Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Eleven Stories of Water and Stone

Aurvi Sharma

Winner of the 2014 Prairie Schooner Summer Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest, selected by judge Judith Ortiz Cofer

The aim of water treatment is to produce and maintain water that is hygienically safe, aesthetically attractive and palatable, in an economic manner.

Manual of Water Supply and Treatment, Ministry of Urban Development, New Delhi, India


Maybe it began with water and stone.

Twenty-one years ago, we lived on a rock. The Waterworks Colony in Jhansi was studded with dirty pink homes and one of them was ours. The quarter had a front garden and a kitchen garden and a main garden, in the centre of which jutted out four coral-coloured stones. My father was a waterworks engineer with the government, and we moved all over the country with his job, going from one dirty pink home to another, always chasing water.

Two and a half billion years ago, the earth was under siege from within. This is not an abstraction. The earth fissured and spewed so much fiery lava in those days that the phase has a name—Archean volcanism. Over and over this happened, making the new magma mingle with older magma on the surface. This created volcanic rocks and mountains. So, one could also say that it all really began with mingled magma.

Winds blew. They gnashed the mountains and hills and stones, carrying little parts of the earth to deposit elsewhere. In their wake, these antique winds left rocks and hills in misshapen states that—millions of years later—I would be tempted to identify as postmodernesque. Jhansi’s history is written in the geography of these ancient hoodoos, mesas, and buttes. Otherwordly landscapes that one day would give me earthly conundrums. But stranger things have happened.

For example, during the Neoproterozoic Era, an eruption occurred near present-day Jhansi, creating the Bundelkhand Craton—one of the eleven cratons around the world. Roughly three and a half billion years later, I would accompany out-of-town relatives on wildlife safaris to Shivpuri—an hour’s drive from Jhansi—in a white Ambassador car with blue curtains on its windows, and drive up and down the slopes of this craton, making me a part of the running history of this utterly hot, unforgivably stony part of the earth. Or so I like to believe.

Two hundred million years ago, the present-day Indian continent’s next-door neighbours were present-day Antarctica, Australia, Madagascar, and Africa. We know this because certain kinds of rocks along with fossils of similar plants have been found in central India, South Africa, South America, Antarctica, and Australia. This supercontinent was called Gondwanaland, after Central India’s Gonds—aboriginal “hill people.”

But like a twisting narrative, like the moving threads of my father’s two-yearly transfers, like my flotsam of memories, Gondwanaland started falling apart, making the Indian subcontinent float away, ever so slowly, towards the northern hemisphere. It took a hundred and fifty million years for this piece of land to collide with Asia, to crumple up from the impact and form the Himalayas, to have its northern boundaries get buried somewhere under Tibet, and to make Jhansi the heart of India.

This is not an abstraction either. Today Jhansi neatly divides India into two. Far from the ocean, it’s a dusty, quiet town, an unlikely heart of a verdant, monsoon-rich country, neither here nor there.

Twenty-four years ago, as if addicted to the eternal continental drift, my family first came to Jhansi on an overnight train. The Bundelkhand Express shivered while crossing over a bridge. When my parents woke up my sister and me, I looked out through the iron bars of the coupé and saw a vast river of milky tea, the colour of chickoos and coconut husk. The river and we crisscrossed in our paths like compasses drawing intersecting arcs. The Chambal was on its way to immerse itself into the Yamuna. We had left smoky Kanpur to settle southwest in Jhansi.

My sister Mouru insists that it began with that February train ride. Today, the four of us are on a train to Jhansi again, trying to return home.


The train goes chook-chook-chook. It sways like a cradle, and we, its offspring, loll in the 5 a.m. stupor. Outside, the hinterland rubs sleep from its eyes, it stirs amidst sepia dust clouds and heat mirages, it bathes and brushes its teeth at public hand pumps, it holds hands and walks to school—oily haired and navy uniformed. Buffaloes wade. Men squat in mango orchards. Vespas honk. The train goes chook-chook-chook. We sleep a fitful sleep.

We should know better. We should toughen up when the train glides over the Chambal ravines. We should foresee when we pass Agra and don’t spot the Taj Mahal floating behind factory smog. We should jerk awake when the train stops at Gwalior and the compartments fill with the cries of tea vendors. But we continue to snooze.

