Amita Basu

The Ants Are Thirsty

The rains come and sink through the grass into the earth, making the dry earth whole and filling the borewell in Eva’s flat complex. The residents get water ad libitum, inundate their cars, drown their potted plants, and listen to the gentle music of leaking taps and dribbling toilets. All summer, their children splash in the twenty-meter swimming pool. From her home-office desk by the window, Eva watches her son and daughter enjoying the water.

Another flat complex rises beside Eva’s. The trees die a fragrant death. The grass is paved over. The rain runs along the concrete, seeking a patch of earth to sink into. The sun, angrier each year, pursues the water and glares it into vapor. That year, no rain reaches the earth.

Here, and there, though not everywhere, the earth grows drier and hotter. The rain stops coming. From the television Eva leaves on, the news anchor mumbles about the monsoon trending downwards. Eva sniggers. “Everyone’s a data scientist suddenly, and doomsday warnings are trending without ending. They don’t fool me…. Why won’t this blasted fan go any faster?” She quenches her bad mood with a long cool soak.

The residents’ borewell runs dry. Farmers who’ve lost everything find new jobs, driving steel water tankers. The water tankers dribble from their loose mouths, dribbling a Hansel-and-Gretel trail that instantly evaporates.

But when the residents boil the tanker-water for tea, it flings flecks of white powder on the kettle’s walls. Month by month, the powder hardens into rocklike layers.

Salt. The water has become half salt. Perhaps, Eva thinks as she goes about her business, it’s that agrochemical runoff the news anchors keep fussing about. And something about the water table dropping.

“I’ve heard of the shoe dropping,” she muses aloud, “but how does a table drop? By losing a leg?” Eva’s daughter giggles. Some things never change: four-year-olds remain easy to entertain.

Rock. The water has become half rock.

Eva spends the last Sunday of each month de-rocking, with hammer and chisel, the insides of her crockery, sinks, and toilet bowls. Her kids still flush after each little pee—she’s not raising hippies—and down the porcelain toilet bowl the water leaves a trail of rock. The kids love their rock-picking Sundays, and Eva devises real-world lessons in tool safety.

Her seven-year-old’s getting aggressive. One Sunday he almost drives his chisel through his sister’s wrist. Eva sends him to karate to drain his energy. Broiling in his canvas uniform under the midday sun, he kicks so hard, he shatters the other kid’s spleen.

Eva’s potted plants grow parched. She bids the maid dispose of them. Plants have become a luxury: too thirsty. Eva’s car must still be washed: can’t get anywhere without. The buses are too crowded, too slow, too easily stuck behind all these cars whizzing, more cars every day.

Eva’s water purifier stops working. Technician’s verdict: the water’s salt content is too high, keeps clogging the filter. Eva doesn’t want all that salt in her children’s bodies—kidney stones, no thank you. She gets a reverse osmosis water-filtration machine. It filters out all the salts, leaving pure H2O. Everyone’s got one now.

Every liter of pure H2O produces twenty liters of wastewater, white with salt. Well, you can use the wastewater to, you know, maybe wash cars? If you don’t mind salt splotches on your brand-new fire-engine-red Hyundai Creta. Or if you’ve still got potted plants, you can water them with that. Surely salty water’s better than no water?

The fans aren’t enough, so they all get ACs. Eva wasn’t going to get an AC, but the family just below hers gets one, sending up into Eva’s window the exhaust, hot and dry, an oven. So Eva has to get an AC, too.

One morning Eva goes to the kitchen to fill her water bottle. She unlids the jug. Fifty ants are swimming on the water’s surface, drinking, tiny copper bodies shimmering.

The ants are thirsty. Only in her water jug, with its old-fashioned lid, not airtight, is there in all the neighborhood enough water for an ant to drink.

Elbows on counter, Eva wonders how far these ants have trekked. She pours the water from the jug into her bottle through a sieve. From the sieve the ants scatter up her arms, or down into the sink, chasing the drop of water she has spilled. Eva brushes the little ticklers off her arms.

She thinks of the day when all the people will issue forth, pots on their heads, trekking across the landscape parched, blinding white, seeking water. She laughs. Trekking? No, they’ll be in their cars, of course. Or will the gasoline run out before the water? She spends her Saturday morning lounging, wondering.

The afternoon’s stifling. There were always power cuts, so they all got backup generators. But now the coal is gone, the power plants are dormant, and this power cut has lasted five days. The generators’ backups are exhausted.

Eva gazes out at her children splashing in the swimming pool. Yes, the pool’s still full. No, don’t glare at Eva: it was the Residents’ Association who decided to keep the pool full. D’you want her children, I mean all the children, to roast to death? I hear you criticizing, but I don’t hear you offering solutions.

The women in bright saris are returning to the slum, balancing water on their heads: water in royal-blue plastic pots, and steel pots, and clay pots, water from God knows where. Their half-naked children jump around them, celebrating, whining, begging.

The borewell in Eva’s flat complex has run dry. The lake has run dry. There will come a day when the water tankers run dry.

Eva trudges back to her kitchen. The ants are regathering around the water-jug, thirsty again, still thirsty.

Eva decides to befriend the ants. When the earth becomes a desert, and there’s one last puddle of freshwater forgotten somewhere—the ants will sniff it out. And she will follow: she and her children, one on either side, holding hands on their way to the last water.

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Amita Basu’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in over sixty magazines and anthologies including The Penn Review, Bamboo Ridge, Another Chicago Magazine, Funicular, and Gasher. She’s a review editor for Bewildering Stories and a submissions editor for Fairfield Scribes Microfiction. She lives in Bangalore, has a PhD in cognitive science, likes Captain Planet, and blogs at