IT MUST OWE to the prescience of idioms and metaphors that the most common—and universal–simile for freedom comes from the animal world and not the elements: as free as a bird, not as free as light or water or even air. I stand by the window thinking this—these thoughts come because the elements can’t, for thoughts move more freely than the elements. It is evening, and darkness has chained light to a few places, almost arbitrarily, and yet not quite: to the electric pole, where it cannot seem to move beyond its penumbra, as if light were a dog on a leash, to neon-lit rooms that look like pimples of light on the giant dark face of this neighbourhood, and to cell phones, where light seems glued to the screens like a face-mask. Hence the wisdom of the ancients—for even though light might be the speediest, it is not completely free. Air, too, is regimented—when a vacuum flask leaks and air rushes in, it seems like air is on parole, so delightful is the sound of its freedom.
But water? I can hear the rain as I write this—tapping on streets, lashing at leaves, arguing with glass, beating against it, like a lawyer slapping a table. Tyres, fat and thin, of automobiles and bikes, slice the wet streets momentarily—they become Moses parting the sea. I listen to that sound with slight trepidation—it is as if someone were running a knife through water. That fear is as fleeting as this sound, but another will take its place soon, for such is the nature of fear—to never vacate a space it’s entered, returning to it in various forms and guises. I know when the rain stops—no, not from the sound of drying, for though we can hear things getting wet, we cannot hear them drying, unless it’s water dancing on fire, the bubbles complaining of heat, and dying soon after. I know from the sound of its leftovers—the stickiness of water-drops, their reluctance to leave their temporary inns of eaves and leaves, the sigh of a thud with which they fall to the ground. And I wonder—is water free? How can it be, when it has no control over when it wants to leave, or whether it wants to leave at all?
Humans are not free, and neither are the living and non-living. We have no control over our entries and exits from life—how could we be free? And yet to long for it, to hanker for it, to desire something that we’ve not experienced in its entirety drives so much of our actions. It rains fiercely as these thoughts eddy inside me. The movement of both is different—in direction and in shape. I keep thinking which of them is freer, unmindful of the awkwardness and unjustifiability of the comparison. They say ‘it’s pouring’ when it rains like this—to say that is to take the presence of the ‘pourer’ as a given, as one imagines a hand pouring water from a jug into a glass. It is possible that this ‘pourer’ controls the freedom of water. But when I go outside, to check, even though I already know, there is no hand to see. What I see instead are decapitated bodies of water, resembling strings, falling endlessly. A word related to freedom falls gently into my consciousness—attachment; and soon after, the other half of the pair follows—detachment. The raindrops show no attachment to the sky, which I imagine they’re evacuating. But they exhibit no detachment either—their obedience to gravity doesn’t leave them free. It is as if all water must return to earth.
THE MOMENT of the raindrop hitting the earth is a moment of rebellion, however tiny it might be. It is small in scale but not in scope. The raindrop lands on soil or concrete or water or tree—it is possibly hurt, as all falling things are, slapped for their audaciousness by gravity. But its energy for freedom, which I imagine was a trigger for it leaving the sky, isn’t gone, in spite of the long journey—it rebels, it tries to unshackle itself of the grasp of gravity, the soaking sponginess and clinginess of soil. And hence the centrifugal movement of the water-drop, it kicking the earth, like a child throwing a tantrum. I want to record this movement—it reminds me of the march-past of soldiers, of their feet moving up, as if pushed by gravity, and dust mimicking that motion, rising rebelliously. The camera fails, and soon I’m sitting on the floor with a pencil in hand. I’m no artist—I can’t even draw grass—but something inexplicable has left me with the desire to record water’s urge for freedom. I soon discover that, of all things, water is the hardest to draw. I return to words, to letters, my old habitat. The words come out of me, not any less instinctive than rain: freedom, flowing, falling… I don’t fail to notice that these words begin with ‘f’, and that freedom somehow seems related to unrestricted movement, to flowing and falling. If that be true, water, when it lives as rain, must be free.
Soon the unpredictable passion of tropical rain has given way to a nagging drizzle, its sound as mechanical as a carpenter’s hammering, but only without a man’s need for rest. It seems that water now has less freedom. I soon realise that it is my conditioning in the bureaucracy of sounds that leads me to such odd deductions—to be able to gauge freedom from sound is a risky indulgence. For it is easy to think of the chorus as unfree or a singer singing to tune as having no freedom, in the same way it is easy to imagine death as offering more freedom than life. Do we imagine freedom as liquid and its opposite as solid, then?
I will go to the Teesta, I decide, there where water can no longer flow to its will. I’ve decided that water must have will, that it has desire too, no less than I do. Why else would it be restless in one state, why else would it desire other lives, and move between ice and gas and liquid? When I become conscious of the movement of my thoughts, I cannot imagine them as anything else but like water. Are they free, my thoughts? Only as free as water. The rest of my thoughts coagulate and cause bad traffic. All roads and streets and alleys are blocked; a lonely thought flows in, as if through a drain. That awareness makes me think of the passageways of water, of how every space should be available to water but actually isn’t, so that water’s claim on land seems illegitimate, even cruel, as during floods. I think of the mop and the near-permanent wet rag, wiping water where it’s not supposed to be. Later, as evening condenses into night, taking light and sound away from it, as if they were the day’s squatters, and the sound of aloneness becomes as strong as the jhi-jhi-jhi hum of crickets in forests, I hear a drop of water drip from a tap. I’m in bed, in a town which has, like all urban spaces, been robbed of the fraternal darkness of night—the salt and sugar of day and night leak into each other, but the rules are different for water. Water mustn’t move at night, except when the sky is shedding its water-fur. Trapped inside thin pipes, forced by the plumber to move only in one direction, I imagine water’s body bruised and scratched as mine would be from being forced to crouch inside a suffocating bunker. It must be this asphyxiation that causes them to pant when the tap is opened—that gushing sound of the return to breath, like a woman released from a corset. It is at such moments, like this one, triggered by a tap’s rebellious drop, that I return, again, to thoughts about freedom.
