on the mountaintops, in rivers, lakes, streams, ponds, pools, pits, cesspools, underground rivers and caverns. There were handpumps near all my homes, save in the clouds and mountaintops. But human beings weren’t careful about what they did with me once they had used me – there wasn’t much respect for me those days. Once out of the Device, I flowed into the nearest cesspool or latrine. Soaked with filth, unable to cleanse myself, I was pulled inexorably back into the handpump to be used again.
From a life-giver, I became a life-taker. In the cesspool, bacteria bred in me. I became a reservoir of disease – malaria, jaundice, dysentery, cholera and gastro-enteritis, to name a few. When human beings drank me from handpumps near these cesspools or soak pits, they fell ill. Was I to blame for their folly of sinking a Device near a huge pond of disease? I felt the Device was the Devil’s own. It seemed to be worst thing human beings could have invented.
It had pulled me from my cavern. True, it gave my life-giving nourishment for a while. But then the handpump broke down. It had been made with metal, a material most people could not work with. It needed specialists to repair. In the meantime, those who had grown used to extracting me easily, suffered. Their women walked miles to find me at another place.
Then a brilliant human being, this time clothed in white, had an idea when he visited a village where the handpump had broken down. Why not sink many instead of just one for the whole settlement. That way, when one broke down, there would be others. So the white-clad man asked more engineers to probe the ground to find out where I was, hidden by rocks and soil. They sank drills – I had learnt my tormentor’s name by then – and discovered me hidden many metres underground. Where there was one handpump, now there were 50.
The white-clad one came and took money from the head of the engineers for giving him the order to sink 50 handpumps. I remember the colour of money – it changed hands right over my head, as I lay in a steel bucket under one of the new handpumps.
It was black.
But everybody – the chief engineer, the white-clad man and the people of the village were happy.
The villagers went on a handpump merry-go-round. When one broke down, they carried its parts home. Sometimes, they used these to repair other broken-down ones in their own homes. Sometimes, they sold the metal for scrap. Very soon, there were just five pumps left. The women who used them still got back-aches. I remember once a woman with a bloated stomach came and pulled me out with great effort. She collapsed when she lifted the steel bucket and there was a great deal of blood; she died later. The men seldom helped to carry me home.
In my earlier surface existence, I had filled a pond. The village, smaller then, used to bathe and wash clothes around me. The place was filled with banter and laughter. I enjoyed feeling little children swim in me, the women and men treat me with respect and care. I was the centre of village life and twice a year, everybody came out to celebrate life by holding a fair on the banks of the pond. I remember glowing. The village seemed one big happy family then.
It was so different now. It was the same village but people queued up at the handpumps to fill and take me home, or bathe. The higher caste people always jumped the line, or dirtied the pots of the lower caste ones. There were frequent quarrels if a woman had too many pots or took longer than necessary to fill enough of me. I grew tired of the constant bickering – the daily routine was no longer fun but a terrible chore. I empathized with the women. The handpump seemed to be slowly unraveling the village’s social fabric. It let only one person fill at a time and others, too impatient to wait their turn, turned quarrelsome. The situation became worse in summer because the human beings, in their wisdom, had put the handpump in a place without shade.
Some years later, the engineers were back. They fixed all the 50 handpumps and went away. This time, the villagers didn’t cannibalise the broken pumps because one of them had been trained to repair them. Things looked brighter, the quarrels were fewer and I flowed cleaner.
The caverns where I lived underground were refilled by underground streams and rivers, aquifers that ultimately captured rainwater. They filled slowly, sometimes getting nearly empty in summer and filling out only in the monsoons. In summer, some of the handpumps would stop working but there were enough to tide the village through the hot season. Then the rains would come and everybody would forget the hot hard months.
Slowly, slowly, the caverns filled less quickly and I flowed in thinner streams underground. More buildings on the surface gave me less space and time to reach the caverns. More handpumps on the surface drew out more of me, each up to 21 litres per minute. Human beings were less discriminating in using me and wasted me more. Cesspools filled with dirty ole me and bred diseases. Mosquitoes flourished and men fell to malaria. I mocked at the human beings who had invented the Device – they seemed to lack the intelligence to handle me with care. The means had become more important than the end.
When I had been first disturbed from my slumber of ages, I had rested a scarce 10 M below the ground. In the decade gone by, human beings had to dig up to 80 M to find me, and that too was getting harder by the year. Handpumps started drying up, rather than breaking down – they didn’t serve the purpose for which they were put there.
I had filled the belly of the earth, nurtured plants on her surface and animals at pools where I flowed out. The handpumps in a few years sapped my strength to sustain life. As I receded further underground, chased by the relentless drills and pump pipes, trees on the surface withered. Pools, once fed by my streams, started drying. Both wild and domestic animals found it harder to find me to drink in the jungle. The forests, with whom I shared a special relationship, started vanishing. The forests slowed me on my race from the heavens to the sea and showed me the way down into the caverns. As they disappeared, the caverns emptied faster.
As I finally evaporated and reached the skies, I could see the destruction that the handpumps had wrought. The village was dotted with them, each with its own captive cesspool. Human beings lined up at each, like ants attacking a dead fly to get a few litres of my nourishment. The handpumps drew me up in ever more contaminated litres. The human beings drank me and fell sick. They blamed me but instead of fixing the handpumps, that were the real culprits, they started devising other schemes to get me from far off places which, they thought, would be safer.
The man in a white came again and promised people that he would build a dam on the river and reach me from there to each and every house. Right, I thought, remembering the black-coloured notes that had changed hands years before. More money down the drain and the beginnings of a new problem.
In village after village, people forgot how they had cared and looked after me and I, in turn, had rewarded their efforts by keeping them healthy, their crops and cattle watered. The handpumps did not produce enough water to water crops or animals so it was mainly the human beings who used me, drawn through the metal monsters. These quick-fix solutions replaced the wisdom of ages for short-term gains. They were installed to give people safe access to me, but they spread disease. They were supposed to give easy access to me, but they broke down and weren’t fixed for months, if ever. When they worked, people wasted me and I accumulated in large cesspools, contaminating the underground caverns. The more they used, the emptier the caverns became. The deeper they dug, the more contaminants I emerged with. The land became drier and drier. The men in white arrive every few years to promise more and more, and delivered less and less. It seemed handpumps had started a vicious cycle. In the end, every man, woman and child fled the village and went to the city to find me coming out of broken pipes. But that wasn’t enough for them.
They had other men in white come and promise handpumps.