Madhavan was beginning to sweat as he slowly pedalled his twenty-year-old bicycle. It was quite sturdy, and given its age, was remarkably well-suited to performing its role – that of a water-carrier. From its carrier hung two plastic pots of water, one on either side of the bicycle, tied together by a bright green nylon rope.
The scarcity of water was nothing new to Madhavan. He had been born and brought up in Chennai. Different people had different means to get water. Some bought water in canisters from private vendors who would deliver it home – expensive. Some others bought whole tanker-loads of water and filled their enormous sumps – again, expensive. Others ran after the Government Water Tankers with empty plastic pots in their hands, hope in their hearts and fire in their bellies – not expensive, but too much trouble – at forty, Madhavan couldn’t run very fast, neither had he the stomach to fight it out with the pumped-up women who invariably dominated the water-catching process. Still others battled it out at the water pumps scattered at some planner’s whim throughout the neighbourhood – some streets had two hand pumps, while at places three streets had to make do with one – again, too much trouble for our hero. He had his own technique, perfected over many waterless summers in the suburbs of Chennai. Things hadn’t changed much now, even though he was living well within the city limits.
Madhavan’s technique was quite simple. He cycled around the streets, late at night, looking for hand pumps where he could get water. These were usually besieged by hordes of women during the day, but during the night, especially after about 11.30 pm, they were deserted, and Madhavan would move in with his rickety bicycle and two plastic pots. He would make ten or twelve trips a night, filling a big plastic barrel kept outside the kitchen door in his house. This was his nightly routine, and his wife was used to Madhavan’s nocturnal quests for water.
Today was no different – after cycling around for about fifteen minutes, Madhavan found a hand pump that had been abandoned for the day by its matriarchs. Since this was only one street away from his home, he was happy – he could get his twelve trips of water very quickly indeed. So he set about filling his pots, slinging them across the carrier of his bicycle and cycling home. As he cycled home, he felt light-hearted, almost breaking into song. Maybe it was the thought that he would be in bed sooner than usual. Or maybe it was the thought of tomorrow, and the deal he had fixed.
During the day, Madhavan was a clerk in a State Government Office. Though his official income was very modest, he managed to supplement it very cleverly by “fixing deals” for those who wanted their papers to be moved slightly faster. He never went for the bigger deals – those that involved actual fraud or forgery. He was content with merely shuffling forms or approval letters so that his “client” would get his papers moved that much faster. A man had to live, but there was such a thing as a conscience.
Between his “deals” during the day and his nocturnal water hunts, Madhavan was a reasonably happy man – chiefly because he did not want too much. He prided himself on this. Too much greed, he reasoned, was not good for anyone.
Eleven trips later, Madhavan was on his last trip for the night. At the end of it, he would retire to a comfortable bed and deep sleep. He was sweating quite profusely now – the sultriness of the Chennai summer did not let up even in the middle of the night. The sweat ran down his forehead and a drop found its way into his eye. As he shook his head to clear his eyes, he could make out someone standing in the middle of the road.
Even in the darkness, he could make out that the shadow-like creature in the middle of the road was an oversized man. Hoping that the man would get out of his way, he rang the small bell which was fixed to the handlebar of his bicycle. But the shadow showed no signs of moving. Madhavan almost ran into the fellow before he managed to stop. As he looked up at the man, he gasped. Here was a man who was at least seven feet tall and broad to match. He had long hair and a longer moustache. He wore only a loincloth, and big muscles stood out even in the darkness. His face was concealed in a shadow that seemed almost to hang around him like a cloak.
“Lunatic,” thought Madhavan. “And a dangerous one at that.”
“Please do not be afraid. I do not want to hurt you. I just want some water to drink. I am so thirsty” said the giant.
“There is a hand pump in the next street. You can have as much water as you want there.” Madhavan did not know from where he got the courage to say that. It was as if he had stood outside himself and watched these words proceed from his mouth. Of course, he knew the value of water, and no man, giant or not, was going to get his water away from him.
The giant shook his head and said, “No Madhavan, I want you to get me some water. I am very thirsty.”
Madhavan almost fainted in fright. To be accosted by a giant in the street in the middle of the night was scary enough. But to be called by name was terrifying enough to justify a fainting spell. But he held on to consciousness. “Who… who are you? How do you know who I am?” he managed to croak out.
The giant laughed and said, “Who I am does not matter. How I know your name too doesn’t matter. What matters now is that I am thirsty, and I want you, Madhavan, to give me the water from your pot.”
“But I got this water for my home. And my wife will scold me if I do not get back soon. Please let me go. I have to go home.” Madhavan had got back his voice.
