Water by Bapsi Sidhwa is a poignant and often times very funny book about a child widow in 1930s’ British India. Ms. Sidhwa’s previous novels have told other stories set in the subcontinent from The Crow Eaters set in the early 1900 in the days of the Raj (British rule in India) to the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 with Cracking India (also titled The Ice Candy Man). She has also written about religious intolerance and Muslims in America in American Brat. “Water” is set in the late 30s in India when Mohandas K. Gandhi, later called Mahatma Gandhi, was already agitating for Indian independence from the British. He was also agitating for modernizing India at the same time.
The novel is based on the script for the film Water, the film was written and directed by Indian-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta. Mehta had directed the movie Earth which was based Sidhwa’s Cracking India. Mehta asked Sidhwa to novelize the movie in about 4 months so the book and the film would be released at the same time. Sidhwa acceded to the task and succeeded at it as well with the book and film being released on the same day.
Water follows the story of Chuyia meaning “Little Mouse” who is engaged to be married at the age of 6, but her betrothed died and she is now a widow at the tender age of 8. In accordance with Hindu practice of the time, she is exiled to the local widow-ashram, a rundown two story house in the poorer part of the town. Her head is shaved and she is set to doing penitence for the bad Karma of having her fiancé die.
At the widow-ashram “Little Mouse” comes across a wide variety of personalities in her fellow widows, some accepting, some raging, all very human. Sidhwa draws all her characters out finely, so each widow has a real story of her own to tell. Chuyia is befriended by the beautiful and young widow, Kalyani, who earns money for the ashram as a prostitute. Kalyani loves a young Brahmin (upper caste) idealistic follower of Gandhi named Narayan. This kind of love is forbidden and upsets the arrangements of the ashram.
Sidhwa’s prose is bright and evocative; she draws scenes like a screenwriter and lets the reader fill in the action like a film director. Water is not a book to just be passively read, but rather it must be interacted with to be understood. Water concludes with a sign of hope for the widows in the ashram; as well as for all the other discarded and untouchables in India. Gandhi’s train goes through the village bringing that message of change and hope.