by Murali Kamma
The rains were scarce that year, causing hardship in the region, but at Noname Place, more than the erratic supply of water, it was M who initially brought disruption to the residential building. M? Could they really have used only letters when referring to individuals? Sure, and they used numbers as well instead of traditional names, because that was the trend at Noname—which, of course, was no name. Those words didn’t appear anywhere on the building, identified only by a number in big digits. But the street did have a name, used mostly by outsiders.
The residential building, five stories high, had two flats on each floor and enough space at the street level for a few small vehicles. The compact compound, bordered by a low yellowing wall plastered with fliers and interrupted by a gate, had wilting bougainvillea and jasmine creepers, patches of scraggly grass, and a covered well in one corner, close to a generator that switched on when the power failed. It seldom failed at night, making that the ideal time for pumping water from the well to the storage tank on the terrace.
During the building’s construction, it was rumored, somebody had written “No Name” on the half-finished wall, prompting the whimsical builder—who liked the vandal’s scrawl—to skip the signboard and adopt Noname Place as the unofficial name. Was this true? The residents weren’t sure, not having spoken to the builder, but intriguingly, in keeping with Noname’s tradition, they all referred to each other by their flat numbers rather than real names.
2A, the building association’s president, having returned on his scooter with a case of bottled water, headed to the front door. 1B, a recently widowed resident with a bulging stomach and a shiny bald pate, was standing on his little balcony as he munched on plantain chips. Food appeared to have become his solace, though it was taking a toll on his body.
“Oof, the heat is bad,” 1B said, after they greeted each other. “And it’s so dry . . . hope we don’t run out of water.”
“Could happen,” 2A said, mopping his brow. “We’ve been lucky, but that could change if the rains don’t come. Are you coming to the meeting—?”
“Of course. Can’t wait to hear what the 4Bs have to say.” 1B tittered.
Days earlier, when clouds appeared suddenly and the sky darkened with promise, rain seemed imminent, making people jubilant. They kept glancing up, not unlike waiting travelers who crane their necks to look for the long-delayed train. But the rains didn’t come that season, and what spread like a flood instead was a sense of resignation.
Eight residents entered flat 4B around 7 p.m. and exchanged warm hellos with the hosts, before spreading out on the beige sofa and chairs in their living room, which looked partly furnished because many objects and books were missing from the shelves lining the walls. A couple of half-full boxes showed that they’d been packing. After Mrs. 4B offered plum cake to the guests and Mr. 4B brought in cups of tea on a tray, they got down to business. A weekend meeting would have drawn a bigger crowd, but the number really didn’t matter because 2A, as the conscientious but stern association president, would waste no time in sending an email of the proceedings to all the residents.
The 4Bs, a well-informed and likeable couple, were respected for their ability to mediate when there was a dispute. Their announcement that they’d be going abroad for a couple of years didn’t come as a surprise—rumors of a fellowship at a prestigious university had been floating around—but what everybody wanted to know was who would be taking their place. Because, surely, the 4Bs wouldn’t want to leave their flat vacant for that long. The bylaws allowed owners to rent out their flats without seeking the building association’s approval.
“They’re not strangers . . . the nice young couple coming here,” Mr. 4B said. “We know them well, and you should have no concerns.” Smiling enigmatically, he put his cup down and dabbed his lips with a napkin, while the others looked on expectantly.
“Who are they?” 2A said, his impatience showing. A middle-aged accountant, sporting a trim salt-and-pepper moustache that matched his neatly combed hair, he wore rimless glasses, behind which his restless and piercing gray eyes never missed what was happening around him. His wife wasn’t there, though she often attended the weekend meetings. 2A, relishing his role as the president, didn’t like “drama-shama,” as he put it, and preferred to get to the point quickly.
“M and F,” the 4Bs said, almost simultaneously.
A few people gasped.
“M . . . why?” said the resident who was an IT project manager. He and his wife, also in IT, lived on the fifth floor with their two children.
“F, not Y,” Mr. 4B said. “They’ll be here tomorrow. I’m sure—”
“No . . . why?” 2A said with agitation. “Why are they moving in? How can you allow that?”
“Why not?” Mrs. 4B said. “We know and trust M and F. We’re allowed to pick the people we want, aren’t we?”
“Yes, but it’s only for renters,” 2A said firmly. “These . . . they don’t qualify.”
“Why not? They’ll be paying rent.”
“What! How can they afford to pay rent here for two years?”
