Longlisted for the 2007 Man Asian Prize, a gripping debut novel about an Indian mining disaster as seen from the perspectives of the miners, their families, and the officials charged with rescuing them.
Written by a former director of the Indian Ministry of Coal, and loosely based on the disastrous flood at the Bagdihi colliery in 2001, which trapped and killed dozens of miners, The Sound of Water is written with both an insider’s authority and rare literary style. Its suspenseful narrative is presented from three perspectives: The old miner struggling to save himself and his coworkers hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth; the company and government officials charged with managing the rescue efforts, but who are seemingly far more concerned with managing their careers; and, finally, the miners’ families, who stand to gain life-changing sums as a consequence of their losses.
A searing fictional exposé of the appalling conditions that Indian miners endure and a moving story of the spiritual strength and conviction that enables one to survive against the odds, The Sound of Water dares to inaugurate “alternate realism,” a fresh genre very different from the soul-baring autobiographies and epic family sagas that have characterized so much of recent Indian fiction.
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide for The Sound of Water includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Sanjay Bahadur. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In a desolate region of India, hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth, the unthinkable happens: a group of workers becomes trapped when a mine floods. In this gripping debut novel, Sanjay Bahadur unfolds their story from three different perspectives: the miners themselves, their families, and company management.
Underground, the eccentric Raimoti, just months from retirement, draws on his years of experience in the hopes of leading himself and his fellow miners to safety. On the surface, family members of the doomed men wait for word of their fate, some with dread and others thinking of the life-changing sum of money they will receive as compensation in the event of a death. Responsibility for the miners’ rescue lies in the hands of company and government officials who are more concerned with how the crisis will affect their careers than they are with saving lives.
Loosely based on a real-life incident, The Sound of Water is both an exposé of the appalling conditions endured by Indian miners and the harrowing tale of a fight for survival—and about finding redemption in the face of an impossible situation.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. The Sound of Water is told from three different points of view—that of the miners, Raimoti’s family members, and the company and government officials responsible for their rescue. How does having these varied perspectives enhance the story? Which scenes did you find to be the most compelling?
2. What was your impression of Raimoti after reading the first chapter? Contrast what you come to know about him from the scenes in the mine with his family’s depictions of him. Why does Dolly so vehemently dislike Raimoti?
3. Discuss the reactions of Raimoti’s various family members to the news that he is trapped and presumed dead, particularly those of Tina, Madho, and Dolly, who “feels that she has just won a lottery” (page 145).
4. Did your initial perception of any of the characters, such as Birsa and Dolly, change after you found out more about their personal histories? If so, which ones and why? Did you empathize with Dolly at all given the hardscrabble circumstances of her life? Why or why not?
5. “All his life, winning hasn’t mattered, because he has been saving himself up for the one confrontation that he knows he is destined to have. He knows it will happen. He just doesn’t know how soon” (page 3). Why is Raimoti so certain that he will eventually hear the sound of water in the mine? What is the Beast that haunts Raimoti?
6. During a disaster, people often respond in different ways. For example, some take action, some freeze up, and others look for direction. How do the characters trapped in the mine each respond to their catastrophic situation?
7. Bibhash says to Karna, “In Mine Number Three, we…use the weakest, the most troublesome, and the least desirable of our workmen. It is a form of punishment” (page 32). Is this a fair assessment of Raimoti and his band of workers? Why do you suppose the author chose not to have more sympathetic characters be trapped in the mine?
8. Share your thoughts on the way marriage is presented in The Sound of Water, using Bibhash, Raimoti, and Madho and Dolly as examples.
9. “Raimoti is the antithesis of all that Madho believes in. Madho believes in himself; Raimoti is a believer in cosmic power” (page 132). How do Raimoti’s spiritual beliefs come into play during his final hours?
10. How do the company and government officials—Bibhash, Pandey, and Karna—react to the news that workers are trapped in the mine? Discuss how they handle the crisis and their attitudes towards one another as well as toward the miners.
11. What role does Ghosh, the labor leader, play in the rescue operation? Is he, like the company officials, more concerned with himself than with the recovery of the miners, or does he genuinely care for their well-being and that of their families?
12. In Chapter 7, Raimoti and Arif engage in a discussion about beliefs and histories. Discuss your interpretation of these.
13. The Sound of Water depicts a certain view of the place of workers in an industrial establishment and comments on the tenuous relationship between the laborers and the management. What do you think about this view?
14. Raimoti and Bibhash both want to get away from their lives, but their minds react in very different ways to the adversities they face. Compare and contrast their reactions.
15. Raimoti sees reality differently than the others around him. How does the narrative deal with this? Discuss.
16. What compels Bibhash to go down into the mine shaft and rescue Birsa? Do you believe, as do some of the bystanders who witnessed his actions, that he committed suicide? Why or why not?
17. What is the significance of the Epilogue? Why do you think the author ended the book with this scene?
Enhance Your Book Club
Take a virtual coal mine tour at www.commerce.state.il.us/dceo/Bureaus/Coal/Virtual+Tour.