And then the train crosses Gwalior. The train crosses Gwalior and the world turns bare. No tree, no grass, no shrub nor bush. The sky is orange, the earth red and rough, studded with cliffs and rocks and hills in surreal shapes that stretch to the horizon. Flat-topped mesas and ridges, mounds of rocks, and pillars of stone dot the landscape in cinnamon and chestnut and salmon hues. Yellow dust eddies around this fallow land.

We lick our lips, and we stare at this tableau of rock, outcrop, and stony thrones. The ground is pebbly and dry—we remember it so well we can still feel it under our feet—and all we can do is look at each other, unable to say a word.


I was ten years old when we came to Jhansi. On our first day, I wandered through the jetsam of packed furniture—the tv triple wrapped in Bombay Dyeing bedsheets, the blue fridge supine on the floor, my parents’ entire combined life bound in packages of varying shapes. If you leaned against one, you could hear eleven years of marital transactions fidgeting inside.

The grounds of St. Francis’ Convent School—where my sister and I would study for the next two years—were also inlaid with blunt rocks, and the kindly Catholic nuns had not thought of removing them. They made perfect seating for schoolgirls heady with preadolescence amidst a profusion of pink bougainvillea. Our childhood was spent straddling these quartz reefs, climbing and unclimbing their slopes, the rough, rust landscapes a part of our psyche.

This relief was created three billion years ago when a year consisted of 450 days. The creatures who lived on this land then did not breathe oxygen. Evening fell early in those times, each day only twenty hours long. But by the time we came to occupy this part of the earth—when the lunch bell rang at 1 p.m. and we spread our tiffin boxes on the mafic rocks outside the school chapel—the sun was still high up in the sky, teasing out the blazing afternoon, making the silica-laden rocks twinkle.


The train stops and starts, and we lurch forward with it. The jagged crags run along with us; they outline the horizon like a lifeline ticker, tracing the canvas of a conjoined childhood.

More cliffs topped with miniscule shrines appear in the train’s window. The sky is vast, the floor of Jhansi unending, lunar, auburn, and russett—a railway track here, a city pole there—paved with folded bedrocks that look warm and inviting. Suddenly, the train is next to the mesas; raise your fingers and touch them. They are the colour of henna’d hands, of paan spittle, of black salt. Today, these minerals pose as strange totems.

These hills have shadowed our memories. Their geometry is surreal, like spelling a message in runes, an undeciphered script in quartz. Gargantuan hieroglyphs, the rocks stand burnished under the early morning sun.

Some dreams last a lifetime, leaving you disoriented when you awaken. The train ride to Jhansi stretches like a dreamy rubber band into an absence of time. The train halts every two minutes and Jhansi is perpetually a station away. We wait, stalled on the edge of the city, like the moths that dance around their paraffin pyres in Jhansi’s Sadar Bazaar, so close, so far. We’re full of answers we cannot voice. We try to move, try to rub the cobwebs of this sleep-paralysis away, and fail.


On the first Sunday of March, all the families of the Waterworks Colony piled into Jeeps with canvas doors, the children sitting in the back over the spare tyres. We drove south across the Bundelkhand Tectonic Zone for a picnic by the Matatila Dam.

My mother had woken up at five in the morning to make buckets full of fruit chaat. By the time lunch was served, the bananas had liquefied and the apples were soggy, but we ate them anyway, the rock saltladen fruits dissolving into sweet-and-sour syrup in our mouths.

The Matatila Dam stored the Betwa River’s water, which was used for irrigation and drinking water in surrounding areas, but its waters had not reached Jhansi yet. Jhansi depended on the Pahuj Dam for its water supply, a tiny reservoir over the petite Pahuj River.

The year before we moved to the city, Jhansi had seen one of its worst droughts. The Pahuj Dam reservoir had dried up, underground pumps had failed. Some proposed connecting Jhansi with the Matatila Dam to ease the water shortage, but nothing had materialised. My father talked to other officers and complained about this delay. Even on a March morning, by 10 a.m. his temples were dripping with sweat.

