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Summer Riverbank by Timothy Sorsdahl

Summer Riverbank by Timothy Sorsdahl

In my garden at noon, it felt as though some cosmic joker held a gigantic magnifying glass between sun and earth. The leaves on the trees hung limp, and flowers faded to crisp brown paper in the concentrated heat. My skin burned as I rescued the laundry before elastic turned to powder and all color was sucked up into the sky.

North India is enduring the longest, hottest summer ever. While the experts debate whether this is proof-positive of global warming or just a run of bad luck, we suffer.

Of course, not everyone suffers equally. There’s nothing like a good Indian summer to reveal inequalities. Every road is jammed with a cross section: the rich in air conditioned pods; the middle class in progressively smaller and less efficiently cooled cars; the lower-middle astride motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles, protected by hats, gloves, and layers of wrappings that make them look like funky mummies; and then the poor, who look exactly as they do in every season, only more desiccated.

It would be nice to think that almost all of them—a few wretches are always excluded—could go home and pour cool water on their heads, at least, and sit in a fan’s soothing breeze. But this obviously is not the way things work, or there wouldn’t be a long line of buckets, paint pails recycled for domestic use, empty cooking oil bottles, and every other conceivable container snaking around the public tap on the corner. The women and children who put them there have retired to the shade of a nearby tree, or all the way back to the shelter of their homes, as they wait for the tap to become a water tap, and not just the dry end of a dry pipe.

The tap is almost subterranean. Around it, the soil has been dug out into a bowl shape, so that the level of the tap could be lowered. This was necessary because water pressure in our city, and most others in this region, is so low that any tap at a normal height will never give water. As it is, water is supplied only for a few hours in the morning and again in the evening. For those dependent on this supply, on street corners or in their homes, they spend hours everyday sticking buckets under taps and either praying or cursing. This is women’s work, naturally—who else could put up with such a tedious, time-wasting task?

And why is the pressure so low? Our city is nestled between two rivers. One, the Ganges, may have shrunk to a rivulet because of all the water taken out of it for irrigation, but the Jamuna is still a respectable size and depth. The city has grown, though, and so have peoples’ expectations. Residents of brand new buildings expect water to flow 24/7 on the sixth floor. And so it does, even if tube wells are sucking water out of the ground like there’s no tomorrow. The rich are again conspicuous—they’re the ones with the green lawns and the plump, hydrated skin.

Some of them draw water for their many needs out of the ground; many others simply attach a wider pipe to the municipal supply lines and install a pump that pulls all the water in that pipe—their share and everyone else’s—into their lines and the tanks on their roofs. It’s illegal, but who cares? Everyone needs water, and everyone who is anyone manages to get an uninterrupted supply.

Electricity is essential for water to flow this way, as it’s essential to keep the fans turning. The power supply is another intensifier of the have/have-not divide. In our state, the power goes off in a series of staggered daily cuts. This was done, we were told, to provide enough electricity to the rural areas so that irrigation pumps can run during the day, and lights and fans will be available in the evening. Hopefully, the villagers are getting their share, because in cities like ours, the power is off for three hours a day.

Three hours, in daytime temperatures ranging from 107 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit, with the occasional 120 degrees thrown in for variety. Imagine that.

The rich imagined it, and that’s why they procured generators for those times without power. The fat cats and large shops use industrial-strength generators that spew exhaust as they gulp diesel to keep the air conditioners on. The medium cats utilize battery backups to keep their fans and maybe a small evaporation cooler running. The common folk make do with trees and clouds to keep their brains from boiling.

Yes, the inequalities shine brightest in the summer, because the Indian summer can kill. Mothers lose their children to dehydration and the shelterless succumb to heat stroke, always, every summer.

It’s refreshing to hear political parties talk about inclusive development and bringing prosperity and security to all. Things are moving in that direction in many places. A recent newspaper article featured a woman elected village head somewhere in Rajasthan, who convinced everyone in her hamlet to do without vulgar expenditure on lights and loudspeakers at weddings, and to try for a dignified, simple life for all, equally. Maybe the bill reserving seats in Parliament for women will finally pass and a slew of such level-headed, motherly legislators will persuade their unruly constituents to share their toys equally among themselves.

Probably not. Inequalities have always existed everywhere, though the magnified rays of the Indian summer sun may seem to amplify them. The rich will continue to suck out the water and every other resource meant for mankind, while the rest of us watch, sigh, and play our role as the biggest suckers of all.


Author Bio: LUCINDA NELSON DHAVAN first went to India on a Fulbright Foundation grant immediately after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College. She is still there. After several years devoted to domestic bliss, child rearing, and learning Hindi, she joined the staff of a regional newspaper. She now feels she may have learned enough to write fiction and is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel.

1 comment to Suckers

  • Lanny Vidler

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