Pair your reading of The Sound of Water with a nonfiction narrative such as Trapped: The 1909 Cherry Mine Disasterby Karen Tintori. How different are the lives of coal miners in the United States from those in India?
Meet at an Indian restaurant to talk about The Sound of Water, or prepare your own feast with recipes from www.epicurious.com/recipesmenus/global/indian/recipes.
A Conversation with Sanjay Bahadur
Q: What led you to begin writing fiction? Why were you inspired to tell the story of a mining disaster?
A: Storytelling is probably the oldest act of human creativity. I believe everyone has stories growing inside all the time. The world around stimulates our minds and creates thoughts. Sometimes these thoughts coalesce into a story that needs to be told to others. When that happens, you feel the urge to write it out. That’s what I felt when The Sound of Water grew inside me.
Events like a war or a disaster are so cataclysmic that they subsume the individual tragedies they entail. When I read real-life accounts of victims of a particular mining disaster I realized that such events were disasters only because they impacted individuals, their families, and friends. The flooding of the coal mine was just an occurrence—a backdrop. The real story was of the people affected by it. I felt even their remote stories also deserve to reach readers.
Q: “Working underground is hard on the body and harder on the mind,” you write in The Sound of Water (page 3). What research went into the novel? How were you able to render so vividly the appearance of the mine, as well as capture the psychological effects that working beneath the earth’s surface has on the miners? Do you have any first-hand experience with mining?
A: I was fortunate to have been associated with the coal industry for a few years as a Director in the Ministry of Coal. It afforded me the opportunity to visit several coal mines, interact with field engineers, managers, workers, and their families. The libraries of coal companies provided me ample reading and research material. But the greatest sources of my knowledge about underground mines were engineers and simple workers who provided me excellent company on the countless dreary evenings I spent in remote mining townships. There is a lot of loneliness out there, and they just need an interested ear for their tales to pour out.
Q: For many people, their knowledge of mining disasters comes solely from media reports. What would you like readers to take away from The Sound of Water?
A: Media reports give just newsworthy facts. The character of Raimoti was inspired by a report on a miner trapped underground for seven days and rescued miraculously after the water was pumped out. The media gave this news and a brief account of his deposition before the court of inquiry but nothing about the man who survived the ordeal or how his mind functioned in the days he spent underground, trapped in water.
The world of coal mining is so far removed from the lives of the average reader that most people would not connect with the miners or their families affected by such a disaster. Yet mining is a core economic activity like agriculture and deserves at least as much attention as say, stock-broking gets. In today’s world, public opinion is a great watchdog. The sidelined world of miners would only benefit from people connecting with them like they connect with lives of urban professionals. I hope The Sound of Water would make its readers think more deeply about the issues and problems that still need to be resolved in this sector the next time they read a small news article that says “miners killed in a disaster.” This will eventually influence policies in some positive way.
Q: What has been the reaction to The Sound of Water in India? Do you anticipate a different reaction from readers in America and other countries? What universal themes are in the story?
A: Indian readers, reviewers, and the general Indian media have received the book well. Each review so far seems to interpret the novel in a unique way. For a prominent weekly, The Sound of Water was a hard-hitting exposé of the apathy of the “system”; for another paper, it created a new “archetype of life,” while for one reviewer the book was a much-awaited social commentary on the lives of industrial workers. Some readers feel sorry about Bibhash, while others feel anger at his death and at how he is made a scapegoat. There are people who enjoy Dolly’s character and find her personal history engrossing. Some have found echoes of the Upanishads and Sufi philosophy in Chapter 7 and discovered humor in Raimoti’s caustic reductionism. So it appears different people find different things in this book.
I don’t anticipate a much different reaction to The Sound of Water in America or other countries. Despite the fact that the story is set in India, I believe the type of characters and their stories exist in other parts of the world. For example, I spent a few days in Wales—in places like Llanberis and Cardiff, which were closely associated with coal mining in the UK when the industry still existed. Friendly locals were full of stories about coal mines and miners, and I found many similarities between the lives of miners there and in my country. Another journalist friend from China read my book and wrote to me saying how she thought the characters and events depicted in the novel could have been easily based in China. That gives me hope that people in different parts of the world will relate to the book.
The themes of selfishness, greed, exploitation, manipulation, plight of workers, or systemic apathy are universal and vary very little across the globe.
Q: The Sound of Water is loosely based on the real-life flooding of the Bagdighi mines in east India in 2001. It has been said that you wrote itin part as an exposé of the horrific working conditions for miners in India. Do you hope to create awareness of this situation through the book and perhaps achieve some measure of reform?