“Madhavan Madhavan. Don’t lie to me. Your wife is asleep and won’t know it if you don’t go home at all till six in the morning. Now, all I’m asking for is some water to quench my thirst.” said the giant. “I’ll pay,” he added, almost as an afterthought.
“What did you say?” Madhavan’s ears pricked up. If there was an opportunity to make a little money, why let it go.
“I said I’ll pay” said the giant.
“How much?” Madhavan could hardly contain himself. Here was this fool, paying him to give him water.
“Five rupees. For each of your pots.”
“Each of my pots… er… you are only going to drink it I hope. How can you drink two pots of water?” Madhavan said.
“I said I’m thirsty, didn’t I?” asked the giant, and gestured for Madhavan to bring him a pot of water.
Madhavan stood the bicycle carefully on its stand, lifted the pots gently to the ground and carried one of them to the giant. The giant grabbed the pot easily in one hand, lifted it up, and emptied all the water in a single gulp. Without even stopping for a breath, he said, “That was good. Give me the other pot as well.”
“The money…” hesitated Madhavan.
“Ah yes… the money. One must not forget the money.” The giant pulled out a small bag from his waist band and shook out a few coins. Madhavan could see that they were all five-rupee coins. The bag was filled with them.
“Here you go.” said the giant, handing him one of the five-rupee coins. “Now get me the other pot.”
After having despatched the pot of water in the same way as he had the previous one, he turned to Madhavan and said, “That was really good. But it has made me more thirsty. Could you get me more. I’ll pay you five rupees for every pot of water you get me.”
Madhavan was taken aback. Here was this giant, who, having nonchalantly tossed down two whole pots of water, wanted more. What was more, he was willing to pay him, Madhavan, five rupees for each pot of water. So Madhavan decided to go for it. How much more could he drink – two more pots? Four more pots? Let him drink. And Madhavan wanted to push his luck a little more.
“Will you give me ten rupees for each pot of water I bring you?” he asked the giant.
“Done. Now hurry up and get me more water.” said the giant, and sat down on a pile of sand on the roadside.
Not able to believe his luck, Madhavan ran to get the water before the giant changed his mind. He reached the pump, filled up the two pots in record time – so eager was he to get his hands on the money – and cycled back, half expecting the giant to be gone. But the giant was there, waiting for him. As soon as he reached, the giant seized the two pots, one in each hand and quaffed them one after the other. Giving them back to Madhavan, he also pushed four more coins into his palm. “More” was all he said.
Madhavan just couldn’t believe what was happening. But since he was getting money for doing practically nothing, he went back and forth between the hand pump and the giant. After the fourth trip, he found the giant stretched out on his back on the heap of sand. When he went up to the giant, he merely pointed to his mouth. Madhavan emptied the two pots of water into his mouth. Then the giant pointed to his bag of coins. Madhavan took out four coins, showing them to the giant as he did, and put them in his pocket.
Four more trips, and the strain was beginning to tell on him. He was drenched in sweat. His arms and legs ached. The bicycle went slower, and the hand pump became harder to operate. And through all this, the giant just lay back, drinking pot after pot of water, paying Madhavan two coins for every pot.
On the next trip to the hand pump, Madhavan decided that enough was enough. He would take his two pots of water and go home. He would tell the giant to go and lie down under the hand pump and pump himself as much water as he wanted. He had gotten a hundred and seventy rupees already, and that was more than what he made fixing “deals” on a decent day. He made up his mind, and resolved to tell the giant that he was quitting as his water carrier.
Thus resolved, he sat for a while and rested at the hand pump before filling up his two pots. Then he lifted them up on to the carrier of his bicycle and climbed on, ready to face the giant and bid him goodbye. But when he reached the spot where the giant had been resting, the place was deserted. Maybe the giant had had enough and had gone away, Madhavan thought, and as he pedalled homeward, his heart was light and happy.
He got home, had a wash, and was asleep before he his head hit the pillow.
“Wake up! Wake up!” his wife was roughly shaking him awake. It was morning and the sun was streaming in through the bedroom window, making small puddles of light on the floor.
“Wha…” he muttered, as he slowly climbed out of his sleep into the world of the living.
His wife was all excited. “You know what?” she exclaimed, “they found Muthaiah of the Accounts Department near the handpump on Tenth Street. He was sitting there, dead, and near him they found his bicycle and his water pots. And you know something – his pockets were filled with five-rupee coins. The police are there and everyone’s talking about it…”
As his wife went on and on in her usual long-winded way, Madhavan smiled to himself and thought, “Too much greed is not good for anyone.”
This is a work of fiction