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Tradition in Gumra Village

By Niala Maharaj (Netherlands)


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 Genesis of a Short Story

In 2001 I was working as a communications consultant on issues to do with water and gender in the developing world. One day, I got a message from the Dutch government. They were organising a special meeting at the UN’s headquarters in New York to make international decision-makers aware of this issue. They wanted me to write a short story on this topic and read it at the meeting to open their event in a creative way.

‘I don’t write fiction on demand,’ I thought. ‘I can supply them with fascinating case-studies from reality.’

But, that night when I went to bed, this story started growing in my mind. I didn’t sleep one single wink. And writing Tradition in Gumra Village was wonderful: I was able to bring in all the issues related to gender and water: caste and class– and to make it funny as well. Delivering the story to all those diplomats at the UN was an enormous success. They seemed to really get involved in the story.

I hope you do as well.

Niala Maharaj is the author of the novel Like Heaven (Random House June 2006)

Born in Trinidad and Tobago, she currently lives in Amsterdam, and teaches writing at the Like Heaven Writing Holidays in Tuscany (


Finally, Bhan was driven away from Gumra by the drought.

The village pond had shrunk to half its size. Bhan’s rice-crop had dwindled by two-thirds. Water was directed into the irrigation canal that passed through his rice-field too late in the evening. He had complained at meetings of the village Irrigation Council, but Gumra’s Headman had only stared at him.

‘But the lower castes always get water after the higher castes! Our fathers did it that way, and their fathers before them. It’s tradition….

Tradition. Now, together with other lower-caste farmers, Bhan was leaving his village to seek work in a city 500 km away. He looked around with the eyes of the departing. Halfway up Gumra hill, the village huts were surrounded by splashes of colour, where the women grew aubergines, pumpkins, tomatoes and spinach to go with the rice and lentils their families ate. A kilometre downhill were the lush green fields where the men tended rice for sale. Beyond that was the muddy grey of the village pond.

‘The harvest this year won’t bring in even enough cash to pay for Anu’s school-fees,’ he muttered to his wife.

At sixteen, their daughter was top of her class at the College of Commerce in the nearby town.

His wife nodded. Meera was a small, shy woman of thirty.

‘I will tend to the rice till the harvest,’ she assured him. ‘When Anu leaves College, you can come back and take over again.’

After that, Meera worked from dawn till late at night. She had to carry every drop of water for the household up the hill in a clay jar on her head. Water for the cow, so her five children could have milk. Water for the vegetable garden. Water for cooking. Water for washing the soiled bedding of her invalid mother-in-law. She had to gather fire-wood and fodder from the forest a kilometre up the hill. She had to milk the cow, clean the cowshed, cook, wash dishes… grind rice to make porridge for the old lady and for her year-old infant.

One evening, as she waited for water to come to her rice field, dusk fell. No water had appeared in the canals where the lower-caste women worked. A group of them gathered together.

‘Dindu must have fallen asleep, the lazy ox!

Dindu operated the village pump, directing its flow towards the various fields in turn.

‘Last night there was an Irrigation Council meeting,’ he told the women. ‘We decided to stop sending water to fields that have been abandoned by their owners.’

‘But our fields aren’t abandoned!’ Meera protested. ‘Can’t you see us working them?’

‘But you are not the owners.’

‘Our husbands are the owners!’

Dindu pushed up his shirt to let his enormous belly take the evening breeze.

‘Do you have a husband, Meera? I heard your husband had left you. Are you sure he doesn’t have another wife in the city?’ He caressed his belly. ‘Maybe you should get another husband.’

The women went to talk to the village headman.

‘What can I do?’ Mangal Baba asked. ‘Half the fields are abandoned. We can’t waste water sending it to fields that have been abandoned.’

‘But if we don’t plant rice our children will starve!’

‘These are bad times! Bad times. Men abandoning their children to starve while they go to adopt bad habits in the city…’

The women grew angry.

‘Mangal Baba! When is the next Water Council meeting? We will come to it and show that our fields are not abandoned.’

‘You will come to the meeting? You women? Well, come if you want to abandon your honour and appear at a male gathering. But I must warn you. Only legal owners of land are allowed to speak. That’s tradition in Gumra village.’

Meera started tending only a small part of her field so her family would have rice to eat. She would have to depend on her husband’s wages for cash. But when she got a letter from him, her stomach shrank. Rent in the city was exhorbitant. So was food, fuel, cooking pots… She reduced the quantity of lentils she bought every week. She went to Mangal Baba’s wife, sold her the silver bangles she had got at her wedding, and bought medicine and lamp-oil.

