Excerpts from my new short story :
At thirty minutes past midnight, the alarm clock started ringing. Saba got up and put it off in darkness. He was perspiring heavily. The blades of the ceiling fan were moving around so slow that he could distinguish the individual blades as they moved. Electricity had tripped, he guessed.
Saba sat on the floor, trying to orient himself. A scourge of mosquitos rose humming into his ears and surrounded him, trying to get a foothold on his face and arms. He shook them away wildly turning his frail frame back and forth and beating his hands on his cheeks and exposed torso vigorously. He picked up his vest from the floor and wore it hurriedly. As if drawn by someone, he went to the kitchen with unsteady steps in the dark.
He vaguely felt kerosene could have spilled somewhere in the kitchen and quickly checked the stove on the kitchen stone slab. It was dry. The oblong kitchen slab was also devoid of any moisture. May be it was a phantom stench made up by his weak olfactory sense to annoy and disorient him, hard of sniffing since he was a school boy of five. Saba is running 35 now.
It was then he heard the lizard crocking on the wall behind. He instantly knew amma has come. He felt the lizard was staring at him with impatience.
“Be quick. Carry the buckets downstairs. The queue for water may become lengthy by the time you reach there”, amma muttered.
“I am going, amma .. I am going”, Saba replied plain bored with all this, as he bent down and looked for the iron buckets under the kitchen slab. There were three such buckets and a brass bowl and another two plastic buckets, waiting there for him. All these, he had to take downstairs for fetching water.
The iron buckets still had some water, close to two litres, taken together, Saba reckoned. He lifted them one by one carefully and kept them on the kitchen slab. The overpowering stench of chlorinated water in darkness made him feel sick.
Saba next searched for the copper cooking utensils. There were at least five of them around of different sizes, each with a specific capacity. As he was stretching his hand trying to feel their presence, he could recognize in the darkness, a coffee filter, two ladles, a porcelain cup and a few stainless plates. After sustained searching for another few minutes he took them out from the empty tin container for storing rice, near the door.
He filled up a couple of the cooking utensils with the residual water in the buckets. Filling them up from the buckets was not an easy task either when it was dark all around. Some water spilled on his feet too. Amma would not like any wasting of water, he recalled.
Water is precious. Amma had emphasised this at least ten times daily when she was alive. With her here in flesh and blood, it was a different scenario altogether, Saba observed. She never wasted any water and the whatever stored in the tiny apartment that is Saba’s dwelling, never appeared to be in excess any time. The copper bowls were used only for cooking and not for storing chlorinated residual water of the day before. Of course, after amma expired, no one cooked there, he remembered.
As Saba searched for the piece of cloth on the floor to dry up his feet and the water spilled on the slab, amma became restless. “You have all the time in the world for that cleaning. Not now. It is time for fetching water now. Run, my boy”. The lizard was sounding more noisy and agitated. It was squeaking for long.
The iron buckets though empty weighed considerably. He was keeping the small ones inside the large ones and the combined stress on the shoulder muscles sent a nasty pain shooting all the way down to the groin. Saba was worried how to carry these buckets back after collecting water. He might get muscular cramps or still worse, might slip down on the stairs. The buckets would then empty themselves on the staircase rendering all these efforts futile.
More than that, it might not be possible for him to visit the house of the seven maidens, with a swollen groin.
‘You can fantasise about those seven sluts leisurely afterwards. It is now time to fetch water’, amma was screaming at him behind his back.
Water scarcity always cast a shadow on the daily living of Saba and his amma; also the whole town. When amma was alive, almost all her awake-hours were spent fetching water, spending it diligently, evolving contingency plans in case the water supply became erratic, and making brackish water soft for drinking and for cooking purposes by percolation through a series of clay pots half filled with sand. Whatever amma spoke to Saba and others invariably would become centered on water scarcity. Once caught in the vortex, she would come out of it only when she fell into a spell of disturbed sleep late at night, tense with worries about water.
Amma told Saba he could think about getting married, once the rains arrive and water scarcity would be behind them. He accepted her counsel without grudge as he himself wished his faceless wife to be and the children they would beget should never suffer from shortage of water. Amma would get up without fail at midnight to wake him up and send him downstairs for fetching water from the municipal tap in their apartment complex. She could sense even any faint attempt by anyone to work on the water pump down below and would immediately alert Saba that water has started coming on the municipal lines. That continues even now, four months after her demise.
Saba came to the drawing room with the buckets and switched on the light. Electricity had resumed albeit with a low voltage, with the incandescent bulb burning dim. The cement floor appeared rough and cracks were there all around. Something coarse was scattered on the floor sensed by his feet. He knew what it was. The purohit when conducting yesterday the monthly memorial ceremony for amma scattered them on Saba sitting cross-legged on the floor and beyond him, with holy chants evoking celestial beings to ensure her smooth passage to heaven. Saba knew she would prefer hanging around here than passing onto heaven, as long as the water scarcity would persist. She in fact opted to have a reduced version of the memorial ceremony which involved no cooking of offerings as well as a feast thereafter to the priests, but confined to uttering the core chants without lighting a fire and offering two kilos of raw rice, a new dhoti and a single unripe banana to the priest. She might be reaching heaven late but would not allow spending additional water for her sake, to cook and clean up.