Growing up in North London before the Second World War, my mother and her family had an outhouse in the garden and used the public baths down the street to bathe and do their laundry. The Prince of Wales Baths, built in 1900, are in use today as the newly renovated Kentish Town Sports Centre, run by the London Borough of Camden. For at least a couple of decades after the War, there were many Londoners who did not have full bathrooms in their houses. They washed at the kitchen sink, shared a single lavatory on one of the landings, and still went down to the public baths.
Renting rooms as college students in London during the 1970s, we had to feed 10p coins (still called florins or two-bob bits despite the new decimal currency) into the gas meter for hot water, paying as we went. We had to keep a stock of them handy at all times, because it is one of the worst experiences imaginable when the water suddenly goes stone-cold halfway through a bath. The housing stock was old, and few homes were centrally heated, so we counted on a hot bath at night, followed by a running jump into sheets pre-heated with a hot water bottle.
Living in the United States, I have succumbed to the speed and efficiency of showers. Luxuriating in a tub bath is a once-a-month treat, if that. But I miss this relaxing evening ritual and enjoy it whenever I am visiting my family in England. “I’m running your bath, Jo,” my cousin Sue will say, “and then we’ll snuggle up and watch Ghost, with Patrick Swayze and a nice cup of tea.”
People accustomed to showering, particularly Americans, tend to look askance at British bathing as an unhygienic practice, and perhaps it was, rather, in the past, when several members of a family in succession might use the same bathwater to economize on hot water (and on florins). But it is always possible to rinse off with fresh water after one’s soak in the tub, and my cousin Lesley told me that her mother always made her rinse with cold water, “to close the pores.” To this day I try to follow this sound—and bracing—advice, but I must admit that I usually lose my nerve and settle for a cool or lukewarm rinse.
In India the bath is a mandatory morning ritual, and the day cannot properly begin until one has had one’s refreshing and purifying bath. Certainly one cannot break one’s fast before bathing. Most middle-class Indians—at least until recently, when more people have showers—would bathe with one bucket of hot water from an on-demand water heater called a “geyser.” My favorite morning baths have been in our family home in Ratnagiri, where, at first light, Mai-atya’s young companion (she never considered the young women who lived with her to be servants) would light a small wood fire in the old copper boiler to heat just enough water for everyone’s baths, if we were economical. That boiler has been there since my father’s youth, and is still going strong today. I would wake to a cup of tea and the smell of wood smoke, and when my turn came, would step out of the house and into the attached washroom, where I would fill a stainless-steel bucket with the desired mix of cold water from the 55-gallon drum and hot water from the boiler, and, sitting on the low wooden bath stool, soap up and rinse with a plastic pouring mug dipped into the bucket.
In Delhi’s intense summer heat before the arrival of the moonsoon rains, the trick was to bathe, dry, and dress oneself before getting into a sweat again. The strategy I developed was to rinse with cold water, and then dry off and dress under a fan. Inevitably, though, one was soaked through within minutes of completing the whole procedure, so one had to take two or three baths a day, especially in late May and June.
At boarding school in Darjeeling during the worst times of drought before the monsoons, the school swimming pool had to serve as our water supply. We were rationed to one mugful for our faces and teeth in the mornings and two three-minute (cold) showers a week, with an older girl standing outside to make sure that we did not linger past our allotted time.
The sheets were so cold at night in the stone building that housed the girls’ dormitories that we needed hot water bottles to take the chill off them. To fill our bottles we had to venture down into the cavernous kitchens, where water for the next morning’s porridge was bubbling in massive industrial-sized cauldrons. I was always losing things, and my hot water bottle was no exception, so I had to beg a dormmate in a neighboring bed to lend me hers just for a few minutes to save me from the excruciating plunge into those icy sheets.
Our own bathing practices today are a hybrid. Our hundred-year-old farmhouse bathroom still has its original clawfoot tub, with a retrofitted shower head. Most of the time we shower, American-style, but we keep a stainless-steel bucket and a plastic pouring mug in the bathroom and use them from time to time as well. When Nikhil was little, he looked forward to his tub bath—boats, rubber duckies, and all—as part of the nightly bedtime ritual, insisting that I sit and read to him while he played.
Years ago, when we visited Michael in New Mexico, Michael’s high-power housemate would come home from her demanding job and, never one to do anything by half measures, would drink cups of chamomile tea while soaking in a hot bath filled with chamomile flowers, a recipe for calming herself inside and out. My friends send me bath salts with labels like Ginger/Mint Aromatherapy Foam Bath: Warm and Replenishing: not-so-subtle hints, perhaps, that I need to slow down and unwind more often. This chilly October day, I am sitting on the bed with a hot water bottle as I write, and a nice cup of tea on the bedside table. The bath will have to wait until after I have finished my taxes.