How far will you go in search of water? Mahalinga Naik recounts the unbelievable story of his journey through darkness, in search of the life-giving substance...
(Listen to the introduction)
So you are here…
You turned a couple of corners from the crumbling bus stop at Adyanadka. You walked down a muddy trail that cut through a cacao plantation. You waved back hellos at workers returning from their shift. You were startled by a charging monitor lizard that cut across the path. But he meant no harm. Then you were lost for a moment until a kind passerby set you off in the the right direction. You walked up a hill and heard the hornbills call out to the setting sun. There was a house and you walked right in. ‘I am Mahalinga Naik. I have been expecting you.’ Said a 70 year old man. You saw the smile that never left his face. ‘Lalita. My wife…’ said the man, introducing the woman who offered water in a steel tumbler and a bowl full of jaggery. You smiled to them and to yourself, wondering what incredible tale these two had for you.
You are here. Sitting on a concrete slab outside his house. In an obscure place called Amaya. Not a village. Not a town. Not anything in between. You are here to listen to a story. And Mahalinga Naik has one for you…
‘I had the most amusing job. I was supposed to climb trees all day. My employer paid me to go up his countless trees and bring back arecanuts. I did it everyday in the season – I was a daily wage worker. All I had was a little home, a family and the strength to climb up and down trees all day. Anybody who was well off in Amaya was either a business man or a farmer. I didn’t want a business. I simply wanted to be a farmer. I just needed some land.
As if the gods had been listening, one day, a kind man who owned much of the hills around here came to me and gifted me one and a half acres of land. ‘Keep this land and make something of it.’ He told me. I was overjoyed. So much so, I didn’t pause to ask myself what I would do with this land. ‘I will become a farmer. Grow my own Arecanut. Have my own plantation!’, I said to myself when the thought did occur. But there was another question that had to be answered – I had the land. But what about water?
The nearest water source was half a kilometre away, downhill. Even hauling up water for daily use was a laborious errand. I looked around – My land was hilly and dry. Nothing grew here. It offered nothing. Not even shade – But it was mine – And I believed there was a way around everything.
So I began to do what any man would do to extract water from the earth. I began digging.
People dig wells to find water. But I found the idea of a well impractical. Digging a well-required people and money – I had none. So I began to dig, alone. It was a well of a different kind – One that went sideways. It would require just one person. The spot I chose to start was right behind my house; a mud-wall that formed the base of a hill. I slowly began to carve out mud with my pick axe. I carved out a door of sorts into the hill, just about as tall as I was and wide enough for my shoulders to squeeze in if they were hunched up. Little by little, I dug into the hill. Soon, I could walk a few paces into this mysterious looking passage that was taking shape.
One day, I found myself standing 60 feet into this passage. It was pitch dark inside. The flame in my lamp had just flickered and died. I wiped the beads of sweat from my brow and realised I had taken one whole year to get here. Why did it take me one year?
Though I was making the steady progress of a few inches into my grand design everyday, I was still a daily wage worker and I still needed to make ends meet. So I would climb trees everyday, bringing down arecanut for my employer until late after noon. Then at 5 pm, I would start digging in the ‘Suranga’. I would dig late into the night; sweaty and tired as I went deeper. Sometimes, it became hard to breathe. So I would walk to the mouth of the tunnel to gulp in some fresh air before I returned. One day, my worried mother came to me and pleaded with me not to dig after 9 PM. From then on, I exited the tunnel at 9 pm. Everyday, I would make a progress of not more than a few inches…
You must be curious to know what I carried into the ‘Suranga’. I had with me, a pick axe, a shovel and a flower basket. The mud falling loose at my feet, I would fill it in the flower basket and pass over to Lalita, my beautiful wife. She would then place the flower basket filled with earth over her head and squeeze out of the tunnel before returning for another round.
Looking at how deep the tunnel was, I was pleased with our efforts. It seemed as if, at any moment, with just the next strike of my pick axe, a sparkling jet of water would spring out and stream out of the tunnel. Water did come. Not from the earth but from skies above, furiously, like an angered god. I woke up one day to see the tunnel had collapsed. One year of digging and moving earth had literally been washed away.
Oh don’t you feel bad for me. I was indeed miserable. But I had no time to wallow in failure. So I began digging again, in another place, into another hill.
Before I tell you about the second attempt. I must tell you about my source of light in the tunnels: I carried 3-4 ‘deepas’; tiny, oil lamps made with clay. The ones you would light at home during Deepawali. They were easy to carry and my best option as I would not carry kerosene or other lamps because they gave out smoke, which was bad in a confined area. I used coconut oil so there was no smoke at all. I carried the oil in a little alcohol bottle and refilled the lamps whenever they ran dry. The light was very feeble but just about enough to illuminate the wall before me. I placed the lamps along the passage so that Lalita would be able to see her way out. When I had to dig the roof sections, I would make a small hole in the wall and place the lamp in the pocket. I had not known darkness like this before. It didn’t matter what time it was. In here, it was always the darkest night.
Work on the second ‘Suranga’ began after the monsoon had passed. I chose another spot in my land and set to work. It was the same all over again – Climb Arecanut trees in the morning – return home at noon – step into the ‘Suranga’ with Lalita at night. Yet again, I was standing 60 feet into the hill. And yes, it took me another year to get here. The darkness here was no different than the previous tunnel. But something didn’t feel right. I found that there was no moisture at all in the mud. There was no sign of water. I had a feeling I wouldn’t find water in this tunnel. So I made a brave decision – I abandoned digging.
