Introduction

Challapalli Swaroopa Rani is a prominent Dalit writer. Her mature poetry focuses mainly on the issues of gender and caste, though she began writing about her experiences. Her translated piece “Water” by Uma Bhrugubanda is a metaphor that shows the plight of the untouchables in our society. Panchamas are not allowed to draw water from the wells. They suffer humiliation at the hands of Kamma landlords. Water in this poem does not merely act as a substance but it turns out to be a symbol of revolt.

Stanza 1

Just as the water knows
The ground’s incline,
It knows the generations-old strife
Between the village and the wada.
Like the dampness on the well’s edge that never dies

The poet states in a casual tone that ‘water’, which knows where the ground is inclined along which it has to flow, knows that ‘untouchability’ never disappears, because the quarrel or conflict over allowing the Dalits to collect water from a village tank or pond, between the upper caste people and the Dalits, has been smouldering for several generations.

The poet draws parallels between this situation and the dampness on the well’s edge which never dries up. The writer uses this analogy to let the reader know that ‘water’, being the ‘elixir of life’, every living creature needs water, but it is so cruel of the upper caste people to deny such an essential ‘element’ of life to the ‘Dalits’ in the name of untouchability.

Stanza 2

The water knows everything.
It knows the difference of race
Between the Samaria woman and Jesus the Jew.
It also knows the sub-caste difference
Between leather and spool

The speaker seems to say that this has been happening every day for several generations and it is ironic that only water knows it. The poet is showing an accusing finger at all those people who deny access to the Dalits to water in public places. The poet cites a Biblical incident in which Jesus, the Jew, goes to a Samaria woman and asks the woman for a drink. The Samaria woman belongs to an inferior race and Jesus, the Jew belongs to a superior race. Here the speaker seems to say that ‘water’ is essential to all, be it a Samaria woman or Jesus the Jew; similarly, water is essential for both the upper caste people and the untouchables. The same idea is reiterated in the next two lines. Even among the untouchables, there were sub-castes. ‘Leather’ refers to cobblers and the ‘spool’ refers to weavers. The speaker means to say that whether one is a cobbler or a weaver both of them need water. This fact is known as ‘water’, but why are people so cruel to give access to water to one and deny access to the other. Here, the ‘other’ refers to the untouchables.

Stanza 3

It knows the agony of the Panchama,
Who, not having the right to draw a pot of water,
Waits all day near well
With his empty pot
Until a shudra arrives

A Panchama does not have the right to draw water from a public well because he is untouchable. It is cruel and unfortunate that he is made to wait near the well until a Shudra arrives. Here again, it is ironic that the ‘Panchama’, who does not belong to varna, has to wait for a Shudra who is supposed to belong to the fourth rank in the social hierarchy. A Shudra, according to the ‘varna’ scheme, is unskilled labour and he does all the physical tasks as directed by the other upper caste people. Naturally, only when a Shudra comes to a pond to fetch water for an upper caste person can he give some water to the Panchama. It also means that the other upper caste people who normally do not fetch water from a well will not be able to give water to a Panchama.

Stanza 4

It knows the humiliation
Of the wada girl
When he who poured the water from a distance, 
falls all over and touches her

The speaker is once again referring to the cruelty of the ‘varna system’ and the practices associated with untouchability. The speaker cites another cruel instance of untouchability. Normally, whenever a person belonging to one of the four varnas happens to give some water to an ‘untouchable’ (here it is a girl), he/she takes care to see that the giver and the receiver stand apart from each other and pours water from a distance, from a higher level to a lower level. On such occasions, some water is bound to fall on the receiver. Here, the receiver being a girl, waterfalls all over her. The speaker wants the reader to imagine the humiliation of the girl when someone throws water at her or on her. Here, the speaker is highlighting the cruel practice of untouchability.

Stanza 5

It knows the righteous rage
Of Karamchedu Suvarthamma
Who opposed the kamma landlords
With her water pot
When they asked her not to pollute the pond water.
The water is witness
To centuries of social injustice
.

The speaker recalls a heinous incident that happened in a place called Karamchedu. It is reported that on 16 July 1985, when two Kamma youths were washing dirty buckets (that had been used to feed – their buffaloes) in the drinking water tank in Madigapalle, a Dalit boy objected to it, which angered the youth. Consequently, when the youths were about to beat up the boy, Munnangi Suvartamma, a Dalit woman, tried to protect the boy from the attack. She lifted the vessel that she was carrying, to drive away from the attackers. This act of lifting the vessel in self-defense later resulted in a ghastly attack by the upper caste people on the Dalits. However, the speaker states that ‘water’ knows the ’anger’ exhibited by Suvartamma by lifting her vessel (water pot) against the Kamma landlords, who asked her not to pollute the pond water. In the last two lines, the speaker asserts that ‘water’ has been the witness to centuries of social injustice.

Stanza 6

When I see water
I remember
How my wada which would thirst all day
For a glass of water

The poet speaks in the first person and reminisces her painful experiences. The speaker says that whenever she sees water, she recalls that the people in her part of the village (Wada) would be suffering from severe thirst all day, not being able to get even a glass of water.

