By Sumana Roy

Artwork by Haris Hidayat Ullah

July 4th 2021

“For a tear is an intellectual thing.”
William Blake

They are beating water. They are beating water with a hammer. I wake up with this sound in my ears. I yawn to be sure that I’m awake. I don’t know whether people yawn in their sleep. I don’t know many other things—whether the body wakes up before the mind, or whether it is possible to beat water with a hammer. But they’re beating water with a hammer. The ears must be the most alert part of our bodies? I’ve heard water speaking in different dialects before. From the sound of it being poured, I can make out how far water in a glass is from the brim; I hear buckets in neighbouring flats overflow; I hear leaking taps, disobedient drops falling to the floor from the mouth of a tap, unhurt; I hear sweat collect into drops; I hear saliva move inside mouths; I hear water breathe and sleep. But this is a different water. They are beating water.

I walk out of my rented room. Outside, there’s the light, reluctant to announce itself as if it were a guest. The wind is just the opposite, seeking attention. Both invisible, invincible. What is visible is water—the river Teesta, swollen like an overworked muscle, twitching, like a nerve. But where’s the hammer? I look, but with my ears. There is the regular rhythm of water falling on water to the earth, where everything must collect.

When I get out of bed—and from the dream where I was caged all night—the world is in motion. In towns and cities, that motion is triggered by time. Here, where I’ve come to escape time’s fundamentalism, it is not time that is causing motion, for water is the last of the revolutionaries, having managed to live indifferent to time. As life moves to time elsewhere, in the cities of the world I’ve set out to leave behind me, things move to water, its flow. I do not fail to notice that both time and water flow—perhaps it is this that abets and causes motion?

There are no mirrors in this house, and so I do not see any humans. I do not know the antonym of ‘human’, but whatever it is, it is for this that I have come here. For me, the opposite of humans is water. It is perhaps because I feel related to water, related as in being a relative. Every time I’ve tried to say this to someone, they’ve dismissed or interpreted this as a ‘poetic’ reflection. I’ve seen doctors who’ve dismissed it as a phase—like teenagers who fancy themselves as their favourite crushes on their T-shirts— and others who’ve told me that there was nothing to worry about feeling like that, for humans are indeed composed mainly of water, more than three-fifths of us. But no one really understands.

The drizzle has stopped though I can see its ruins—on leaves, floors, tarpaulin. That water can fall anywhere without breaking its bones is a slap to the superiority of vertebrates. I wonder whether water, if it were animal, would be mammal or aves. Are these raindrops eggs then, or corpses?

I am water not because I long to flow. I am water because no metal, no air, no music, nothing can hold my sadness like water. Water fills a teardrop like air fills a yawn. The elements rush in when they sense emptiness. My fingers are on my face again. If water could leave fossils, I imagine that this is how they’d look—these marks coursing down my face. They disappear, but not the sadness. Perhaps it is my fossil.


It might have all begun with dehydration. My days in the hospital were marked by the aloneness of being inside the womb of a dark room, but without the water of the womb that enables life. Bottles of saline water hung like benevolent angels beside me, keeping watch over my life. I could see them even in the darkness—the fluorescence of water inside a plastic bottle. I heard them coax life into me, drop by drop, as if I was being created anew. I lay on my back, my spine dividing the bed like a book, thinking of strangers—writers whose words still hadn’t left me, co-passengers whose words had stuck as spit does on walls. That is the thing about sadness—its extremism, its intrusiveness, that leaves space for nothing. Sadness changes us unrecognisably even as we appear the same to the world. Humans, after all, are not like the sky—one cannot tell the climate of feelings from its body and colour. Dark clouds do not appear like boils on human bodies to indicate sadness. It was hard to believe that it was crying that had left me dehydrated.

Any piece of wood becomes sweet-smelling when left in the proximity of sandalwood: this is a saying in Bangla. Left beside water for days, hearing it trickle drop by drop into my body, I became an embodiment of that. The thought of organ transplants never left me, as if this water would replace my sadness, my body’s largest organ. I could not think of it as anything but water—it came out of me as tears, snot, and sweat, the last in moments of panic and anxiety, when I felt this fear would corrode everything.

