When the water comes at night
When the water comes at night, some people miss it because they go to the market. Hoses trail through slick slate alleys. Cows dodge auto rickshaws as usual, or, more likely, autos swerve around cows, but in Barakotri the autos are lit up with disco LEDs, blue and green and orange flashing. At night, only people with patios and lights wash clothes outside. Maybe others wash in the small cement enclosures off kitchens. Or washed their laundry earlier and have hung it to dry in the empty living/sleeping room. Brass handes, large cauldrons, glow in the fluorescent light (all appliances are ultra-efficient in India, and everyone has CFLs).
It’s dusk when the water comes, spurting air out of a hundred open taps. The line at the public tap has an order I did not recognize in the day. There are 7, 8, or 9 women there always, plus a man or two, and a pack of kids off to the side in the open triangle field between the main road and the slum lane. But they are not the same women: the woman in the blue sari whose vessels I measured earlier takes the first shift. The Christian woman in the yellow dress, whose daughters lured me in for chai with calls of “uncle, uncle” and then gave me chapatti and dal their mother heated on the wood fire while they whispered at me behind their hands, this woman does not start waiting until full night has fallen and the copper pots in the muslim house are full. Next to the tap is a government borewell tank that has not held water in two months. Never mind that the water is salty and full of pathogens, it is still carried, koda by 16 liter plastic koda, to plastic barrels and motor oil buckets and shining steel pots inside.
What we foreigners do is walk intricate pathways through these “slum areas”, small rural villages transplanted to the urban outskirts, or narrow strips of land between wealthy subdivisions, where the black smoke trains’ rumble and whistle vibrates the bones, or old city, thick-walled adobe and stone mangers where people leave banana skins and cabbage leaves for the cows and buffalo. I look like an engineer, with my maps and spreadsheets and orange Forestry Supply notebook. Lots of kids speak English flawlessly. “What are you writing in your notebook, uncle?” “Our water doesn’t come from rainwater, it comes from the [name I can't remember] dam on the [name I can't remember] river.” Then they run off to carry water from the tap down the lane.
The water comes on at 6, and stays on until ten, or maybe eleven. I walk circles between my three randomly selected houses and the public tap. My pantomime and Kannada/ Hindi are improving, though my vocabulary is little bigger. But I don’t know that a translator has the patience for this, and anyway they tend not to translate all the details, and I can get some from the smattering of English words everyone knows: timing, problem, actually, working, speed (for water pressure), and numbers. . .
The flow in the water lines fluctuates between a trickle and a fast stream that I measure with a nalgene from hoses that people hold out of the barrel for me. I drink a last cup of chai on a hard metal bed with a guy who fixes two wheelers at a shop nearby. Then he says it’s time for me to leave so I do.