Jawahar Lal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister, had started the Indian revolution of dams to turn the country’s face to the future. Even though in his later years Nehru changed his mind and called for smaller waterworks projects as opposed to gigantic dams that fundamentally upset the ecological balance, at the beginning he had deemed dams the temples of modern India. My father, born in the first decade of independence and made desperate by the conspiracy of Jhansi’s earth, water, and winds prayed at dams’ altars.

A pastoral picnic on the shores of an environmental travesty seems comical now. But in those days our weekend trips—my parents called them “outings”—were to waterfalls created when a dam in danger of overflowing released water into the river and to “guest houses” built on the campuses of pumping stations my father was inspecting. My sister and I have albums full of fading photographs of us perched upon water tanks that held an entire city’s worth of water supply. If you really think about it, there was nothing more consummate than the children of waterworks engineers rolling in the soft, green grass by a dam, hedged in by a sapped landscape.


The train reaches Sonagiri. We scramble at the window, pushing each other away. “Children, children,” Mama says, and we’re ten and three once again, eyes shining, mouths ajar. The pearly Jain temples, a thousand years old, are sprinkled over the steep slopes of small hills—Sonagiri, the golden mountains—like the tiny white conches we collected from the Matatila Dam’s banks. The temples appear grey through the train’s grimy windows and we stare at them until they edge out of the frame. We know what’s coming next.

When the Sipri Pahad comes into view, the shock of seeing something simultaneously so familiar and so forgotten is our denouement. The biggest mesa in Jhansi, it is the first marker of the city when you’re hovering at its northern edges. Countless childhood pilgrimages are contained in this visage of the mesa, in its flat top and rectangular shape, its colour of a smoggy night.

These hills are a part of the Vindhyachal range of mountains that sprout across India’s centre like a diagonal line of acne. The laws of Manu, written two-thousand years ago, beseeched all Aryans—the “noble” ones—to stay in the exalted land between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas, and deemed those who live farther south mleccha, barbarians. To hell with Manu. Here we are, at the ancient precipice.


The Waterworks Colony was full of young couples with small children. There were weekly ladies’ gatherings—always lunches—while the husbands were away at work and the children in school. The women played bingo and trivia games, shared recipes and family legends and life histories. Then they served chickpeas drizzled with tamarind chutney, puff pastry stuffed with curried potatoes, and green pea cutlets and dumplings floating in sweet yoghurt, usually ending with thick, sugared cream full of sliced grapes and pomegranate seeds.

On ‘Husbands’ Day’ in April, the ladies booked the government guest house and a ‘cultural evening’ ensued. The children performed folk dances, the teenagers enacted a skit, and the women presented a qawwali about their engineer husbands. They crooned about the perils of rusted pipelines and half-built water tanks and failed pump houses. They winked at their men, arched eyebrows, and shook heads while singing about nights spent alone taking care of their ill children—far from family, distant from childhood friends and college classmates—in alien towns every two years, while the spouses were away doing their jobs. The ‘gents’ fondly looked on; there were jokes and laughter and loud, loud applause.

Later, between bites of paneer kulcha, the children ran amuck on the empty colony lanes, playing catch me if you can. The colony was on a hill and Jhansi’s rocks loomed around it. As I cycled to school, the patina of rock formations revolved around me. This topography makes large parts of Jhansi uncultivable. The layers of rock do not allow water to percolate through, making the region prone to both droughts and floods.

In a country that has three months of monsoon, Jhansi sees rain, on average, for thirty-seven days every year. In a cycle of five years, two face drought and one is privy to excessive rain. The drought lasts three years, sometimes four. The wells dry up. The rivers are dammed. The dams’ reservoirs run dry.

The word monsoon is derived from the Arabic “mawsim,” which simply means weather. But Jhansi, the middlemost polestar of India, is often bereft of even these basics.


Finally, Jhansi. Old Jhansi, new Jhansi.

The train passes over the main road. We look down at the traffic of scooters, motorbikes, and bicycles, and up at the fifteen-storey-high petroleum tanks. Everything is the same, everything is completely different. Jhansi is going about the day, oblivious to our presence, while our hearts race.