I hope you didn’t imagine I stopped digging altogether? I simply chose another spot to dig, further along the hill. This time, I felt great determination and carried on with some excitement. I got to 60 feet in a couple of months and then dug another 30 feet. At 90 feet into the ‘Suranga’, I found some moisture. I was happy. It was for the first time that I held a clump of moist earth in my fist. But for some strange reason, I didn’t feel that this tunnel would give me the amount of water I needed. No exact science, no great knowledge of the earth was guiding me, it was just a voice in my head. I listened to it.
Sometimes, you begin to wonder if the path you chose is the right one because you’re the only one on it. My tunnels had yielded nothing. Maybe I was wrong. So, like everybody else had done and found water, I started digging a well. So I dug under open skies, employing a method followed by the masses. Lalita did not have to make the rounds anymore. I did this for a few months. It took a lot of effort and progress was slow. I seemed to be going nowhere. And then I abandoned this effort, too. I was just going to do what I had become so good at – digging Surangas.
Lalita and I began all over again. This was our fourth tunnel. We had been digging and moving earth for years now. Hopeful that this one would bring us water, we carried on intently. At 70 feet in, the inevitable happened. We ran into a huge boulder. The earth is full of these. It was a miracle that we hadn’t hit one before. There was no way to navigate around the large boulder.
It took a large, immovable, unyielding boulder to break my resolve. I hadn’t felt so depressed before. By now, the word had spread all around Amaya. Everybody knew about my failed attempts. They came to me and said I should simply give up. If I had been digging for nearly 4 years in different spots and yet not struck water, It meant there wasn’t any water to be found. They told me it was a fool’s errand. Some of them sympathised. Some of them joked. One person said, ‘The only way you can bring water to this land is by urinating in it.
How far would you go for water? What would you do now if you were me?
At this point, I needed only to look at my growing kids to make a decision. I wanted them to grow up without difficulty. I wanted to become a farmer. I was done climbing trees. If only I had water, everything would change. My land would turn into a beautiful place. So I simply placed all my faith in god and walked to my beacon of hope – the fifth Suranga. I knew If I kept digging, I wound find water, regardless of what people said.
I felt incredibly positive as I commenced work energetically. After a couple of months of digging, I saw that at 50 feet, the ceiling had moisture. This was a good sign and the voice in my head said that If I dug another tunnel slightly above, I would find water certainly. And that is what I did; Immediately beginning the digging of the Sixth Suranga, I advanced quickly into the hill.
It took a few months to carve out a 75 feet long tunnel. I found traces of moisturenow and again. And then at last, I saw a faint trickle of precious, invaluable water , drip-dropping at my feet; a sliver of the most magical substance on earth. It was as wide as the ‘Beedi’ I smoked everyday. My efforts had paid off finally, it seemed. Until now, it had been instinct that had been leading me. I based my actions on hunches that made themselves evident. And yet again, I had had a thought coming to me. I suddenly wanted to branch out this same tunnel in another direction. Something told me I wound find more water in that direction, enough to water my plantation. I started digging at once. In another couple of months, I had dug out a further 65 feet into what was a 7th tunnel of sorts. I couldn’t stay in this passage for a long time as I would run out of breath very soon, since this ‘Suranga’ didn’t have a straight exit. As I toiled feverishly in anticipation, the moisture rose and now, the ‘Beedi’ had swelled to the girth of a Cigarette. This, I knew, was enough.
WATER, WATER, WATER! Happiness came over me like a boisterous, crashing, roaring wave…
Here I was, deep inside the belly of a hill. smiling the widest smile, my heart was flooded with joy. After more than 4 years of digging, I had finally struck water. After all the failed attempts, the questions, doubts and anxiety, my faith had been rewarded. Wide as a cigarette, a little stream that danced with life at my feet, it glistened golden in the failing light of my lamp. It appeared as though I was peering down at a rivulet of gold. But it was water. More precious than gold. Water! the stuff of dreams, the sole object of my desire, would now birth from this very spot and trickle out into the light, blowing the breath of life onto my land. It was all going to be alright!
Lalita – my unfailing rock, my unflinching companion in the dark, my strength and the bearer of my dreams, was overjoyed when I told her of the good news. We spoke about it with great joy until we fell asleep. The kind man who gifted the land came to me and said, ‘Now you have nothing to fear! Go on and grow your own crops…’. We had a priest coming to bless the ‘Suranga’. Everybody from the villages nearby visited to congratulate us.
I also built a water catchment to contain the water. Every time I went to work, I would carry back a single laterite brick everyday. Slowly, brick by brick, I built the structure to hold the water that was coming. All the previous Surangas? I made sure that effort did not go to waste. I closed up the entrances, but not before letting a pipe leading into the passages. This would allow rain water to flow inside through the pipe. This rain water would collect inside and seep into the land, ultimately making my ground water levels rise; this was good for my plants!
Look around you now, what do you see? Arecanuts, Cacao, pepper, bananas, coconuts, various vegetables – all growing in abundance, from that little stream. I slowly dug for another 6 years through the same passage. I went in as deep as 200feet. The little stream that is as wide as a cigarette, today, gives me 6000 litres of water, every day.
And that, is the story of how I found water…
Do you have one for me?
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to the Varanashi family at the ‘Varanashi Research Foundation’ for hosting us and contributing greatly to the making of this story.