“Well, we’re aware of their circumstances,” Mrs. 4B said. “So we made a concession. They’ll only make a token payment—”
“This is absurd,” said 1B, the widower, looking up from his plate. Having finished his cake, he’d helped himself to another slice. “How can a watchman and a domestic live here for two years? They’re from a different . . . won’t they feel uncomfortable?”
“Looks like they’re not the ones who will feel uncomfortable,” Mr. 4B said, stroking his chin pensively, before adding, “No worries. They’ll adapt, and so will you . . . because we all know them. We know how hard they work.”
“Outrageous!” 2A said, closing his writing pad as he stood up. “We can’t have any X, Y and Z living here.”
“Come on, they’re not any X, Y and Z,” Mr. 4B protested. “They’re M and F—and they both worked here for a month, as you know.”
Nobody knew if M and F were the first letters of their given names, but they did correspond to the young couple’s genders. The college where the 4Bs taught had employed M and F as the caretakers of an off-campus building. Then came a cost-cutting initiative, and the college decided to sell their satellite properties and lay off the people who worked there. But the 4Bs were able to get M hired at Noname Place; as it happened, their neighborhood watchman had to leave for his village due to a family emergency. The job was just for a month, but M was glad to fill in, and F was also able to make money by doing household chores for the residents.
“Why are they coming back?” 1B asked, wiping his fingers with a napkin. “I thought they were happy to return to their village.”
“Happy is not the word I’d use,” Mr. 4B said. “They went back because they had no choice . . . they could no longer afford to live in the city. But now they can, in this flat. There’s a good chance the college will hire them again. I told them to be patient. They should be in the city when the call comes. So they’ll be staying here, and that gives them a chance to look for other opportunities as well. If anybody needs help, I’m sure they’ll be available.”
There were more questions, tossed out in varying degrees of concern or indignation, but the 4Bs soon ended the meeting, saying there was nothing more to discuss. Politely but firmly, Mr. 4B ushered them all out and shut the door.
Turning to his wife, he took a deep breath and said, “That’s settled then.”
“Yes,” she said simply, and smiled.
For the building’s other residents, though, it was far from settled. In a rapid email exchange, from which the 4Bs were excluded, they decided to hold an emergency meeting the next day to find a way to stop M and F from occupying the flat on the fourth floor.
Would they have succeeded? Hard to know, because a real emergency disrupted their lives the following morning—and the meeting they ended up having turned out to be about something else altogether. The residents, to their distress, woke up to an empty tank. The pipes hissed ominously when they turned on the taps for their ablutions, and nothing came out. They all had some reserve water in buckets or vessels, but it was just enough for their basic needs. None of them could bathe or even properly wash their dishes.
The pump must have failed, they decided, for there had been no power cut during the night. A repairman arrived late in the morning, looking peeved, as if the last thing he wanted to do was go down another unpleasant well. Lately, because of the growing demand for water and the falling aquifer level, the pumps in the area had been failing more often, keeping the repairmen busy. But the pool of workers willing to go down a well seemed to be shrinking every year. It was a dirty and dangerous job, even if they could make good money.
Sinewy and short, the man moved with cat-like agility, though he was carrying a rope and other paraphernalia. Removing the netted cover from the well, he leaned over with a flashlight and peered inside. His voice echoed querulously as he declared he would not be able to fix it that day.
“Why not?” 2A said, looking astonished.
“There’s too much cleaning to do. Desilting. It will take a long time. I may have to get somebody to assist me.” Having completed his inspection, the repairman put the cover back and asked for a hefty advance to start the job.
2A sputtered. “You haven’t even gone inside! How do you know what’s needed? Last time it was just minor maintenance—”
“Minor, minor . . . that’s what I keep hearing. People don’t want to pay, as if these wells will last forever. Suit yourself. I don’t have the time to argue. I have enough work—”
“Well, go then! You think you’re indispensable? You’re not hurting for business . . . I can see that. The bigger problem is your attitude, not the well.”
Waving off the insult as if it were a fly near his face, the well fixer walked away without another word, to the dismay of the other watching residents.
“Oh, no, what are you doing?” 1B said, lowering his half-eaten apple. “How do we get our water? It may take a while to get another repairman.”
“Yes, they’re so damn busy,” said another resident. “Let’s hope the rains come soon.”
“Not to worry,” 2A said, caressing his moustache with his fingers. “I already booked a tanker. I’ll tell them to come this evening and the rest of the week.”