We leave the train station and enter a taxi. The Jeep revs up. Here we go. We see Elite Cinema, where we watched our first film on big screen (Jurassic Park). We see the police colony still full of neem trees and squat yellow apartments and a shop selling guns. We drive past derelict churches with fading whitewash and overtake motorcyclists resting under date palms. We laugh at government offices sporting signboards with arcane designations. We don’t see the stores that rented out semi-pornographic horror films to us. We don’t breathe in the goat curry smell that used to haunt the rental stores. We pass the Jhansi fort levitating against the pastel sky.

We turn left on Gwalior Road and come face to face with our childhood homes still painted the regulatory government pink. Hackneyed questions: Was this road always so narrow? Was the parapet on which we sat and read Enid Blytons always so low? Was the colony always so small?

Emaciated stray dogs slouch on the colony’s slopes. The terraces of rocks we played on are covered with garages and water supply pipes. Trash stinks everywhere. There are piles of it, in between houses, by the main road, on the few remaining bedrock outcrops. Only the colony’s trees are the same, the red gulmohurs, the yellow labdanums, the bitter neems, and eucalyptuses, now taller than the two-storeyed buildings.

Why was this group of houses called a colony? The word has numerous meanings—most with negative connotations—but India’s Waterworks Colonies, like its circus troops and army cantonments, are just arbitrary.

Standing in front of a building that once used to be home—so familiar that in our minds we can still feel our way around it in complete darkness during an unscheduled power cut and reach the dining room drawer to fish out candles—we’re confused, but one thing is clear. Jhansi has moved on while we the colonists have clutched on to it, trying to hold water in a fist. My mother reminds me that the furniture in this house had been rearranged a long time ago.


Sandhya Sahu quickly became my best friend in school. When the class teacher was absent, the substitute teacher ordered all of us to put our heads down on the desk. Sandhya and I whispered, telling each other made-up stories about shit, snot, and farts. We looked for club-shaped, tart leaves the size of our fingernails that grew on mossy walls. After dusty squalls that turned afternoons into twilight, we caught dried pods floating in the air and peeled them to nibble on the seed inside.

My daily life was mirrored in school lessons. I plucked a maroon hibiscus from our garden for the biology period, and Miss Joseph made us rub its sticky yellow pollen between our fingers. When Sister Bridget taught us about land formations, the plateaus perked me up. Jhansi lay on a plateau—I knew because my mother told me—on a ridge of the Vindhyachal.

We were enveloped by pockets of foliage. In the Waterworks Colony, shrubs of wild roses fanned out like fishing nets, a tangerine tree bloomed with white flowers, and otherworldly cacti with glassy spines grew taller than my father. Crotons with leaves splattered with rainbow colours bloomed in terracotta pots and henna hedges grew behind swings.

One soporific Saturday morning, my grandfather pulled my sister and me out of bed, and we sleepwalked to the Jhansi fort. Outside, middle-aged ladies decked up in shiny sarees haggled with auto rickshaw drivers. Little booklets about Rani Lakshmi Bai and junk jewellery lay spread out on the ground. Inside, the dusty ramparts were choked with weeds. They smelled of bat droppings and human feces.


The fort towers over Jhansi’s thoughts. It is a proper fort—a castle with walls as thick as the length of an adult arm, riddled with turrets and parapets, and a martial, unbreachable facade. It towers over the city on a hill and rises like an extension of the city’s mesas, the colour of crocodiles that swim half an hour away in the Betwa River.

Jhansi is a deeply post-colonial city, its loyalties higgledy-piggledy in the mix of the fort, Victorian cathedrals, and Raj-era central railway relics. When the main gate of the fort—fifteen feet high—is wheeled shut, it forms the Union Jack. As we walk up the slope leading us into the heart of the fort, the azaan rings out. We stand at a stone balcony and watch the city spread out beneath the battlements. The old city that once used to reside inside the fort’s walls has long spilled out into a jumble of indigo-white terraces topped with black Sintex water tanks and Tata Sky cable dishes.


Inside Mrs Neelu Khatri’s house, we sat in a room with a small balcony, green walls, and a television with eight channels. Cycle bells and truck honks filtered in from the balcony. We wrote basic programmes and created Fibonacci series flowcharts and converted decimal numbers to binary while Mrs Neelu Khatri sorted her sons’ laundered underwear.