Stanza 7

For us, water is not simply H2O,
For us, water is a mighty movement.
It is the Mahad struggle at the Chadar tank.
A single drop of water embodies
Tears shed over several generations.
In the many battle we fought
For a single drop of water, 
Our blood flowed like streams.
But we never managed to win
Even a small puddle of water

The speaker states that for them (Dalits) water is a mighty movement itself and cites the instance of the Mahad struggle at the Chadar tank. (Mahad was a town in Colaba district in the then Mumbai state.) The Mahad municipality had passed a resolution to allow untouchables full/free access to all village waterfronts. But the local upper-caste population did not allow the Dalits to use the water and the resolution remained only on paper. On 19 March 1927, Dr. Baba Saheb Ambedkar led a rally to the water reservoir at Mahad, drank water from that tank, and asserted the rights of the Dalits. The speaker states that, for the Dalits, a single drop of water stands for tears shed by Dalits over several generations. She regretfully states that the Dalits had fought many battles for water in which they had shed their blood but had never succeeded in winning even a small puddle of water.

Stanza 8

When I see water,
I remember
How we welcomed our weekly bath
As if it was a wondrous festival!
While the entire village bathed luxuriously-
Twice a day

She recalls sadly how they (the Dalits) would look forward to their weekly bath day, as if it was a wonderful festival day, while the upper caste people in the entire village enjoyed bathing luxuriously twice a day. Here the speaker intends to highlight the fact that while the Dalits were ‘deprived’ of water and were given water only once a week, the other people had so much water that they bathed luxuriously twice a day.

Stanza 9

When I see water,
I remember
My childhood,
When we walked miles
To reach the big canal
And carried back heavy pots,

The speaker recalls her childhood when they had to walk miles and miles to fetch water from the big canal and carried back heavy pots with the muscles and veins in their necks straining and bursting.

Stanza 10

I remember,
Its thatched roofs aflame,
The Malapalle burning ashes
For want of a pot of water
.

The speaker narrates a fire accident in Malapalle. It was a locality where the Dalits lived in thatched huts. When their thatched roofs caught fire, the huts were destroyed in the fire for want of a pot of water to douse the fire.

Stanza 11

Water is not a simple thing!
It can give life
But it can also devour lives.
The water that refused to quench parched throats
Became the killer tsunami wave,
That swallowed whole
Village after village
.

The speaker expresses her opinion about the role of water in the life of the Dalits. She also expresses her view about how water is acting as an agent of social change at the local as well as at the global level. The speaker seems to hint that ‘water’ can act as an agent of social change and avenge the humiliation suffered by the Dalits. That is why she says, water is not a simple thing. It can give life but it can also devour lives. She categorically states that the water which should have been given to the Dalits to quench their parched throats later became the killer tsunami wave and swallowed village after village. In these lines the speaker seems to suggest that ‘water’ itself has acted as an agent of retribution, punishing the people for denying water to the Dalits. The theme of water as a mighty force and an agent of social change continues. She recalls the suffering undergone by the poor people who get killed whenever there is a flood.

Stanza 12

The poor are but playthings
In its vicious hands.
Often, it turns village into dry deserts
And sometimes it drowns them in flood
.

The speaker remarks that poor people become playthings in the vicious hands of water and get killed in large numbers, often turning villages into dry deserts and sometimes it drowns them into floods.

Stanza 13

Between the village and the wada
Between one state and another,
This water can ignite many struggles and strife.
It can make blood run in streams.
But it can also sit innocently
In a Bisleri bottle

Having expressed the harm caused by water to the untouchables, the speaker, in stanza thirteen, says that ‘water’ can become an issue of conflict between the village and the Wada, and between one State and another and be the cause of a bloody battle where people kill or hurt each other making the blood run in streams. The speaker says that the very same water also can sit innocently in a Bisleri bottle appearing so innocuous.

Stanza 14

This water from our village well
That forces us to do many a circus feat,
Now slowly, surreptitiously,
Dances its way into the Pepsi man’s bottle.
With its new name ‘mineral water’
It takes to skies,
It raises a storm
.

The poet traces the new avatar taken by water in the global market. She says that the very same ‘well water’ which the Dalits used to draw up from a well and carry in pots balancing them over their heads and hands now slowly and clandestinely dances its way into the Pepsi man’s bottle. Subsequently, it gets sold in its new name ‘mineral water’. The sale and origin of mineral water are also being vehemently debated. It is well known that Dalits depend on wells for their needs. But, owing to globalisation, many entrepreneurs have set up bottling plants for mineral water and other beverages. This has resulted in the depletion of groundwater which affects the Dalits directly.

Stanza 15 and 16

Now
Water is no mean matter.
It’s a multinational market commodity.
 
As they say
Water is omniscient.
It contains the world

The speaker seems to ridicule all those people who prevented the Dalits from polluting the water with their touch. She seems to make fun of them saying, ‘‘What happened to your social restrictions now?” The speaker concludes declaring that ‘water’ is not an insignificant or trivial issue but is a multinational market commodity and it knows everything (omniscient). It contains the world, meaning, water has no boundaries. In the end, the speaker seems to challenge the oppressors that they can no longer deprive the untouchables of their share of water.

Conclusion

The poem ‘Water’ expresses the terrible humiliation and suffering caused to the Dalits, or the untouchables owing to the social restrictions imposed by the upper caste people. In India, in the pre-independence period and the early decades of the post-independence period, the Dalits had to face the wrath of the upper caste people over allowing the Dalits to collect water from the village tanks or ponds.