Around the house, I am like a wind-up toy. Maybe there’s a job for me over there! Bzzzt. Job? Nope. Bzzt. Job? Oh well, ok. Job! I see a job!! Bzzt. I have bumped in to the wall—bad naviagation—bzzt—rotate—sigh…bzzt??
Everyone is always doing interesting things. Cooking, sifting, feeding, chopping, churning. I can do stuff. I’m a fast learner. I’m enthusiastic. If someone would just explain how to use this circular basket-pan-thing, for instance, I could be useful.
Luckily, it is becoming clear that, other deficiencies not withstanding, I make a perfectly adequate mule. In fact, as a mule I am more than adequate—I am talented. Carrying loads is mostly a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. So even though Aamaa is nervous about my wrecking most of the other household tasks (I don’t know why), every load that I carry is one that someone else doesn’t have to haul from one place to another. So, I am granted some latitude to do it inelegantly. Thank you.
It appears that I have found my calling in water. Everything else involves mysterious kinds of dexterity, or intuition, or magical powers. But fetching water simply means taking an empty jug to the tap, filling it, and carrying it home in a basket. And you can never have too much water.
And that, my friends, is how I have come to watch the water jugs like an underworked waiter monitoring the wine glasses at her only table for the evening. My awareness gets magnetized to these tin vessels, God forbid they languish for a single moment with any spare real estate inside. An entire section of my mind is devoted to calculating when and how water could be combined in various receptacles to leave the main jugs empty and in need of filling. It isn’t exactly that I enjoy getting water, but that I passionately want this job to depend on my contribution.
Each evening when I return from school around 4:45, the four of us sit on the porch drinking tea and eating popcorn. And I absolutely cannot relax as long as an inch of space remains available inside those tin jugs in the yard.
The routine is as follows. First, I say, “I’m going to get water,” and leap off the porch.
Then Bishnu says, “Sit down, Laura. I’ll get water.” Then I insist. Then Didi or Aamaa says, “Just take one jug.” But I have no idea what the logic of taking just one jug is. As long as I’m going, why wouldn’t I take two? And get more water.
And then Aamaa always tries, “Tomorrow, do it tomorrow.” What in the world is that supposed to mean? First of all, I know that we need water before tomorrow. I know because there is space in the big jug, and if there wasn’t space, I could create space by pouring water out of the big jug and into a smaller jug, and I could do that now, before tomorrow.
I’m not easily fooled.
So invariably, I get water. And the water tap is one of my most pitiless houses of education. This is mainly due to a strict Canon of Maneuvering that determines the order of access to the waterspout; moreover, everyone fends for themselves, and negotiations occur manually, not vocally.
Let me explain. It’s like chess. Upon arrival at the tap, you set down your basket and rope and jugs strategically: close to the spout, but not too close. You can’t be cocky about it. At the same time, you will take stock of your place in line. However, there is no linear line, just a theoretical, jointly acknowledged line–it’s a virtual line where everyone knows who arrived when. Nevertheless, you absolutely must monitor exactly where your place is, because you hold your spot in the virtual line by moving in as your turn approaches—protectively, but not too protectively—and the instant the person in front of you whisks their jug from under the relentless stream of water, you have to be ready to replace it with yours.
If you’re too slow, a few things can happen.
1. An aggressor might swoop in. Depending on the age and status and ferocity of the aggressor, it might be over before you know it, and if the aggressor has three jugs to fill, approximately nine minutes of your life are therein committed to waiting. Loners are especially vulnerable; I don’t stand a chance.
2. On the other hand, an ally might come to your aid. This is more likely to happen if the aggressor is young and overly ambitious, or, less often, if the ally is old and forceful. But old and forceful ladies don’t usually waste their time being allies, so most commonly the ally is a young girl like Laximi, who does housework for Bhim. Laximi and I are a great team. She stands up on the ledge behind the spout, and when someone tries to mess with the virtual line, Laximi grabs my water jug and hooks it immediately under faucet, holding it there until the aggressor removes the offending vessel below it. Then, when my jug gets full, I hand Laximi hers, and she hooks it just as mine fills, securing access before there’s an opening for challenge. Then we leave together while the old ladies yell after us.
But ultimately, skilled water-getters stay totally disinterested in the entire affair. Only the old, ferocious aggressors—tired out ladies who have every right to be weary with life and too busy for the nonsense of waiting—have the chutzpah to ignore the virtual line and the Canon of Maneuvering and just butt right off the bat. Most of the time, a challenge involves placing your water jug too close too fast. That’s how the arguing and shouting starts, and it’s really like a hundred times more fun than being an intern in some crappy office somewhere in New York.
I bring the basket of water home and sit back down. Is there anything else to do? Are you sure? Definitely not?
Bzzt. Maybe we need more water.