In May, 2010, there was a panic in Massachusetts when an emergency Boil Water Order had to be issued after a water main burst. For just a few days, millions of Boston-area residents were told to boil their tap water before drinking it. What a to-do! Panic ensued, there was a run on bottled water, and inevitably, in the aftermath of the scare, law suits were filed. But in much of the rest of the world, boiling or filtering the tap water is a normal part of everyday life (as is chronic diarrhea from untreated drinking water). It certainly was so throughout my childhood in India, when the day was organized around the water supply: collecting, boiling, cooling, and storing it.
First of all came the collection of the water. The mains were only turned on for short periods a couple of times a day, so we had to be prepared for the water when it came, filling and then covering the tanks and the tubs and all the large containers in the house. This was to be used for washing, bathing, and cooking as well as for drinking, and during times of water shortage it might not come at all, so we collected as much as we could in order to ensure that we would have enough to last, even if the supply failed for a day or so.
After collecting the water my mother boiled the day’s drinking supply on our two kerosene-fueled primus stoves. When it had been actively on the boil for several minutes (and my mother always erred on the safe side), she poured them into earthenware jugs and set them on the shady back verandah to cool. The unfired clay promotes cooling, and by late afternoon it was ready for drinking or for further chilling in three or four one-litre glass bottles in the door of our small refrigerator.
One hot summer afternoon my father came back from the Institute with a terrible thirst. He made a beeline for the fridge, grabbed one of the glass bottles and glugged half of it down before he started spluttering and dashed wildly to the bathroom. Before he realized his mistake he had chugged nearly half a bottle of gin, thinking it was water. Boy, was he sick that day!
In the heat of April-May, nothing was—nothing is—more refreshing than a cold glass of nimbu-pani, water with a wedge of lemon squeezed into it. In India whether one goes to a restaurant or to a friend’s house to visit, the first thing one is offered is a tumblerful of ṭhanda pani—cold water. As children, we were put into awkward social situations at friends’ houses by our parents’ strict instructions to ask everyone, when offered a glass of water, whether the water had been boiled and, if it had not been, either to request boiled water or to decline politely. But despite our embarrassment, their vigilance kept us healthy, and I don’t remember coming down with diarrhea more than twice throughout my entire childhood.
When we lived in India for six months in 1993, the big hit song was India’s first indigenous rap number, Baba Sehgal’s Thanda Thanda Pani, with its homespun lyrics and its subject that reached across the entire social divide: cold, cold water. Everywhere we went, loudspeakers and boomboxes were blasting out the beat of the catchy chorus, with its lead-in: “kya aapko chahiye (what would you like?)” Reply: ṭhanda ṭhanda pani (repeated ad nauseum, fifty times a day). I remember, on an auto-rickshaw ride across Pune, the delight of the driver when eight-year-old Nikhil joined in the chorus as it blared tinnily out of his vehicle’s radio.
Some years ago our friend Hayat presented us with three beautiful water glasses of hand-blown glass ringed with blue and turquoise. Her name means Life, as in Muhammad Husain Azad’s famous Urdu work Aab-e Hayat (Water of Life), and whenever we drink from those tall, cool glasses we remember to be grateful for the gift of life-sustaining water, and never to take it for granted. In the words of Peter Tosh, you never miss your water till your well runs dry.