We continued to top computer exams even after leaving Jhansi. Our parents were ecstatic, but we were glum. “Jhansi ki rani,” Delhi boys whispered to our backs and sniggered. When we waxed our legs for the first time and wore the brown, pleated school skirt—oh, the excitement—Delhi boys said, “Abey, the queen of Jhansi is not hairy anymore,” and we blushed and shrank and did not say anything, for to be called the martial queen of Jhansi was the worst label for a flat-chested teenage girl trying to be feminine, seductive, and soft at the same time. “The rani didn’t care,” we told each other at home. The rani rode horses and killed evil men with her sword.

Jhansi ki rani was not funny in Jhansi. She was gallant and gutsy. Wasn’t it she who fought the British as they took over the Jhansi fort? Wasn’t it she who jumped from the top of a six-storey turret and escaped the cruel firangis, her son strapped to her back? Look, the rani’s temple. See, the cannon the rani used. There, there, the exercise grounds where the rani practiced fencing. A school named after the rani, a college, a swimming pool, gardens, traffic lights, all called Rani Lakshmi Bai.

She was our Durga, our Diana, our Joan of Arc. Jhansi ki rani was everything, everywhere in Jhansi, seeping through our imaginations like water through sand.


We pass through Jhokan Bagh. We spot Mrs Neelu Khatri’s house where we attended computer classes during summer vacations.

We reach St. Francis’ Convent School at 3 p.m., the students gone, the school hushed, as if told to place a finger on its lips. We wheedle the watchman to let us in and step under the gulmohur trees. We take selfies with the outdoor trackfield. We cross ourselves and proclaim, “It is an honour to work for God.” We stop short at the grey-and-white principal’s office, the old red building gone. Its thick walls built in 1891 took too much space, and the new grey building has seven extra classrooms.

We crouch under the white bougainvillea and remember the red walls, the yellow collonaded corridors. We walk out of the school into Jhansi’s pediplain, this last stage in the evolution of landforms, the final result of an infinity of erosion, exposing the earth’s inner layers.

Like a deck of cards, Jhansi’s soil is red and black. Mostly sandy loam, it barely holds water and depletes the water table. Loamy soils also easily travel away with water when it rains, causing erosion. People dig deep into the earth for water, putting in illegal borewells, but Jhansi’s water table goes deeper and in summer, the water underground dries up and the hand pumps bray when operated and yield nothing, their dry lament like nails on a chalkboard.

Water is nowhere to be found. Scorching westerlies blow and men tie towelettes around their ears. Wheat dies. Mustard dies. Barley, sesame, and peas die.

Summer arrives in Jhansi by February, quickening their evaporation. Because of the nature of Jhansi’s granite and the gneiss rocks, the dams’ reservoirs slowly weep water into the ground as well, losing precious storage.

For all its dramatic landscape, when it comes to summer, Jhansi is a miserable cliché. Barren soil. Absent monsoon. Cracked earth. Failed crops. During the last ten years, more than two thousand farmers have committed suicide.


One early evening in June, Mouru and I furiously rode our bicycles to intercept a mangy kitten who was sniffing around a broken water pump. We brought the kitten home, but my mother was away for a cooking class that all the women were taking together. We tried to feed the kitten rice pudding, but he only drank the water we poured in a steel bowl and then ran up the tangerine tree. Later in the month the aunties held homemade ice cream parties to distract their families from the weather, the paucity of water, the incessant evaporation. My mother made orange ice cream. It melted in the heat, and I complained that it tasted like vomit.

There was no sign of rain. The river started drying up and the water supply became erratic. The women of Jhansi lamented in a way that was as fundamental as water, as elegiac as a river. They walked into the Waterworks office with matkas on their heads. These earthen pots that they stored water in were empty. To protest, the women smashed hundreds of their matkas in the office courtyard.

Murmuring hordes started gathering at the office. People demanded water. A waterworks employee was thrashed in the old city, and fearful of the public’s rage, the officers stopped going to the office.

My father was puzzled by the gap between supply and demand. He tied a Bundelkhand-style towelette on his head and walked into Jhansi’s oldest neighbourhoods in the middle of the night. Thirsty mobs were everywhere.


