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The book recounts the water crisis experienced by upper-caste, middle-class residents from a street in a semi-urban Madras neighbourhood.

When Ashokamitran began writing Thanneer in 1969, it was meant to be a short story for a compilation planned by his literary friends. Later, having realised the story’s full potential, the writer set aside Thanneer and worked on three other short stories for the compilation. 

Thanneer, serialised in Kanaiyazhi magazine, concluded in November 1971; the book, a little over 100 pages, was published towards the end of 1973. It was translated and published in English as Water in 2001. 

Thanneer recounts the water crisis experienced by upper-caste, middle-class residents from a street in a semi-urban Madras neighbourhood. This sublime work, set in the sixties, is a remarkable documentation of the mundane, made engaging by its many characters, and more importantly by its setting. 

Thanneer, considered one of his greatest works, stuns you in how accurately it captures the conundrum of a city plagued by drought. Set against the backdrop of an acute water scarcity that the city witnessed in the late sixties, when Anna Nagar was just being planned and when areas like T Nagar and Vadapalani were considered its outskirts, Ashokamitran pens a multi-layered story balanced deftly upon its women.

A woman wakes up with a gasp in the middle of the night upon hearing the sound of the rain outside. The water running down in small streams from the edges of the roof could be caught in a pot, clothes could finally be rinsed! A small lamp is lit and the husband is woken. While he helps at first, he’s soon impatient. “There’s a tanker coming these days. Isn’t it enough for you?” he huffs when she asks him to fill another container. “It does once in three days. But the insults I’ll have to bear there… […] I’ve done this for months. Few more days makes no difference,” she tells him, before exiting the house with a dripping umbrella and two tin containers.

On a different day, a pious, old woman carrying a pot of water staggers and falls in the middle of the street, overcome by fatigue. When strangers run up to help her, she does the unthinkable.

I'm no stranger to this setting. A distinct memory from the early 2000s came back to me as I read Thanneer for the first time a few years ago. On weekday late afternoon, I would telephone my mother at work, announce the arrival of the water tanker to our street and quickly join the procession of (mostly) women carrying pots. I knew the drill. My mother would arrive a few minutes later, on permission, and carry back the pots filled with water from one end of the street to our house. The exercise would be repeated a couple of days later. We survived the water scarcity of 2002 only to find ourselves back in one, less than two decades later.

This summer, the city plunged back into water scarcity, reportedly one of the worst in 70 years. What do you think has changed since Ashokamitran’s Thanneer, my own memories from the beginning of this millennium and today?

Writer and translator Kalyana Raman observes in his review of Thanneer, “Indian novels have dealt with transformation of societies wrought by cataclysmic incidents and episodes—Partition and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 come to mind—but the details and nuances springing from a protracted crisis – the  subtle shifts in speech, disposition and character of common citizens in the face of a faceless strife – are captured for the first time in Thanneer. In this respect, it is somewhat reminiscent of the celebrated French classic, La Peste by Albert Camus.”

The novel, in that sense, is an unsettling story of extracted deterioration, of transformation and fight for survival riddled by adversity. Thanneer cascades, just like how a river would through difficult landscapes, but leaves you thirsting for more.

Thanneer’s main protagonist is Jamuna, an upper-caste woman living alone in a small apartment. She is often visited by her younger sister Chaya, who is a wife and mother waiting to reunite with her family upon the return of her husband from the army. In broad strokes, Ashokamitran establishes that the sisters are sharply in contrast to each other. “Jamuna wouldn’t mind taking bath in that murky water. Whereas Chaya would find it disgusting to even touch it,” he writes in one chapter.

Jamuna, in her late 20s, is a woman resigned to accept what is given to her. She is all-bearing, barely raises her voice in protest and struggles to fit in with the society. Her efforts to make conversations with the neighbours often go unnoticed or she is given curt responses. They speak about the woman living alone, the failed actor, and Jamuna walks unmindful of their taunts. She is abused both physically and mentally by Bhaskar Rao, who makes false promises to get her into the film industry. Jamuna doesn’t complain. 

There are times when Jamuna desperately needs someone to lean on. Instead she is taken for granted by them. In one of the most telling parts from the novel, Jamuna’s attempt at suicide shocks her landowner. “Are you trying to shame me? Don’t bring misfortune to my house by hanging yourself to death here. Leave!” she insists breathlessly. Her desperation, dejection is merely an inconvenience to another. 

Chaya, on the other hand, is more impulsive and expressive than her older sister. She is quick to discern Bhaskar Rao’s intention and warns Jamuna of it. But Chaya doesn’t know the world like how Jamuna does. However, unlike Jamuna, Chaya sees hope in her life. Her difficulties are temporary and her life can go back to normal when her husband returns. No one is speaking behind Chaya’s back.

But the most nuanced character in this novel is the teacher, referred to as teacher amma throughout, who chides Jamuna with her laughter but at the same time offers the solace that she needs. One just wishes there was more of her in Thanneer

A hard-working woman, teacher amma is more than what she appears to be on the surface. She is also the only character in the book who offers the support Jamuna needs without expecting anything in return. Even when she’s talking about all the hardships she has faced in her life, there’s no self-pity in her tone. Teacher amma helps Jamuna see beyond herself. 

The women in Thanneer are multi-hued. They are fiery, tenacious, resolute and forbearing.  Their lives are dictated by patriarchy and they don’t rebel against it. Yet, they don’t fail to make a profound impact on the reader, especially with their unwavering determination to seek water. 

What made Ashokamitran write these women, especially in a story set against the backdrop of a drought? But then again, what is a story about water without women?

More articles by Anjana Shekar:

Read: Revisiting 'Thanneer Thanneer': How a 1981 Tamil film predicted water scarcity

Read: Are you a fan of mysteries? Meet 'Vidathu Karuppu' writer Indra Soundar Rajan

Read: Water crisis hits jasmine farmers in Madurai, many give up cultivation