I felt it inside me as one does water, in its various states, moving inside me like water, me trying to push it out as if it were gaseous, but it was like ice, solid and heavy, territorial, refusing to move, immobilising me, every thought and action.

I longed for a hammer that’d allow me to break it into pieces just like the ice-candy man scraped ice.  I hoped for this new water from the drip to take its place, as rain cleans the air, to fill me with life as I imagined life should be: without pain. I thought of the agents of my sadness—those I’d loved, whose understanding had now disappeared. As if I’d suddenly turned into a foreign language. I imagined their sadness as well, even as I knew that it was different from mine. I saw theirs from the outside, and recognised it from their words and gestures. From the self-centredness that suffering brings, I understood only the obvious: if sadness were a species, I belonged to its phylum.

Life with watercolour, I see now, was also a life with water.

What I loved most about watercolour was what I loved most about water—its unexpectedness of flow and behaviour. Even after all these years, I couldn’t be completely sure how a dab of the brush would behave on the canvas. It could spread beyond my imagined prediction, or it could remain still, like the skin of a drying pond. That was how sadness settled inside me even though I still can’t tell whether the sadness was inside or outside. Watercolour changed my perception of language. Surface tension—the physical property of water that explained its behaviour on the canvas—I now saw only as ‘tension’. Paint I came to read and hear as ‘pain’.

Like people, sounds and things and expressions had begun disappearing from my life. Cohabitation meant living with, living beside. My long history of living beside water, as it helped me understand the world on canvas, and then the interminable days of lying beside the relentless drip, reminded me of possible older lives—memories stored inside the gene, like a safe deposit that would remain unused until needed. My immediate ancestors had made a life in the alluvial plains of Bengal—my mother’s paternal family on the Gangetic delta, my father’s by the Padma. In this, they were related to the first humans who built settlements by the river. I hoped that that ancient sense of water, its blood and its carefree individualism, had trickled into me in some way. They had known water simply as water; as neighbour, not as something imagined, like ice or gas. This intimacy with water had marked their relationships—not just fluidity and flow, but a natural transparency and constancy. But the river was only a memory inside me—a human memory, of calls of fear by my great grand-people, of delight in its offerings, of the sound of splashing, of rolling abundance, and also of drowning. Why has the river stopped flowing after entering me? How have I become its station?

There is nothing we own as deeply as pain. That is perhaps why we’re reluctant to let it go. I’m often unable to distinguish myself from my sadness. It is not like looking in a mirror, where I know I am related to the person looking back at me, who moves when I do, who walks away when I do. That sadness can have a body and breasts and fingers and a stomach that moves in all four directions is still new to me, even after all these years. For it is hard to imagine sadness. An infant might be able to imagine many things, perhaps even its hair blowing in the wind, but it can’t imagine sadness. 

Why am I sad?

Trying to answer this question is like looking for a black stone from amidst a large pile of black stones—the answer is there, but not identifiable to me. If I knew which stone it was, I’d throw it far away, beyond the reach of the strength of my arms and the power of my eyes. I think of possible reasons for my sadness—I pile them together like those black stones. When they topple over inside my head, I arrange them differently, like books on shelves, but nothing helps. I only feel it inside me. Sometimes, I rub my chest as if sadness were a lump that would dissolve and melt inside me. But I can’t touch it.

I feel that I’ve let sadness turn to god, the way god is invisible but everywhere. Like Hindu gods, sadness is also form-changing. The pestle pounding between my breasts transforms into a leech in my throat, and soon into water in my eyes. I touch the water and stare at it sometimes. For even though it might look like the same water, the sadness is always different. Like water, like god, like a caterpillar, it is always changing form. I struggle to remember why I was sad yesterday or why I cried all night last week. When I am exhausted by its ingratitude at my having given it a home to stay, I want to throw it out. Instead, I hide it from the world as if it were a secret love.

I try to remember when I first made its acquaintance but I fail. It seems I’ve known it for as long as I have known my mother. Or life. Because I don’t tell anyone about it, I cannot seek their assistance. Once or twice, a friend who sensed the wildlife of my tears over the phone, says, ‘Maybe you should see a doctor? I have a friend who benefitted from…’ I struggle the most at that moment—her words are like a laxative inside my gut, they push my sadness out violently. My face is in my hands then—I have to hide my tears from the world. I have no idea why hiding my face seemed necessary at that moment. I am embarrassed. I feel guilty.

