It was but inevitable that in the age of metered electricity, water and gas supply, the idea of deifying ponds and rivers should go into a terminal decline. But since old traditions grind on, this creates some problems regarding observance of age-old water rituals that must accompany marriages and births in families.
The past few years have not been easy on our natural resources, particularly water bodies. Most major rivers are polluted beyond redemption, and almost all natural wells and artificial ponds in our cities have dried up, or been covered over and built upon by some influential builder with political connections. So what is one to do? Tricky question.
The answer, strictly speaking, lies in improvisation. And on that score it is hard to beat small-town India.
A report from Meerut says that people in western Uttar Pradesh have taken to worshipping the community hand-pump or the humble domestic tap instead of the local well.
Actually, lives and traditions have been mutating all over. Marriage celebrations in the metros, for example, are no longer led by old rituals. They have become neatly packaged secular events, where water is served in sealed containers and is meant only for drinking or mixing with drinks. Dancing and drinking and video recordings, not kuan poojan (worshipping the well) are the essential item numbers now, whether the wedding is traditional North/South Indian, post-modern, post-diasporan non-resident Indian or even Hollywood/Bollywood celebrity-ordered pseudo-colonial/royal. The pundits who preside over such rituals are no longer venerable wise men with a long family association. They are hired for the occasion or arrive via an event management agency, somewhat like the glossy, priced publications accompanying ready-to-assemble furniture.
Things in small towns in India are still half-and-half, as they say. People there are stubborn and refuse to get out of an almost Kierkegaardian level of intimate, painstaking and instinctive adherence to rituals in favour of new age logic and scientific data. When lights are switched on within houses at the close of the day, you’ll notice many of them joining their hands and bowing their heads to the source of light as their forefathers did when they lit the morning hearth fires or the evening oil lamps. When they sit down at the dining table, they still go through the motions of preparing a Gau Gras (a morsel for the holy cow). And when a new bride enters the family or a new baby is brought out in the sun for the first time, they do not treat it as just a cute photo-op, but insist on taking them to the watering holes. Never mind if there is no pond or spring or well in sight anymore. The humble tap, they have decided in Meerut, will do. So the mother and newborn, the bride and the groom are made to don traditional robes and made to squat next to the tap/hand pump, accompanied by a priest chanting mantras and a whole posse of female relatives and children, singing traditional songs and cracking jokes. Husband and wife, mother and child jointly offer flowers and prayers to the Nal Devta (god of the tap) and seek its blessings and afterwards everyone is treated to sweets.
If ever there was a great liberating force for ordinary home-bound women, this is it. In areas with endemic water shortages, women’s lives were so completely drained of all energy by the act of fetching water from far-off water sources under an unrelenting sun, that in Budelkhand one of the Paniharin (water fetcher) song says, Gagri na phootey khasam mari jay! The husband may die but, oh lord, let my pot not break!
For our women, taps definitely have an edge over wells. Water carried through pipes into homes has a clearly defined economic value, while water carried by our mothers and grandmothers in pots remained another unpaid female chore for centuries, in the eyes of both the state and the family. Water, haggled over by neighbouring states, processed in expensive plants before being piped into cities, is no longer just a precious commodity but also a volatile political issue. It can make or unseat governments. Water in cities today is no longer a free commodity endlessly fetched by the humble women of the house. It is actually being produced for wages and is billed at the end of each month. Therefore, when taps run dry and both men and women have to run down staircases to fetch water from water tankers, each bucket is counted and, if the supply is not resumed soon enough or the bills are inflated, people and political parties take to streets.
The tap today is the god of big things. Cultural mutations like tap worship can yield many positive results. Some of them may even be rather startling. Young couples will learn that like water, conjugal life and parenting, has also a community dimension. Others will be firmly reminded that all the female labour that goes into the production of a new life, including the labour of giving birth to a child, must also be seen as a truly human activity carried out in collaboration with Nature but not just an activity of Nature. Ponds and wells situated away from homes may have rendered women’s productive and reproductive labours invisible, but the taps reverse the process and render it visible. Moreover, they situate the awesome drama of a woman’s life firmly within her home.
Perhaps the World Bank should stop nosing around for questionable partnerships in water management and integrated child development with non-governmental organizations and state governments. It should consider instead the merits of having the young tap worshippers of Meerut as its global brand ambassadors for both water-resource management and women empowerment. And Deepa Mehta should seriously consider Meerut as a location for a Water 2.
Mrinal Pande writes about issues involving the feminist economy in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of the Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org