The words come out of me, not any less instinctive than rain: freedom, flowing, falling… I don’t fail to notice that these words begin with ‘f’, and that freedom somehow seems related to unrestricted movement, to flowing and falling. If that be true, water, when it lives as rain, must be free
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I think about the cruel irony of nomenclature, that water that is kneaded by pipes to eventually spurt out of a tap should be called ‘running water’. It is no different from putting a cheetah inside a cage in a zoo and calling it the fastest animal in the world. This recalls its visual opposite—the still skin of a pond, unmoving and temporarily indifferent to the pulse of its neighbours. Is it freer than the water trapped inside a pipe? My mind, never still, gravitates towards comparisons, towards metaphors and similes, as if the similarity of experience between the comparatives would bring some wisdom and calm. As this happens, I wonder about water’s comparative instinct as well—its restlessness, for why would it move between states with such ease? I think about which form water is freest in, and as these thoughts accumulate, the image of a saree on a windy day moves through my mind. It is hanging from a clothes-wire—it is moving wherever it wants to. That it is not the saree which is moving of its own will but the wind which is making it move comes to me much later. It is strange that when I think of the saree in folds—in pleats, when worn, or folded, when sleeping inside a wardrobe—I think of it as less free. I feel the same way about water—in both cases I realise that it is space or its lack that defines my understanding of freedom. Out of nowhere anger arrives, the way it does at night sometimes, like a rusty gun. And I find myself standing in front of the kitchen sink, kneading water, squeezing it through my fingers.
In the haze of night and delayed sleep I am thinking about freedom again. What is it that I’m seeking freedom from? At first my answer is the obvious, the cliché of a person submerged in the confusion caused by pain: life. Only a few moments need to drip before I know that it is not life I seek freedom from but sadness. I stand there, near the kitchen sink, thinking of the rest of my kind that’s seeking freedom—whether it is from oppression, from relationships, from institutions and from situations, it is the desire to escape from sadness that unites us. In this strange darkness, feeling as if I were air inside a flute, unsure of whether living inside it would be to be freer than to be the air blown out, I try to think of the shape of sadness inside me, and, in the process, ask myself why I feel that it shares a kinship with water. I find no answer to my question, but the self-investigation takes me to various ports, at the end of which I seem to discover that freedom and sadness—the desire to escape which is the trigger for freedom—seem to share something in common: it is their shape, or rather their lack of definite shape. ‘I am underwater and my heartbeats make circles on the surface.’ Milan Kundera’s words come to me—in them too is this connection between the rhythm of the heart and that of water, their changing shapes, their lack of a permanent address.
When I go to see the Teesta the next morning, much before the day’s hardware is out on the streets, I am relieved to find it still there. So much is taken away from us every day—people, relationships, things, energy, homes, glass, peace. How can I be sure of water’s constancy, how can I expect a river to remain where I last left it, when hardly any human would, without the promise of return? (Do promises curb our freedom? I wonder, as the wipers rub the glass of the car.)
Silt takes away the Teesta’s inflamed-green hue every monsoon, leaving it almost slate-coloured. It is the same this year.
I feel the sadness inside me grow, like a grain of sugar turning into a crystal in sweetened water. I can hear the machines of the hydel project now, those that have maimed the river. They are turning her water into ‘energy’—they are selling her body. They’ve changed the river’s course with giant wall-like structures—it makes me feel as if this was a sanatorium and the river was a mad creature they were trying to keep away from the world. It is as if the river was mad—there is a stream called ‘Pagla Jhora’, mad stream, not far away in the Darjeeling hills—and the voltage of madness would have to be converted into something useful, like electricity. I’m about to make my inference, about the refusal to allow madness in beings as the true denial of freedom, when words from a Mandelstam poem collide with my trembling consciousness: ‘Here, taking form, is the first draft/of the students of running water.’ I suppose it’s my madness that begins flowing as tears. Soon they have spotted my shirt-sleeves. Through the derelict tears I see the river being folded, its water forced to flow through turbines like the pleats of a saree or paper arranged into a book.
When I was little, I imagined an earthworm to be freer than humans—anything that could wriggle into shrunken burial-holes was certainly more powerful than me, than us. I was too young to understand the relation between form and freedom, and how they’d play out in my consciousness. I do not know whether water is freer than humans. Surprised that I interpret freedom as something without bones, almost as an invertebrate, relating it to space and flow, unrestricted movement and baggy passages of desire, I stand on the Coronation Bridge, and see the day’s brass climb to the sky. At some point I feel like I’m holding my sadness in my hand, and sorting out bones, as from a fish— that ridding sadness of its bones will let it flow out of me. Not too far away, curls of water are becoming foam from the abrasion of rocks. I long to pluck them out—the rocks from the water, and the bones from my sadness, as if they were mistakes.
I stand there until silence—its heavy antiquity—pushes me away. Everything seems like a mistake—mistakes both mine and life’s. And I wonder whether this is what freedom is—to live without the teeth-marks of mistakes. There are none on water.