I always feel guilty for being sad.

Happiness missionaries are everywhere—on my bookshelves, in my phone, in notes I have copied and written to myself. Life seems to be only about joy, about participating in ananda, in pleasure, in happiness—everything we do ought to be directed towards that sole aim. Sadness is life’s outcast, and those like me are therefore life’s outcasts too.

Why tears are more private than laughter, I don’t know. I will not be able to recognise my tears, in spite of having known them for so many years, ever since I was born. They are not like blood and its groups. If they were, we might have been able to know about the group that constituted the saddest people.

When a friend asks what sadness feels like, whether it’s permanent, (‘Like paralysis?’), I try to think of an appropriate metaphor and fail—‘It’s like a niggling cough inside you. You feel it there, inside your chest, waiting to come out all the time’.

Nothing helps. Nothing helps. For everything might have a language—some kind of language—but sadness doesn’t. It is pre-linguistic, and hasn’t evolved since then. That is another thing that I think about often. That sadness might be my only connect with my oldest ancestors. My body, with deposits of pollutants, might not be related to theirs, their reasons for joy must have been different from mine, but I think it is our sadness that makes us true relatives.

I refuse to see a doctor.

A friend says: ‘You must change a shoe that pinches’.

It is not the fact of my sadness being compared to a shoe that irritates me. It is their assumption that sadness can be replaced. Everyone seems to have a vague idea about what that replacement might be, but they can’t be quite sure—a spare tyre replaces a similar tyre; will another kind of sadness replace this sadness?

Sadness paralyses. It is because the water freezes. How does it move then? I pose this as an anonymous question to a suicide prevention website and someone writes back immediately. I imagine the responder to be a woman, and soon after, a machine. ‘Try origami—take paper and try to fold it into a shape that resembles your sadness. Write to us after you’ve done that. Being able to do that is half your work done.’ I recoil from the aggressive tone, this ridding of sadness now so integral to me, as close as a biological child. The annoyance passes, but the thought loiters in my consciousness. I bring old newspaper and turn to my fingers—they’ve fed and cleaned me all my life, won’t they bring me some calm if they can? Stars and birds, flowers and balloons—everything can be created from folding paper, so at that point it appears that this is how god created the world, merely by folding. I’ve only ever made boats before—folding squares into triangles and pulling them inside out gently until the likeness of a boat emerged. It was a surprise every single time—the genius of folds, of lines and planes, sticking without water’s glue. And yet, no matter how much my boat-making improved with practice, the tiny boat never managed to sail without capsizing. The thinness of paper, even with its softness, fails to find appropriate support in a partner like water, it being without a spine itself. Is sadness the paper I’ll have to fold into a boat, or the water on which the boat must sail?

My heart feels like a boatman trying to boat on a dried river.

I cry in the shower. Water washing water, as if water were excreta—the way I heard my grandmother say bishey bishkhoy, poison kills poison. Water runs over me, touching me in places where even light struggles to enter. I close the tap from time to time but cannot leave. Water is a magnet—I know I should leave for dryness, for warmth, but I stand there waiting for more water. I am aware of my aloneness, I feel like a seed. It was possible that all seeds are as lonely as the mango stone. Loneliness had turned them hard and unwelcoming of every kind of touch, whether of blade or tongue or teeth. The opposite of this was the papaya—seeds that were soft and silky and naughty, this joy coming to them from living in a commune inside: a hundred blackish seeds. That is why hair too is never lonely—it struggles for space, but is never in want of company. The heart, on the other hand, is completely alone. One heart, one penis, one vagina. But two breasts. Was there a moral in this?

Was water as lonely as me? I wouldn’t ever know, so dependent was I on this body and its inability to migrate to anything besides itself. I hated my thoughts and wanted to be rid of them. In fact, I wanted to be rid of myself. I questioned all my thoughts and actions as if they were someone else’s, even an enemy’s. I did not realise that I was lonely—I did not understand that my loneliness had pitted me against myself. It was a surprise, what I had become—like a wet and fierce wind that carves rocks, so that what we see is actually the remainder after the tussle between stone and wind, I was now a leftover of my sadness.