Now we’ve driven into the old city. The slim roads are full of metallic insects—motorbikes, scooters, scooties, cycles. Men huddle on the road and chat. Old houses with dark gabled roofs mingle with shiny new ones, casting shadows on the Jeep.

The narrow gullies are flanked by old, white-washed houses with pretty netted windows, arched skylights, and wooden doors. Slim staircases lead into open courtyards. An Archies Gallery that sells soft toys and greeting cards has gigantic red velvet hearts hanging from the ceiling. They slowly rotate, as if in a music box.

Veins and arteries of pipelines course through every city, shooting out from the heart of the Waterworks pump house. Being a waterworks engineer means being intimately acquainted with the waterways and the sewage lines of the city. Papa shows off, giveing directions. He has not forgotten the gullies, the nooks, the house numbers, and the open drains, some as big as small canals. “Dekha, yaad hai,” Papa shouts over the horns and traffic. See? I remember.

These streets had been quiet the night my Papa waited here with eight hundred people, waiting for water at three in the morning. All of that June he came here every night, going home only at dawn when the water had been stored by the public. First the residents were suspicious of him—no officer had ever done this before—but soon they were showing him illegal borewells, leaking pipelines, valves that existed only on paper, contraband water connections, an entire network of fake water supply channels woven by hands thirsty for money.


My sister loves the monsoon because she was born during a spell of rain in July. There was a butterfly-shaped cake on her birthday in Jhansi. Our parties were earnest with brain teasers and quizzes, the answer sheets stained with the oily fingerprints of children eating samosas. But after the cake with the pink and white icing (that my mother had spent the afternoon piping with her multishaped aluminum nozzles) was cut, a roar went up and the children were climbing on the sofa, dragging chairs to the walls, being lifted by Daya Raam, the cook, to burst the balloons tacked on the walls. Mosquitoes buzzed at the window screens.

My father was not at the party. He was getting new hand pumps installed, having damaged lines repaired and the defunct ones replaced, dismantling illegal connections, ordering new electricity generators, pressing factories for unpaid bills, and dictating letter after letter to be sent to the higher-ups in Lucknow, pleading to make long-term arrangements for water in the district. Your request is on file, they told him. As the Pahuj Dam reservoir slowly shrank, the evaporated water left marks on the periphery.


On the way to Sipri Pahad we pass teenagers eating momos outside a barber shop, we drive through lanes flanked by tight green and purple houses that have crept to the mesa’s edge. We go up, up, up to the mesa, mysterious and grand under the setting sun, an unexplored menhir of a stony childhood. The city lies behind us, the fort is a blip in a corner. We are companions in nostalgia, in these subsets of associations, these Venn diagrams of memories.

About ten thousand years ago, many humans lived in central India’s caves. Their chosen homes were away from monsoon-heavy jungles but close to sources of water. They cared about hunting, about a goddess of fertility. They believed in life after death. Cave paintings from this era are said to be an evocation of fortuitous talismans. By scratching scenes of a successful hunt on the walls of their cave homes, our ancestors were willing them to come true. The earliest form of prayer, preserved in layers of rocks, like ancient memory capsules.

Did those primitive fingers touch Jhansi’s stones? The Paleolithics were nomadic. Did any of them tread on Jhansi’s gneiss complex rock? Did they—like our family, passing through—ever call this barren patch home?


Lucknow was a mythical city, the Babel of the state government. The officers were called to the city for ‘urgent’ meetings by the ministers and high-ranking government babus who had increasingly incomprehensible designations: Principal Secretary, Special Secretary, Joint Secretary, Deputy Secretary, Section Officer, Dealing Assistant.

Every time Lucknow was mentioned, talk was of files going up and coming down and getting waylaid. As I grew up, I would imagine a grey tower filled with aluminum almirahs. Files rose and fell and frequently vanished into these almirahs. No one read these files; they just circulated in the belly of the tower, each file a Vladimir to some Estragon.

In August, Bundelkhand was declared drought-hit by the government. My father was frantic. He was getting the water in the city’s old wells tested. From about fifteen wells potable water could be drawn for up to two hours every day, filtered, and pumped out to the public. One of these wells was in the Jhansi fort, overrun by dried grass since 1917. Trying to make the remaining water in the reservoir last longer, it was decided that mohallas would get water on alternate days. The dam’s reservoir was shrinking. Each day was a desert, no oasis in sight.