A: Some reviews have said this, but I didn’t intend to depict that workers in Indian coal mines suffer particularly horrific working conditions. It is quite another matter that working in an underground coal mine anywhere in the world is a horrific job. In India, since the nationalization of coal industry in the 70s, public sector companies have made tremendous efforts to improve the standard of living and working environment in the mines. Substantial amounts have been effectively spent on the welfare of the miners and their families. Every attempt is made to bring more improvements, and the history of reforms is heartening. The Sound of Water shows a mining disaster. Such disasters occur everywhere—from South Africa to the USA, to Ukraine, China, and Australia. I have only shown how such accidents may affect individuals. Raimoti’s resilience—physical, emotional and spiritual—Bibhash’s defeatism, Dolly’s self-centeredness or Pandey ji’s devious opportunism are universal reactions. The only exposé intended was of the selfishness of people who are rarely concerned with the plight of victims in any tragedy—be it war or a coal mine disaster. The only reform I hope for is in our attitudes towards the suffering of those who may be inconsequential or peripheral in our lives but who also are real people with life histories, hopes and fears. I want to convey that in such situations, the apathy or fault is not so much of some “system”—public or private—as of individuals who deal with the situation. Perhaps someone other than Pandey ji would not have misused Bibhash’s death. Perhaps for someone other than Ghosh da the disaster would not be a game of political brinkmanship. The biggest tragedy in the book is the abandonment of the trapped miners by everyone: the trade union, the managers, representatives of the government and even family.
Q: What can you tell us about the character of Dolly? Do you expect that readers will be shocked by her attitude toward Raimoti’s death?
A: Dolly is not meant to be a likeable character, yet she may evoke understanding. She is what she is because life has treated her harshly and made her selfish, petty, and aggressive. The girl betrayed by Dr. Sen was not like the woman we see wishing for Raimoti’s death. In a way, she can’t be blamed for the way she thinks because she too is a victim - of her own circumstances. So readers may not be shocked by her attitude to Raimoti’s reported death even though they may not sympathize with her.
Q: Preceding the novel is an excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. What is it about this particular poem that resonated with you? Was the book title inspired by Eliot’s verse?
A: Eliot’s The Wasteland is a collection of complex poems that lends to an exciting array of interpretations. But the irrefutable underpinning of the work is the emotional and spiritual wasteland that existed in Europe after the First World War. Kariakhani mines are a similar wasteland. Almost everyone in it is suffering from decaying emotions and frayed spirituality. Life has mauled each character in some manner. The Wasteland also has a strong, elegiac undertone as it mourns the decay of life. I have tried to impart a similar feel to the prose in The Sound of Water. The excerpt in the novel talks wistfully about the absence of life-giving water, and yearns for even the sound of water in the rock-strewn wasteland. That sound represents hope. I have turned the phrase on its head and in my novel’s title, the sound of water spells doom.
Q: Given that your background has primarily been in India’s federal civil service, do you enjoy the more creative process of writing fiction? What is it that you like most about novel writing?
A: Every profession makes great demands on one’s mental faculties. Creative writing provides a release to the mind by allowing it to enter a world where cause and effect can be somewhat controlled by the author. That is a big relief if your profession deals with dynamics that verge on chaos.
The storyteller likes telling a tale as much as the listener likes hearing it. Writing a novel for me is expressing my beliefs and perception of life and sharing it with others in a way that is enjoyable. Writing forces me to take a second look at reality and add filters of imagination to it to extract its essence both for myself and my intended reader. Often, even I gain a new perspective after finishing writing a passage. Besides, I know of no cheaper way of enjoying a free afternoon than quietly writing in a corner.
Q: What was your reaction when you found out The Sound of Water was long-listed for the Man Asian Prize in 2007?
A: I started preparing an acceptance speech. Soon its length became intimidating. Fortunately, I didn’t have to deliver it. I can be blindly optimistic at times.
Q: You’re currently working on your second novel, which is set during the Great Indian Revolt of 1857. Why did you choose this time period? What can you tell us about the storyline?
A: Actually, only the culmination of my next novel coincides with the Great Indian Revolt of 1857. It originates about a quarter century earlier and gives a personalized interpretation of a tumultuous period in the history of a great Indian tribe called ‘Santal.’ This tribe, like tribes across the world, came in contact with modern civilization and suffered. Their natural way of life was threatened by people and forces they had no comprehension of. The mainstream society represented by landed elite and the East India Company first tried to isolate them and then started to encroach upon them. The Santals had no understanding of modern politics or economics and could not integrate with the mainstream society. In the end, the Santals did what any people pushed into a corner would do: they rebelled. The rebellion was crushed by the East India Company by slaughtering more than 30,000 Santals over a period of few months. It was an effective, though brutal, way of establishing supremacy of modern civilization. So far, those events have been largely sidelined by history. I want to accord them a more respectable place in people’s minds. I have tried to convey these historical events through dozens of intertwined stories of individuals. Hopefully, some readers will also connect it with subalternist or peasant revolts in modern day that plague many parts of the world, including India. It is history repeating itself. As a novelist, I want to flag this fact and make people think about the reasons for unrest among the marginalized sections of our societies.
Sanjay Bahadur has advanced degrees in economics and business administration and has been a member of the Indian Civil Service since 1989. From 2000 to 2004 he was a director in the Indian Ministry of Coal, where he observed the Bagdihi disaster close-up; today he works in Goa, where he is Additional Commissioner of Income Tax. He is hard at work on his second novel, which will be set during the Great Indian Revolt of 1857.