Sadness slows down everything—it survives on echoes, for everything returns over and over again. It stammers inside, trying hard to get out. It becomes like a port of the heart, and mind that they always return to. Compared to other emotions, its pace is slow—but slow only horizontally, for it moves southwards like water does through soil. Other emotions, like the roots of trees, feed on sadness urgently. They change immediately, for sadness is a powerful catalyst: it changes its surroundings without itself changing. I try to understand sadness through physics—taking away a piece of brick will result in exactly the same volume of air taking its place. The disappearance of a person leaves sadness that is far greater than the physical volume of the person. How does that happen? Science fails, I fail. To carry the size and weight of sadness that is bigger and heavier than one’s body; it was sadness that Sisyphus was trying to push up the mountain. I have this image: I’m standing at the top of a hill, about to jump off, but I can’t. I think it is sadness that glues me to the spot for sadness is an addiction.

I’ve become a parasite to this sadness. I must remain alive to keep my sadness alive.

I don’t know why they call it stream-of-consciousness. Lately, every time water from my paintbrush has leaked onto the canvas, that phrase has come up. Information doesn’t interest me—they are like nails that break for being too long, the fact of this phrase coming from William James’s revolutionary book. Did he actually mean stream of sadness when he said consciousness? Was he sad when he coined the phrase? But at times it doesn’t feel like a stream but a waterfall—water hurting water, sadness hitting sadness.

I’m teaching my nephew to draw water. Next to him is a box of watercolours. We are rubbing water—with a brush, of course—on a blue tablet to produce blue water: adding water to produce water, a version of sexual reproduction as it were, humans producing humans, plants producing plants, like producing like. (That is the nature of reproduction: to produce versions of oneself. Only the sun is different. We, in all our varied forms, are its offspring, but we don’t resemble it.)

The little boy takes the brush and pulls it from one end of the page to the other until its bluish stains mark the page. He promptly calls them water’s pimples. He’s angry when I laugh at his diagnosis. Scolded, I ask for a cure—water, he says, and pours the entire bowl on the page, and, of course, the drawing book. The flooded page is put under a patch of sunlight. There it dries unequally, crinkling, losing its flatness.

We imagine land as we do water—flatness pleases us, it makes us feel powerful. Sharp undulations, prickliness, bristliness—they trouble us. This comes to us from our body which wants smooth surfaces; even a tiny grain of sand can keep us awake. The eye, like our back, seeks plain surfaces. There is aaram in looking at a straight line instead of jagged lines. But water is neither straight nor jagged. It is a moving line. The closest approximation of water’s movement on land is that of ants moving in a line, untouched by the push and rush of time. For many things move water—feet and machines, pumps and pipes, but time has no power over water’s movement. Time cannot move water, like it cannot move sadness.

Another day we try again. This time land is sandwiched between two blocks of blue—water and sky. One of these he can see—and so it is not hard for him to be faithful: he looks outside the window, the blue sky is squatting there as always. He needs no tutoring, no demands are made on the imagination. Blue must be coloured blue.

But water, silent in the bowl next to him, is colourless. Why must he colour it blue? It is a lie, he thinks. I try to paraphrase the Raman effect for him, but it’s like chanting a mantra to prove the existence of god.

Water can be any colour, he says, and then demonstrates—dipping the brush into the colours one by one, letting it leak and dissolve into the bowl. Water collects all the colours.

There’s nothing more accommodative than water. It is more elastic than even the human heart.

‘Making a bucket is a lot of work. Anything that holds water demands a lot of work.’

It is Rath-yatra, and I’m at a small fair that accompanies it every year. The fairs of my childhood are gone—clay, iron and tin toys have now been replaced by plastic. Almost everything squeaks, or runs on battery. I’ve come here to buy clay utensils—miniatures, toys for children. Utensils, fruits and vegetables, even houses with sloping roofs—most of these things don’t exist anymore, not even in villages. They are a part of folk memory, on their way to turning into nostalgia, a space as inert as a museum. This man sits in a corner. He is a remainder, and reminder, from an older time, when men trusted their hands, and when they blamed their poverty on destiny and not the government.