Two months later, she sold her cow. The children’s skin turned rough and dry, with sores that wouldn’t heal. Meera dragged herself from one task to the next, unable to complete any of them. She put off washing the children’s clothes till they were totally filthy. She begged them to use as little water as possible for bathing so as to conserve what she brought up the hill. The hut stank.

One day, the baby vomited up his porridge. Diahhorea followed.

‘You have to take him to the hospital in town!’ Anu urged.

Meera bundled up the child and set off on the dusty track in the blazing noon-day sun. The town was five kilometres away. The water she had brought along ran out half-way. The hospital nurses shook their heads sadly as they hooked up the baby to drips. Meera crouched down in a corridor outside the children’s ward to wait.

Suddenly, something appeared in front of her eyes. It was a little leaf-plate, the kind vendors used to sell snacks at the hospital.

‘Eat something, Sister, you have been here so many hours,’ a man said.

She looked up. He was a big man, very well-dressed. She watched as he went over to a bejewelled woman leaning on the corridor’s wall.

‘How do you expect me to eat?’ the man’s wife wailed.

Meera gathered that their three-year-old daughter had been knocked down by a car. She had been operated on that afternoon, and they were waiting till the anaesthesic wore off. The entire night passed as the three parents huddled together in the corridor, praying.

Near dawn, a doctor dressed in a crisp white jacket came out of the ward. He smiled as he went towards the well-dressed couple.

‘Her condition has stabilised!’

The woman burst into tears. Meera felt a surge of relief. She moved towards the doctor. His smile vanished and he shook his head.

‘That child was too dehydrated by the time you brought him in.’

Meera slumped to the floor, her hands over her face. Her shoulders began to shake. The doctor looked at the rich couple and shrugged.

‘We are always telling these people to be careful about water. Most of the disease we see in this hospital is water-related. We send out leaflets about how they should handle water. We keep saying they should boil their water…’

His words echoed in Meera’s eardrums.


She looked up and saw the doctor’s expression of scornful pity.

‘You are talking about water?

The doctor looked at the rich couple and raised his eyebrows. Meera’s blood rushed to her legs, forcing them to straighten.

‘You know if I get any water?’ She flew towards the doctor. ‘If I had water, would I be here? Wouldn’t my children be healthy. Wouldn’t they have milk to drink?

The doctor backed away. She advanced.

‘If I had water…’ She grasped the collar of the doctor’s white jacket. ‘They would have clean clothes like this!’

She raised her other arm to grab the other side of the doctor’s collar, tighten it round his neck and choke him till he felt pain.

A guard restrained her.

The rich couple took Meera to the bus station and bought her a ticket to Gumra.

‘You will get water. I swear it on my daughter’s life,’ the man said.

And two weeks later, he appeared in Gumra. He turned out to be the chief of the water division of the entire state. With him was a jeep full of technicians carrying various instruments. They called him ‘Mr Lakshman’.

Mangal Baba hustled to greet the lofty officials.

‘Come over to my compound. You must be thirsty, driving so far in this heat.’

Mr Lakshman was studying a big map.

‘We can connect up with Mingu village on the other side of the hill,’ a technician was telling him. ‘But Gumra will have to be inserted into the community water management scheme.’

Mr Lakshman turned to Mangal Baba.

‘We need to have a meeting with the villagers.’

‘Aah! That’s no problem. I will call all the men out of the fields.’

Mr Lakshman turned to the women who had gathered outside Meera’s house to observe the big official visiting her.


Mangal Baba stopped in his tracks.

‘Yes, come.’ He turned to Mr Lakshman. ‘The women of Gumra are nice and quiet. They won’t disturb us.’

Everyone trooped to the large compound surrounding Mangal Baba’s house.

‘Now,’ Mr Lakshman said, ‘we can bring piped water to Gumra from the installation in the next village.’

‘Piped water!’

Mr Lakshman held up a finger.

‘But. You will have to pay for the pipes, and you will have to organise yourselves to collect regular fees from all water-users.’

‘No problem,’ said Mangal Baba. ‘We have an excellent Water Council. Dindu will collect the money from everybody.’

Meera saw her chance of getting water trickle away.

‘What happens to those who don’t have money?’ she muttered.

There was a hush. A woman had never spoken at a village meeting before. Mr Lakshman shrugged.

‘You can contribute labour to the project. We will have to dig a large ditch to lay the pipes…Now, the first thing we have to decide is where we will put up the village tap.’

‘Well, down by the rice-field, of course…’ said Mangal Baba.


All the men at the front turned round to stare Meera. She seemed to have lost her shame with her baby.

