Deepa Balsavar is one of the contributing authors to our current Book of the Month, Water Stories from Around the World (Tulika, 2010). Deepa has both written and illustrated many children's books, including The Seed, selected for the 2007 White Raven's Catalogue.
She has also worked with the Avehi-Abacus Project for the past twenty years, as well as on UNICEF sponsored projects, developing teaching resources for mathematics and literacy.
I come from a family of readers and nature lovers. As a child, I remember my father bringing me large, colorful books on pet animals and wildlife and natural history. I devoured those books and became the heroine of countless adventures as I traversed the continents sometimes as a veterinary surgeon and at other times as an intrepid explorer.
The true joy, however, was going back far in time. And as I pored over my “Life on Earth”, an animated flip book would form in my mind. In super fast motion I would see our earth as a big ball of gas wobbling in space. Then the gas would cool and the surface of the planet would be covered by a thin layer, like cream on the surface of hot milk. And like cream, this layer would break and re-form as bubbling lava welled up and split the surface. Meteors would come crashing down kaboom! and splashes of hot red would soar into the air. Thunder and lightning would add their own music and then… And then it would rain and rain and rain. At this point the flip book in my head would slow down and become almost still. All other activity would become muted as the sounds in my mind merged with the monsoon happening outside my window. And my stilled mind would see the earth wait, expectantly, for the seas to fill and for the first chemical reactions to herald the beginning of life on Earth.
Everyone knows that water brings life and sustains it. In India the pouring of water forms part of most rituals and rites of passage. Rivers are propitiated and it is believed by Hindus that bathing in the Ganges washes away the sins of a lifetime. In homes, guests are offered a glass of water before anything else. This is not only an acknowledgment of the hot and dusty road outside but also a gesture of friendship. But water has also been at the heart of much cruelty. In rural areas even today lower caste people can be denied access to upper caste wells and ponds. On a larger scale, rivers are dammed and diverted to feed the ever growing needs of large industries and cities while entire villages are submerged and forests disappear. Water is big business and governments are formed and lost on contentious river-sharing issues. Wars have been fought and battles still rage while pre-packaged bottles replace what was once freely available. And who asks the creatures that share the waters with us what they think about all the industrial waste and untreated sewage? It is the same sad story I suspect, all over the world.
The tale I wrote for Tulika’s anthology Water Stories from around the World is called “Who Owns the Water?” It is an adaptation of an old Indian folk tale. Through it I wanted to get children thinking about issues of control and access to water, and also to consider the connection between humans and animals in a way that I hope is not moralistic or preachy. In the telling, I decided to adopt the style of Rudyard Kipling (whose stories my daughter and I would endlessly read out to each other) in his Just So Stories, imagining myself talking to a beloved child.
My own beloved child is a water sprite. She crawled towards a swimming pool when she was less than a year old and has been fascinated by the oceans ever since. When she was about five years old, she looked at me seriously and told me that she was a different person in the water. That it calmed her and made her think better; and no one who saw my little girl turning endless back flips in the water could deny that there was something of a dolphin about her.
So my connection to water is manifold. I worry and yet I keep going back to the flip book and the endless seas that were formed, and I know that this business about water goes far beyond our petty human needs and concerns.
Sometime ago, I accompanied my daughter on a scuba diving trip to the Andaman Islands just off the east coast of India. The journey involved a plane ride and a boat trip to an idyllic group of islands that were devastated by the tsunami a few years earlier. The reefs, though affected, are still teeming with life: but the gentle dugong, my favorite sea creature, once so numerous in the region, has all but disappeared. Whether they have been hunted or fallen prey to pollution or boat propellers, I cannot say. Anyway, my daughter had some good dives; and with our bags packed, we embarked on the reverse journey home. I was depressed and my mind was still on the dugongs. My daughter was unwell too, so we climbed silently on deck for a breath of fresh air. Around us was nothing but sea. Slowly, the sight and sound of the gentle waves filled our senses. A light breeze was blowing and it was not difficult to imagine what the world looked like many thousands of years ago. The majesty and expanse of the ocean engulfed us and I knew at that moment that humankind needs no gods as long as we are open to the awe of the planet. As we stood at that railing, my daughter’s face cleared and the sun began its golden slant into the depths. And as if to press home what we already knew, a pod of about fifteen dolphins broke the surface of the glistening water and arched through the air not twenty feet in front of us. The dolphins looked at us and laughed. This is our home, they said. This is the way it is meant to be.
Posted March 2011