In front of him are three kinds of things: kulo, boti, balti, the first for winnowing, separating grain from husk, the second a kind of flat bladed knife, used by sitting on the floor; the third is a toy tin bucket. For the bucket he asks for twenty rupees. Scared that I might bargain, he adds: ‘Anything that holds water demands a lot of work’.

It is folk knowledge that it always rains on the day of Rath-yatra. But there is not a cloud in the sky. That humidity which makes rain possible has landed on earth,. Around me is a blind crowd, blind because, like me, they do not know where we’re all going. We’re being pushed, and are pushing each other without will. We are sweating, we have become clouds. People are eager to touch the rope that pulls Jagannath and his siblings. It is endearing, this sacredness of a rope, how belief transforms the common into a thing of wonder. It is what love does too.

I notice that the priest who’s sitting in the ‘ground storey’ of the Rath is carrying a black umbrella.

But the rains don’t come. It is as if we’ve become skies—water is flowing out of us relentlessly.

The man’s words don’t leave me—how difficult it is to create anything that holds water. I kept thinking of god as the old man spoke, and how hard it must have been for him to design our eyes that hold tears. ‘Because you can’t carry water in everything after all.’

I’ve watched time lapses of water solidifying into ice. It is still a thing of wonder for me, for I was born into a household that did not have a fridge until I was seven. It was a magic machine. The magician P.C. Sorcar visited Siliguri almost every winter. We watched him cut human bodies into pieces and put them back together, the people, who were dead only a while ago now walked back to their seats in the auditorium. I thought of the fridge as akin to the magician—it could change unwieldy, liquid water into solid square cubes. But, like Sorcar, the fridge kept its technique hidden from me—it would freeze water only with its door closed.

These time-lapse videos affect my body. I find that I swallow my saliva more often. I see water freezing into ice and I imagine this is how pain coagulates into sadness inside me. I remember looking at the icy peaks of the Himalayas from the balcony of my rented apartment overlooking Darjeeling’s Happy Valley Tea Estate. When I couldn’t see them clearly, I realised it wasn’t just my clinical myopia but the water in my eyes, which surprised me with its inexhaustibility.

At first I dip just my head in the old iron bucket. It is cold—the water feels like metal, cold, solid, and resistant to any entry. When I force my head in, it tries to expel my head out of the bucket. I try again—I push my head in and then pull it out when the resistance seems too strong to bear. My head doesn’t learn to swim.

One thing I take from this with some relief, even joy, is how water drowns out and distorts almost all surrounding sound. For a moment, perhaps because of the unexpectedness of the impact, it drowns out the sounds inside my head as well. I immediately begin thinking of this as a cure—this dunking my head in water every time sadness paralyses me. I remember my mother pouring water on my head and forehead to bring down my fever. I will trust in water too.

Later, as the day wears warmer clothes, I walk to the river and sit on a rock. My feet enter the water. The river doesn’t push back like the water in the bucket. Head and feet—these are our extreme points, where tiredness accumulates the fastest. But how different the aches, and how different their cures. The water, even though it is colder than my body, as it mostly is when we meet in natural conditions, doesn’t seem as foreign to my feet as it did to my head. I do not know why. All my life I have allowed the water poured over my head to run to my feet.

I read that the Indus Valley civilisation came to an end because of water shortage. Civilisations can end because of water. Can sadness end for the same reason?

I am sleepy.

Sleep feels like a pencil whose nib breaks every day. The history of hurt remains unrecorded.


Sumana Roy is the author of How I became a Tree, a work of nonfiction, Missing: A Novel, Out of Syllabus: Poems, and My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories, a collection of short stories. She is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University.

Haris Hidayat Ullah is an illustrator and a visual artist with works rooted in critical thinking, cultural phenomena and the absurd. He’s been involved with projects like Red Bull Radio, The Fearless Collective and has headed illustration workshops at the British Council Library, conducted art history workshops and exhibit at Rabtt. His collaborative initiative RTF Studio is shaping a diverse musical landscape. Additionally he has also been a speaker at TEDxGCU, where he gave his talk Navigating Through Self. Currently, he runs his artistic project called Lewanay delving into his surroundings, experiences and identity. Haris is also an Art Director in the fashion industry leading various editorial campaigns and visual storytelling.