the floods: near Raichur last week

sparrow

Women and children milled about the back of the truck. There were men on top handing down stuff: rice, stoves, packets of biscuits of which a child got two instead of the ration of one and she giggled to her mother. Women went in twos and threes for short conversations with the policeman by the side of the truck. He wore brown khakis, and crimson-and-yellow prayer marks above the brow. A sprinkling of trees cast circles of jagged shade. At the start of the street, where the truck stood, on the riverside, bamboo poles and palm fronds had smashed into the trees and the fronds were hugging the trees tight. The poles and palms had been huts two weeks ago. People had been living in them. I passed the debris to speak to a woman who stood in her home at a height from me, her rations at her feet. Being on the street I had no roof over me; well within her home she had no roof either. The roof and the walls were a blue-grey-red heap on the plinth and her dwelling was a small clearance on it. Where do you sleep? “Here,” she said. We turned to the truck; the men who’d been on it had climbed down and they were having the policeman ceremoniously give away a plastic orange-colored water-carrying vessel to a woman. They took a picture with a little digital camera. When I turned toward the river I saw the menfolk of the village in the distance—digging trenches, it seemed. When I folded my hands to take leave of the woman I searched her squinting eyes for bitterness, or sadness, or anger, for any feeling at all, but after two weeks emotion had dried in her. She smiled when I smiled. The other women smiled too, who were returning with their rations to their plinths.

The only sounds were when people spoke, and they spoke in such subdued tones. The trees were still. The sun was upon the entire broad back of the river, which now flowed where it belonged, and it blazed a blinding white, and radiated the quiet of innocence. From the edge of the dwellings, high stalks of paddies were bent into the water and drowned in silence, all the way to where the hazy hills blocked their run. Sweat broke through with the slightest exertion and dried at first pause, leaving salt crackling on the skin. All round me the sun was burning the landscape without noise. After I’d walked five minutes a little fellow stopped me who was so small, I could’ve held two of him in one hand. He was no more than four feet away, his thin feet clasping a tall, thinner stalk. He spoke a long time, throwing his head high, tossing it right and left, twisting his neck all round, sometimes looking direct at me with severe black eyes. He didn’t pause once, not even at the deafening firing of my camera. I wished him to go on, even though he’d spoken a long time, but, once decided, his last chirp was firm, and he rose and curved right and flew away, leaving a rough beating sound in his wake. I lingered and stared at the stalk where he’d been. It twitched and fell silent.

And I became aware again, of the heavy hum of laden trucks laboring on the highway.