“Thirst” by Varsha Bajaj

thirst2

In middle grade novels, the main characters are typically concerned about making friends, fitting in at school, and, in recent years, adapting to new cultures. But with Varsha Bajaj’s new novel, Thirst, the main character, Minni, has a life-and-death situation on her hands: Mumbai’s water supply. As the title implies, water is scarce for Minni’s family and their neighbors in the poorest areas of the city.

Minni is twelve and goes to school with her best friend, Faiza. Minni’s family is Hindu and Faiza’s is Muslim. The two girls are as close as sisters and the families get along. The problems in their neighborhood stem from a lack of water—which is restricted to certain days and certain hours—and poor living conditions. As stated in the book, the slums where Minni lives receive 5% of Mumbai’s water, yet constitute 40% of the city’s population.

Scattered throughout the story are poems Minni writes in her diary. In one poem she writes about the importance of water to her community.

 

The water reaches out to the horizon,
as far as my eyes can see.
Sometimes the sea gently rolls,
rocking the fishing boats.
Other days it whirls and rises up,
smashing against the rocks.
They say water is life.
Does it know the trouble it causes?
The fights?
The lines?
The heartache?
Today, though, it’s calm.
Beautiful, like yards and yards of a blue sari
woven with threads of silver.
But what will tomorrow bring?

 

Thirst, Varsha Bajaj (Nancy Paulsen Books, July 2022)
Thirst, Varsha Bajaj (Nancy Paulsen Books, July 2022)

One night when Minni is out with her brother Sanjay and some friends, they notice a large tanker truck with a hose in the area’s water supply, siphoning it into the truck. Sanjay is several years older than Minni and is temporarily caught by someone in the water mafia responsible for this theft.

Sanjay gets away, but the family is worried this powerful mafia will find him and punish him for knowing about their theft. So Sanjay and his friend go into hiding on a farm outside New Delhi. As much as the family wishes to go to the police about the water theft, they feel helpless and worry the police will side with the mafia if they make a complaint.

Not long after Sanjay leaves Mumbai, Minni’s mother also departs the city to recover from an illness at the home of relatives in a rural area. With her mother gone and her family unable to live only on her father’s salary from running a tea stall, Minni heads straight from school each day to take up the responsibilities of her mother’s job as a housekeeper for a wealthy family with a girl her age named Pinky. The family’s living standards stand in stark contrast to Minni’s family’s shack, but it’s the access to water that is most noticeable to her.

 

I look around the bathroom. There is no bucket filled with water. Then Pinky turns on the tap, and to my astonishment, water gushes out. It flows freely in the middle of the day. Like it’s magic. The rich really do live in a different world.

 

The story is quick with more than forty short chapters. Between the water shortage, her never-ending quest to fill her mother’s shoes in her housekeeping job, and a chance discovery of the person behind the water theft, Minni’s story is a fine addition to middle grade fiction.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.