That became a quick solution to the water crisis. Other residential buildings were already bringing in water tankers from another district, close to the river. But the fix was as temporary as it was tenuous. Throughout the region, available tankers were becoming scarcer by the day, not to mention astronomically more expensive than normal. Few residents, lucky as they were to secure a tanker, could afford to bear the additional expense for long.
Later the next evening, after a tanker brought water to Noname Place, a mandatory meeting was held on the terrace, which the residents often used for larger gatherings. The light was switched on, as yellow and pinkish hues spread across the sky, and the stacked-up metal chairs were unfolded. The temperature having dropped, it was tolerably warm, putting the attendees in a more agreeable mood, especially now that they’d been able to bathe and store water. Ambient sounds—horns, chatter, laughter, even music—floated up as they talked casually, until 2A, being the association president, called the meeting to order.
“4B is not here,” 4B’s neighbor said before the proceedings could begin.
“They left today . . . remember?”
“My mistake. I should have said that their replacement—M—is not here. He moved into the flat today, though his wife is still in the village. She’s joining him later this month.”
There was a hush. As the neighbor, 4A knew more about M and F than the others. Unobtrusively, it seemed, M had become a resident of Noname Place.
“Well, he has no business here,” 2A said icily. Was he referring to the meeting or the building? Both, no doubt.
“M supposedly worked on a farm in his village,” 4B’s neighbor said. “He may know about wells. Why not ask him? Maybe he can go down and take a—”
“We need professionals who know the ABCs of well maintenance.”
“Very true,” 2A said, agreeing with the IT project manager. Moving on with the agenda, 2A made it clear he didn’t want to talk about M anymore.
Before the meeting adjourned, it was decided that only thoroughly vetted well fixers would be brought in by the following week—and whatever the expense, the association would take their advice. In the meantime, they’d continue to pay dearly for what tanker service they could secure. There was no other choice.
“Use the water wisely, please,” 2A exhorted. “It’s not cheap.”
M kept a low profile that week, preferring to use the stairs at odd hours to go out or return to the flat. He was a slender, taciturn man, with close-cropped dark hair and a broad forehead, below which his deep-set eyes flickered in anxiety. The other residents left him alone, but they didn’t acknowledge his presence either, unless it was necessary, as if he didn’t exist or wasn’t living in their midst. If 2A hadn’t been so preoccupied with the water problem, making phone calls and doing research, he’d have in all probability confronted M. Would it have led to M’s expulsion? While the 4Bs had the right to make any changes regarding their tenants, one could always find ways, cunningly, to show that bylaws were being violated.
That Saturday morning, it was still early and the sky a deep magenta, when 1B, an early riser, heard a clattering sound that seemed to come from the well. Putting his buttered toast back on the plate, he stepped out on his tiny balcony, where it was balmy at this hour. An electric jolt convulsed his body when he saw M’s face, fleetingly, just as the young man was disappearing into the well. Frozen for a moment, 1B wondered if he was hallucinating.
No, he wasn’t! That was M indeed—and while 1B didn’t see anybody in the vicinity, the rope resting on the rim was clearly visible, indicating that M had lowered himself into the well. Chirping birds broke the silence. Soon, other sounds would take over the neighborhood as another day got underway. Did anybody else know what was happening?
Hurrying back to his living room, 1B picked up the phone.
“What do you mean?” 2A said, alarmed. “I know nothing about it. Are you sure?”
“I’m certain . . . I can see the rope from here. It is M. There is nobody else there.”
“Okay, give me a minute. Meet me at the well.”
Still wearing his pajama top over his trousers, 2A quickly walked over in his slippers and asked 1B if he could see anything.
“Nothing. It’s dark. My flashlight doesn’t work . . . have to change the batteries.”
“And I forgot to bring mine,” 2A said, annoyed, as he peered into the well. “Never mind. M, are your there? Can you hear me? M . . . M . . . M!”
“M . . . M . . . M!” 2A’s voice echoed forlornly, but there was no response from the cave-like well, which appeared to lead to some dank, unknowable subterranean depths.
A couple from the third floor joined them—the word was spreading. “Oh, no!” the wife said, her voice breaking when her husband’s hellos elicited no response except for the inevitable echo from the well. “I hope he’s okay. Why don’t we call somebody? We need help.”
“Yes, but first let me get my flashlight,” 2A said. “I’ll be right back.”
But before he could move away, they heard the muffled but unmistakable sound of a pump as it shuddered for a moment and came to life.