The old Jeep gives up on the slopes, so we walk. We jump over open drains, we breathe their stink mingling with the smell of chicken curry. A dog barks and the sweet voice of a woman sings “RamRamRam.”

We climb up the hill, ants on a wall, losing perspective, going up, up, up to the rock of our dreams. The houses are set haphazardly. We wander through the maze, the mesa overhead our guiding star.

Then the world opens up—stairs are paved on the hill in front and the mesa is in the background. We step upon empty cigarette packets and green and brown Kingfisher beer bottle shards. A pack of men starts following us, softly intoning obscenities, but they soon tire and walk away. The sun is setting, the azaan breaks out from a mosque loudspeaker. We count as we go up the steps. One, two, three, twenty-three, one hundred, hundred and twenty, three hundred, three hundred and fifty-five, four hundred.

Faces and creatures appear in the rock and disappear: half an eye, a sulky mouth, birds of prey, flowers. Cicadas chirp, the sun dips, and Jhansi slowly grows behind us, stretching like a roti being rolled out. The city is small, and around it Jhansi’s lonely rocks and its prehistoric landscape rest under the red darkness of late dusk. At the top we give up the count and turn around. We are alone with the rock, at last.


On the fourteenth of August, Jhansi woke up to a transparent blue sky. My father cursed the gods, the firmament, the water stealers, the weather, the monsoon winds, and the city of Lucknow in Hindi. The Pahuj Dam reservoir was dry.

My father spent the day composing a letter to the people of Jhansi. It was an openly sentimental letter, telling people about the drought, the drying of water sources, the irony of nature, their shared struggles; he requested the public to keep their faith and stay calm. People read my father’s appeal in the newspaper on the morning of India’s forty-second Independence Day. Hearts sank, throats parched. My father went to the office for the flag ceremony and watched the unfurled flag hang limp in the still air.

At home my mother made feeble jokes about the incompetence of Indra, the god of rain, to try to cheer up my father. My family talked about mythological figures as if they were close relatives; gods were lambasted with an easy familiarity during those mythic vagaries. My father went to bed feeling desperate and defeated.

Over two decades later, driving around Jhansi, I remind him about this day. He tells me that when he was a child, people built pyaoos—public water houses where people could rest and have a drink of water—to earn punya, divine merit. Bringing water to thirsty souls was an act that led you to heaven.

“But we, we were charging people money for water,” he says, “and even then we failed.”


The next evening, we walk to the rani’s residence. The small mansion in hues of yellow and terracotta, it looks sapped and weary compared to the fort. Two fountains in the central courtyard lie dry. Pretty arches line the porches, and the facades are decorated with carvings in limestone. Two women sit in the grass, entertaining a child with a doll larger than him.

Walking up the stairs to the rani’s rooms, we are overlooked by the fading ceilings that were once lavishly coloured. But the martial rani’s bedchamber is wholly crimson, painted with various forms of the tree of life, every inch of every wall covered with blue, yellow, and green trees and creepers undulating over the edges and around the corners, peacocks preened under the arched branches. The room faces southwest and is alight with red in the afternoon, the receding sun lighting it up, turning it ruddy and bashful and candescent. We feel drunk leaving the room, its claret hues burned into our brains, and careen down the dark staircase to come face to face with hundreds of empty-eyed gods.

Stone sculptures stare at us from a myriad of vantage points. Heavy-hipped women and sinuous men with lotuses in their fingers, Buddhas in repose, naked Tirthankaras, tree spirits and underwater nymphs, yakshas and demons, some prostrate, some upright, others on their sides.

Carved between the ninth and twelfth centuries, these Chandela sculptures were excavated in and around Jhansi. The mansion is littered with them. There are no signs or plaques that tell you who they are or why they are here. There is no provision to protect them from rain, winds, heat, sun. Temple tops and intricate pillars, garlanded elephants, copulating lovers, and sleeping snakes are all lying manifest to the world and its cruel elements inside this forgotten palace.

