Little Jomu wiped the sweat from his brow as he laboured up the incline. “Hurry up Jyoti”, he urged the even smaller girl who followed him, book in hand.
“Bhaiyya! Can you read this?” she asked as she waved her dog-eared book.
“No! Now hurry!” The voice was almost a shout. “Maa will be waiting. She needs the water soon.” Not that she knew they were there.
As they reached a clump of boulders, Jomu slowed and looked around furtively. “Shhhh Jyoti!” the voice was just a loud whisper. “You know we are not supposed to be here.”
Jyoti, unused to the secrecy was full of questions but the look on her 9 year old brother’s face silenced her. She instinctively knew when he was afraid and the fear instantly registered on her face as well.
As he inched around the biggest boulder, he thought of his own carefree days. His father would get the water from the community well in the slum. He would be just in time to see Jomu off to school. But that was more than three years ago. His father, like so many around him had passed away in the outbreak of influenza. Medical help was never forthcoming. Who would want to help his kind anyway? The doctors in the big cities had their practices and most would not even deign to touch them. School was a distant memory.
It was a miracle of sorts he thought that Jyoti could go to school. She might be a doctor one day, his mother mused every day before she went off on her daily round, scrubbing the toilets of the upper castes in the nearby village. The teacher who had come from the town was nice. She gave him a toffee every once in a while as she urged him to join the other students when he escorted little Jyoti to school. He always shook his head. He had work, feeding the dogs of the village chief. He would not touch meat and so he paid Jomu to feed them for him. If he was lucky, he would get to clean up after the butcher was done too. Every paisa helped.
“Why are we hiding Bhaiyya?” Jyoti whispered. “We can’t be seen here Jyoti. This well belongs to the other village. They don’t let our kind near it.”
“I don’t know. But I have heard them say we will pollute it by touching the water.”
Jomu was torn between his fear of the villagers and his desire to get some water for his mother. Their well had dried up and they had to rely on the tankers the district collector had reluctantly arranged for to send them water. But it operated entirely on the whim of the contractor and he hadn’t been there for nearly two days. His neighbours had walked nearly 15 kilometers to get water from the next village where they were allowed to do so. But he had knew he couldn’t manage the trip alone.
A raid on the upper caste well seemed the only solution. It was nearing noon. The men would be at their fields at lunch. The women never ventured out. He didn’t know what they would do to him if they found out but sneaked along. His sister, carrying her little book, had tagged along. He didn’t want her with him but it was too late.
One had to make it up a small hill to reach the well. This was easy going, the other side was a cliff that fell onto the rocks below. Jomu heaved his bucket up and glanced around again. They were alone. Slowly and laboriously, he drew the water into his bucket. Jyoti sat with her eyes scanning the book which her teacher had given her, trying to make sense of the words but enjoying more the coloured illustrations.
As he began to turn, his heart stopped. The village chief and a few other villagers were emerging from behind the clump of boulders. They seemed to have come there to quench their thirst after lunch. There was no escape.
“You little pigs!” the chief screamed as he spotted the siblings. “You dared to touch this water, you scum! It has been polluted by your filthy hands!” He was apoplectic with rage. “You bastards need to be taught a lesson! Never will one of you dare come near our well again!” Jomu winced as the first of many blows fell on him.
Through a blur of fists and feet and sticks and stones, he saw someone kick the bucket of water over the cliff and could almost hear the clutter as it smashed on to the rocks below. He tried to scream and shielded Jyoti as best as he could but it was to no avail. “Enough! Finish this!” he heard someone shout. A pair of hands picked him up bodily and even as he screamed in terror, he was flung on to rocks a 100 feet below.
The blood streaked down his face through his split skull as his large eyes stared straight ahead. He heard a scream and a muffled thump behind him as his sister fell on to the rocks, never to move again. His eyes twitched. His sister’s little book was in front of him. It was a book of rhymes. His eyes saw no more.
As the wind swept along, the pebbles that had fallen on the book prevented the pages from turning. It was the rhyme Jyoti would have learned that day.
“Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water……”