‘If the tapstand is there, we still have to bring water up the hill.’

Mr Lakshman nodded.

‘Actually, if we lay the pipe closer to the village, it will cost much less in money, labour and time.’

‘But how will we get water for our fields?’

Mr Lakshman bowed to Mangal Baba.

‘Honorable Headman, I see you have a bullock over there. You can take water down in a cart.’


The vegetables around the huts of Gumra grew plump and plentiful. So did the rice in the fields. The lower-caste women sold their jewellery and bought a bullock cart to take water to their fields. They supplied other rice-farmers with water for a fee. Meera had borrowed money to contribute to the bullock-fund. She paid it back by growing extra vegetables and taking them to the market in town with the bullock cart.

Then, one day, the water-tap went dry.

‘What has Dindu done this time?’

Dindu was responsible for the tap-stand. He dunned all the women to pay their user fees, and made a big to-do about going to town every month to pay the combined amount at the municipal office. But when the women approached him, he brushed away their questions. He was very busy at the pond, pumping water to the men’s rice-fields.

‘Let’s go to the municipal office and find out what’s happening.’

Meera began harnessing the bullock cart.

At the municipal office, an official also brushed them aside.

‘How do you expect to get water when you don’t pay your fees?’

‘But we pay our fees!’

The man turned a big ledger towards them.

‘January, blank. No payment. February, blank. No payment. March…’

Meera’s daughter, Anu, pushed herself to the front of the group and examined the ledger.

‘It’s true! Dindu didn’t pay the fees.’

‘That filthy jackass!’

The women broke out into loud curses. The official listened to them for a while.

‘All right. I’ll turn your water back on if you change the name of the one responsible for paying the fees.’ He turned to Anu. ‘You. You can read a ledger-book. I’m putting you down as Gumra’s water-treasurer.’

The Water Council refused to have Anu collect fees. Mangal Baba’s compound turned into uproar. The meeting was mobbed by screaming lower-caste women.

‘You men are thieves! Why don’t you want Anu to take up the collection?’

A voice came from inside the house.

‘Because they don’t depend on the tap. They don’t have to wash clothes and cook!’

Mangal Baba’s wife emerged in the doorway.

‘Your daughter is getting married in two months,’ she said to her husband. ‘I have to make sweets and prepare everything well if you want to impress the bridegroom’s family. You expect me to do that without water?’

Anu was elected Water Treasurer by a show of hands.


Gumra village appeared in government reports as a success-story of community water management. A non-governmental organisation came and suggested the villagers put money together to construct rainwater tanks that would eventually reduce their water payments to the government.

‘We are holding free training-courses in masonry…’

‘My son is very talented,’ said Mangal Baba.

Another man jumped up.

‘My son comes first in the whole school.’

The NGO organiser asked:

‘Who makes these beautiful pots you use to carry water from the tapstand?’

They all looked at a tall, thin woman standing at the back.

‘You will train Romini as a mason?’

‘Why not? This village would be stupid not to nominate her. The building will take longer, materials will be wasted, and the structures will fall apart during the monsoon.’

In the estimates, an amount was established for paying Romini for her masonry work. By the end, she had enough money to build a concrete latrine near her house. Mangal Baba’s wife wanted to know how lower-caste woman could be using latrines when she was still relieving herself in the open air. Mangal was forced to hire Romini to build a latrine in his compound.

‘The school is falling apart,’ the teacher complained at a meeting. ‘Rain falls on the children’s heads when they are in class. And the monsoon is coming.’

Romini volunteered to repair the walls for free. Meera said she would transport the materials in the women’s bullock-cart. A man offered to re-thatch the roof if Mangal brought the thatching material from the forest with his cart.

‘I will cook a big meal for everybody,’ Mangal’s wife announced.

The project ended in a day of festivity. Madam Mangal started singing as she cooked in a corner of the school compound, and fat-bellied Dindu produced a fat-bellied drum. The women’s feet could never resist a drum… and the school-teacher began planning a second festival, a grand opening for the renovated school.

Mr Lakshman cut a ribbon stretched across the door. The NGO trainers brought a video-crew with them. They filmed as the school children garlanded Romini the mason, Anu the book-keeper, Madam Mangal the cook, the man who had led the thatching team - and the two bullocks that had transported the materials.

‘What is impressive,’ an interviewer said to camera, ‘is how the men and women of all classes in this village get together to tackle its problems. I asked the village headman how this had come about….’

The camera shifted to Mangal Baba. Mangal adjusted his garland. He stood up straight and puffed out his chest.

‘That’s tradition in Gumra village,’ he said.



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