Wednesday, February 28, 2024


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GREEN CARDAMOM/Gaurangi Maitra


WATER, QUENCHING, life-giving, binding, dissolving, indispensable, Mickey Mouse molecule. Its large, central oxygen molecule with the two equidistant, smaller hydrogen molecules at a 108 degree angle, reminds me irresistibly of my favourite cartoon characters face. The escapades of this molecule are almost as diverse.

Life probably began in the oceans, in its water based primeval soup. In the story of life, early entities were solutions surrounded by a lipid layer. Thus creating a special drop that in future could become a cell precursor. Into this simplistic beginning, somewhere along the line, slipped energy creating and capturing units, the mitochondria and chloroplasts. Tiny units in a vast in an ocean that later acquired the potential to multiply and create life as we know it.

Water seemed to play hide and seek as land forms emerged and submerged. Creating seas, oceans, gulfs, bays, estuaries, deltas, rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, brooks that “come from haunts of coot and hern…” These holdings of water broken up by land masses small or big became receptacles of precipitation linking Earth, sky and atmosphere. Add evaporation to this scenario and we have the water cycle through which every molecule of water eternally cycles. Therefore is there anything called fresh water? Bottled or precipitated, these molecules have surely been here, at least once in their 4 billion year sojourn in the earth. No pin up model looks more alluring, no Mona Lisa more mysterious, no work of art more beautiful, no photograph more mesmerizing than our blue planet photographed from space. This blue is beautiful, thanks to its 75% water content. This is no frozen, blue, lifeless outer solar system planet.

This is water driven, vibrant living earth. On its crust, in its pools and seas, life has evolved into myriad forms and varieties that has only one word for it – leela! Water is home to aquatic organisms, highways of travel and commerce, routes of migration and diaspora, nurseries to nurture young fry, free for all food mart. Sea worlds that carry on a large share of photosynthetic activity; fixing carbon, releasing oxygen fuelling the food webs that encompass the terrestrial, aquatic  and aerial habitats.

As its physical, lattice structure changes, along with change in temperature, this strange molecule is now ice, now liquid water, now vapour. In all its forms it is life supporting! One of the most enduring cartoon pictures is a small penguin fishing in a hole cut in the Antarctic ice. As winter temperatures drop in the northern and southern oceans, they become covered in floating, frozen water. Below this frozen roof, liquid water flows free and life-preserving. It is the same ice that in its various avatars that clinks in crystal glasses; was brought by series of runners from the mountains to the Moghul courts, to cool sherbets in summer: lent its coolness to that American creation the ice cream. If applying for a patent, would the kulfi win out?

Then, slow to heat; slow to cool; even tempered cooling of the coastal areas by land and sea breeze. The dark, dense water filled monsoon clouds bringing succour to a parched land! Filling rice fields, replenishing ground water, bringing summer heat down, making peacocks dance, making fish and frog lay eggs. Did one hear t the echo of the Megh Mallar in their calls?

Once, long ago, I spent a magical evening, with a friend, listening to the rhythm of the falling rain. The Megh Mallar wove in and out as the clouds chased each other and then drew back the curtains to reveal a star spangled sky. The stars shine down on wave-lapped seashore. Shell bejeweled mollusks play in this natural water park. Their design, perfected over millions of years, have kept strange aquatic chimera to the mighty whale company in the ocean depths or the sandy seashores. Till strange two legged creatures picked them and blew into them… Panchyajanya Hrishikeskha! Or she who launches thousand ships to fight for dominion over land and sea. The armada and pleasure yachts rode this unpredictable medium. A medium that caresses you as you swim or pulls you down as you drown. It can be a titanic waterloo, a flood bringing both silt and destruction. Sometimes named Brahmaputra, the son of the creator or Yangtze Kiang the river of sorrow or lyrically the Subansiri. On the plains watered by these waterways, grew pharaoh and commoner, civilizations and fiefdoms. The songs of the boatmen rose and fell as sheets of water moved their boats.

Allusions to water and rituals would fill a dictionary. By water cradled, by water baptized and blessed, water remains a congenital, all pervading metaphor throughout life. In life, language, in symbol, in art, in ritual, in religion, it is a fundamental part. Water becomes holy, acquires divine attributes and is universal solvent enough to dissolve sin! Among the many songs my mother sang, the Ganga Stotra remains an all time favourite with me. From   modern industry to ancient sin, water in this Ganga seems to absorb it all. Along with fire, air and earth, water was considered one of the four elemental factors in ancient times. It cools the raging temper of fire; combines with air to power the carbon fixation in photosynthesis, producing food to feed a planet! On earth, it carves cut rocks into submission; erode edifices; plays the destroyer in tsunamis or swamp its beloved in tides and rain! The blessing of sweet water rises up through wells, filtered by the layers of soil. It climbs up plant vascular tubes bringing nutrient rich soups to feed the autotrophic factory. Water becomes champagne as it journeys through grapes. It gets captured in the breath taking beauty of ice crystals as winter freezes our breath! In the cataclysmic birth of stars, as gases flowed out and compressed, hydrogen and oxygen combined to form water in those warm, dense clouds.

We touch water, unseeing, blind, indifferent, every moment of our lives, yet no diamond is more precious than a single drop of water! This is no pleasure cartoon character; it is our very life force! ([email protected])


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