Water: A Stunning Celebration of the Element of Life Based on Indian Folklore
By Maria Popova
“Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me,” the Scottish poet and mountaineer Nan Shepherd wrote in contemplating the might and mystery of water. “Rivers run through our civilisations like strings through beads,” Olivia Laing observed nearly a century later as she launched a lyrical existential expedition along a river. Bertrand Russell, too, saw in rivers a metaphor for how to live a fulfilling life.
For the Indian tribal artist Subhash Vyam, who grew up in a small Gond village without running water, wholly dependent on the mercy of nature, the water of rivers is not a metaphor — it is life itself, suspended between sanctity and survival.
Vyam draws from his personal story a moving universal invitation to reflect on our relationship with water, as individuals and as a civilization, in the unusual, exquisitely illustrated book Water (public library) — another treasure from the South Indian independent publisher Tara Books, devoted to giving voice to marginalized tribal art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on books handcrafted by local artisans in a fair-trade workshop in Chennai, producing such gems as The Night Life of Trees, Drawing from the City, Creation, and Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit.
Vyam’s story, translated into English from the Hindi oral narrative by Tara Books founder Gita Wolf, is part autobiography, part folkloric parable, part meditation on the most pressing geopolitical and ecological questions humanity is facing today — income inequality, sustainability, environmental justice, our responsibility to nature as citizens and as a species.
Looking back from his current life as a migrant worker in the city, Vyam begins by recounting his early life in the village where he was born, at a time little more than “a cluster of houses”:
We were poor and worked hard, but most people didn’t go hungry. We foraged in the forest, caught fish, kept cows and goats, and grew a few crops. We had enough to eat, provided the harvest was good.
But we didn’t have money to spend, and we lived from one day to another.
We had to work hard, but we had space and lived closely with trees, plants, animals and birds… and I think we understood their ways.
But one crucial element continually darkened this hard-earned contentment: water. Without plumbing and a water source, the village was entirely dependent on rainfall — for putting food on the table by sowing and harvesting crops, for drinking, cooking, and bathing. They supplemented the rains with water from a lake a couple of kilometers away — the girls and women of the village would trek to it and carry the water home in enormous heavy vessels. Vyam sometimes accompanied his sisters on these expeditions, both trying and joyful in their way. He recounts:
I remember how happy I was as a child when I took our cow to bathe in the lake.
The summer months, when the lake dried up, were especially difficult — the girls and women would walk for hours to fetch a tiny bit of water, which would barely last a day before they had to set out again.
Over the years, people in the village came up with ways of harnessing the water from the lake and the river that fed it. They dug small canals that led water to their fields. Eventually, the first well was dug — a momentous occasion for the village.
Then the first hand-pump came:
It seems like a small thing now, but it was a real boon for women. We didn’t have running water, but the government had dug a deep tube well, and now with a hand pump, even a small child could pump out water. It was like a miracle.
When the first pump was installed, the whole village came out to watch, and all the children lined up for a turn at it.
Around that time, Vyam migrated to the city to look for work. Although he earned more, he was still poor. He had relinquished the trees and the birds for a tiny flat which still suffered water shortages, not far from lavish mansions with lawns and swimming pools. He recounts:
I discovered that you could buy water, if you had money. I never understood where this water came from.
One day, Vyam received a troubled message from his mother, asking him to return home urgently. When he did, he found out that the village headman had made an important and confusing announcement about water — the government was planning on building a dam across the river that fed their little lake and flowed down their local hills. The dam would generate electricity for the city. Everyone in the village was filled with trepidation about what this would mean for their lives: If the river was blocked, water would go from being scarce to flooding their fields and their homes.
Terrified and hurt by the injustice of the city’s greedy, unthinking plans for the river, Vyam was suddenly reminded of a folk tale his mother used to tell to the children when they complained about the daily task of fetching water. It is the story of seven sisters, dispatched by their parents to find water. After walking all day up and down hills, they finally came upon a lake — but it lay deep below them, unreachable. Witnessing their struggle and dejection, the lake took pity on them and made them an offer — it would rise up if they would give it their most precious possession.
Willing to do anything for water, the sisters agreed, and the youngest slipped a beautiful ring off her finger and threw into the lake below. The water promptly rose up, the sisters filled their pots, and left overjoyed.
But just as they were heading home, the youngest sister began to cry, mourning her sacrificial ring. She wanted it back. Her sisters insisted that they had made a bargain with the lake and must honor their end, but there was no reasoning with her. She refused to walk. Unwilling to abandon her, the other six women reluctantly began looking for the ring. One by one, they climbed down into the water, waded into the dark, and disappeared, never to be seen again — the lake had swallowed them for having broken their promise.
The mercilessness of the myth had always troubled Vyam as a child, and now he wondered why he had remembered it all these years later. From the vantage point of the present predicament — the village’s profound dependence on nature, the reckless greed of the rich and powerful in the city — he suddenly saw in it a new meaning. Echoing marine biologist, author, and pioneering conservationist Rachel Carson’s insistence that “the real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” he reflects:
We need nature — water, sun, air — to survive, but she doesn’t really need us. She is generous to us, but she has some conditions, and we have to respect them.
The ring in the story stands for a bargain that the sisters made with the lake — a promise they then broke. When you go against a bargain and become greedy, nature punishes you, like the lake did with the sisters. Her laws are very strict.
You can’t exceed your limits, or take more than what is due to you.
With its dam plan, the city was taking more than its due — a microcosm of the larger civilizational greed that is savaging this Pale Blue Dot.
Vyam ends the book with a gentle, heartfelt invitation for us to continually consider what it means to keep our bargain with nature, echoing Lewis Thomas’s beautiful long-ago meditation on our human potential and our shared responsibility to the planet and to ourselves.
Complement Vyam’s gorgeous and timely Water with Waterlife — a complementary illustrated meditation on marine life based on Indian folklore — then revisit Rachel Carson on the science of why water is blue and two hundred years of literary meditations on the elemental color of our precious planet.
Illustrations courtesy of Tara Books
Published August 29, 2018