Woman and water pot: a story mostly untold

This blog is supposed to be for the stories of individuals. But so many people will never get to tell their stories because they are poor or because they are women or because they are afraid. I am grateful to Nancy for sharing a story that is common to so many tribal women in third world countries, and I hope readers will see the individuals behind it.

This twelve year old was married four months after the photo was taken. Nancy, the author of this piece never saw her again. It was claimed that her head covering caught fire while cooking the evening meal.

Empty water pots (ghardha) stand beneath the shade of a tree.  They are large, round-bodied and have elongated necks and wide mouths.  Made of fired terracotta clay and decorated with a black hand-painted pattern they bear many of the same designs used by potters of the ancient Indus civilisation of 4,000 years ago.

Setting a thick cloth ring on ther head, Trijan places a 'ghardha' on top of it and grips a second one between left arm and hip.  Chandi, youngest adolescent of the group, takes her place at the head of the line while Hustoon, most senior woman, presides from the rear.  Together we move single file out from our living area onto a narrow sand path.  Walled on both sides by a ten foot thorn hedge that conceals other extended family compounds, the path snakes its way through the village.  A panorama suddenly opens to reveal an infinite desert merging with a shimmering horizon.  The well is just visible in the distance.

We talk and joke as we move swiftly down the the dune.  Skirts sweep long and full.  Ample head-coverings are pleated and tucked at the waist.  They cover blouses of styles that vary depending on the age and marital status of the wearer.  Hustoon has fully veiled herself against the gaze of her husband's kinsmen.  She keeps a firm grip on three-year old Supari who wears a small veil that touches her skimpy cotton shirt.  Prouldly she carries her pint-sized pot for her first official trip to the well. Dark green floral, russet red and saffron colours swirl as we descend the steep tawny slope.

The well is a thousand years old, built by a Jain civilisation. People used elephants to haul its capstones from granite beds 45 kilometres east.  A wooden frame crafted from sun-bleached branches of the net tree straddles the well's mouth.  Unlike many Thari wells that may be as much as 250 feet deep, the sweet water of this well stands a mere 50 feet below.  Carefully fitting the time-polished pulley into its worn socket and attaching a goatskin rope, Hustoon lets the bucket, hand-sewn from the rubber inner tube of a truck tire, down slowly.   Three of us grab the end of the rope, and pulling, trudge through the sand away from the well.  The bucket re-emerges swaying from the pulley untill Hustoon calls out for us to stop pulling.

Leaning forward, she catches the bucket, hauls it to the side, and sets it down.  Other village women have arrived.  At her side, they help pour water into the gharda.  Once emptied, Hustoon calls to us waiting.  She drops the bucket again into the belloy of the well as we grip the rope.  Bucket filled, we pull it back up.  For each of us the work is slow an tiring.  For Hustoon, it is also dangerous.  Fresh in our collective memory is the image of Mooli's bloated body pulled from the well's depth a mere week ago.  Her foot slipped on the damp well's edge and she fell to her death.  She too had leaned forward expertly, as she had innumerable times, to catch a heavy, swaying bucket.

The gharda finally filled, we are ready to lift them and set them back on our heads. A full ghardha weighs 10-15 kilos.  Bending down we each place one on our heads and then wait for another woman to lift and rest a second on top.  All ready, we move together, this time single file.  Climbing the 1.5 kilometres homeward, the sun is now scorching.  We walk back across the flats and up the sand dune in necessary silence, each of us sweating from exertion.  Although each woman's load appears to be balanced effortlessly, her head and neck, hidden under her head covering, make constant minute movements that shift and correct balance under the tremendous weight.  Trijan pauses in her climb.  She maintains balance of her ghardas, raises her right foot, crane-like, and nimble fingers pull out a one-inch 'goddess thorn' from her calloused heel.

Arriving back at our enclosure, Durgi, Dildas' mother emerges from her round thatched mud hut.  She helps us on turn to lower our heavy, fragile clay ghardha to the ground.  Just as it is not possible for a woman to place both gharda on her own head, she cannot lift them off without the help of another.

This everyday event is metaphoric of how women of Jain-ji-veri live out their lives.  A girl grows towards womanhood, not merely physically, but ideologically.  Under the watchful eyes of her mother, grandmother, and aunts, she is in constant, if not conscious, training for her necessary transition from "daughter of this village" to "bride of that village."  She subtly acquires a distinctive sense of propriety that informs female behaviour deemed appropriate.

Like the balancing of water posts, she will need to shift and balance her increasingly complex identities within her female world and in relation to the encircling outer one.  Men-father, brothers, one day her husband, male in-laws and sons- are all an important, emotive part of her relational world.  But as she negotiates the twists and turns of life, avoiding thorns where possible, she will rely on her ingenuity, the co-operation of other women and her own personal fate ('karma') to determine her path.