The Chandela aesthetic was all about soft curves and fluid transitions, rounded cheeks and almond eyes, graceful brows and gentle smiles. In their smooth surfaces, the bodies reflected a serenity of mind—an ideal state of being that came from detachment.

Air, rain, and Jhansi’s sun pared away monoliths and gave them hypnotic contours. And now, like a microcosm, these figures—Jhansi’s primordial stone pared by ancient hands—lie here awaiting another cycle of fate. It is perhaps apt that these forgotten statues rest inside this abandoned palace. In being ignored by recorded history, by the government, and by the public, they mimic the city of Jhansi, closing a melancholy loop.


In the middle of the night, we heard rumbles outside; my parents stirred in bed, dreaming of gurgling trucks that trundled by on Gwalior Road. A distant hiss—sarsarsarsar—could it be rain? My father opened his eyes and thought he was hallucinating. Together my parents scrambled to the veranda. Rain was pouring into the garden, ricocheting from the mud, running down the croton leaves, and making the tangerine branches bobble.

It rained and it rained that night in Jhansi, the sky tearing open, emptying nimbus clouds on Jhansi’s bungalows, churches, havelis, hovels, schools, offices, the red earth, and the primeval rocks. It rained so much that night that the Pahuj Dam reservoir was filled; monsoon had arrived.

At dawn, my father’s colleagues turned up with boxes of sweets. My mother fried pakodas to celebrate and my father guffawed. Between sips of tea he kept saying, “There will be water in dam now, Meera, there will be water in the dam.”

My sister and I tried to catch the warm raindrops in our mouths. We hopped around the house and stole sips the adults’ chai.

Mouru fished out her mathematics notebook and we tore out a chequered page. We folded the top corner down to the bottom edge and stripped away the extra bit of paper. A square emerged. Mouru and I folded down corner after corner, turning the piece of paper into smaller and smaller triangles.

While my father and his team reconvened at the office to plan for the issues that accompany monsoon—muddy drinking water, sewage leakage, possible cholera outbreaks—Mouru and I pinched two edges of the paper triangle and pulled it gently apart. A paper boat emerged.

We placed the boat in the rivulet that had sprung under the tangerine tree. The boat moved slowly—a splash and it almost drowned—but then it picked up speed as Mouru and I screamed at it, running along. We giggled, woozy with a delight we didn’t fully understand. The boat bobbed forward in fits and starts. A fresh burst of water, a gust of wind—the boat sailed rapidly afar and disappeared around a bend.


So many years later, after having lived in ten cities across three continents, my sister and I have come back to the Pahuj Dam with our parents. Jhansi gets its water from the Betwa River now—that Matatila pipeline finally in place—and the Pahuj pump house is decrepit.

The ‘dam’ is really a small, bucolic lake. The trees around here are those that brave waterlessness—palms, dates, gajar ghas, babool. Birds chirp amidst the sieved sunlight, and in the middle stands the filtration plant, housed in low rooms painted yellow and red. We stumble upon three pump operators peeling tiny shrimp they have caught in the river, the fishy smell settling over the rapid gravity filters. They talk to us enthusiastically and shake their heads when my father tells them his name and years of service.

By this time, my father has worked at bigger, more complicated sites, at higher posts, handling larger populations. My sister and I have moved away, to Delhi, London, New York, gathered jobs, heartbreaks, degrees, and new ways of speaking and thinking. My father, after working with the waterworks for thirty-four years, has retired from the job that brought him heartache and punya.

He is excited and nostalgic and a little subdued, standing at the bank of the Pahuj Dam. Without his retinue of officers, without him walking purposefully into the filtration plant to discuss the quality, quantity, and logistics of water, my father seems lost, shrunken, smaller even than the small Pahuj Dam, and I start questioning my desire to visit the past.

Travelling back in time is tough, even impossible when you find your mind’s landscapes altered. Can you recreate a place that no longer exists? Can you ever go back?

My father walks to us, smiles, and says, “Satisfied? Our train leaves in two hours. Let’s go home now.”

Shuffling feet on pebbles, one last look at soft water against withered rock. We hesitate; the moment feels too banal. The four of us pose in front of the dam—this edifice of water and stone—say “cheese,” click a picture. Just another family on a Sunday outing. Then we turn away.