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In India women are bound together by ties to water. Each mother passes on to her daughter the patience to queue by the communal well, the skill to walk with towers of water vessels balanced on her head, the adroitness to carry brimming buckets without spillage, and the caution never to take water for granted.
I inherited this hydro-paranoia from my mother. When I was a child living in Bangalore, my mother would wake me up around midnight. “No chattering,” she’d warn me. Then she and I would sleepwalk to the end of the street. I’d swing two empty buckets with one hand while clutching my mother’s hand with the other. In turn, my mother gripped my hand while her other hand held a metal wrench. When we reached the water source, we joined four silent women who, unlike the garrulous women gossiping by village wells, stood as silent as tombs.
We were stealing water from the city. We needed the wrench to open the city water pipes and get the water for the day. Because mother and her friends worked, they were not home from noon to three, when city bureaucrats piped water into our neighborhood. The women had tried delegating the water collection job to maidservants, without success. In desperation, they had resorted to crime, making stealthy nocturnal trips to rob the municipality’s water.
Mother stooped, used her tool to get the water to flow, then each woman filled her pails. No one spoke—ever. On our return treks Mother carried the filled buckets. I wielded the wrench. We lined up the filled buckets in the bathroom and kitchen and through the day rationed the water for cooking, washing, bathing. The following night the alarm would ring. Mother and I would groggily clutch the buckets like our lifelines, hold the wrench aloft like a water-divining rod, and brave the dark again and yet again.
The water scarcity followed us to Pune, when we moved. There was not enough pressure for the water to flow upwards to the storage tanks at the top of our apartment building. Mother would fill our buckets and lug them upstairs. Our daily routine—when we bathed, ate, washed dishes and clothes—was governed by the availability of water. Water was always stored: in buckets, drums, huge brass vessels, small stainless steel utensils, big earthenware pots. Anything that could hold water did. We lived with the constant fear of running out of water. Seeing the full containers, lined up in military precision, filled us with security. We would survive another day.
Once I grew older, Mother anointed me Water Carrier. On days when I procrastinated till it was too late, my mother rained maledictions on me: “Unreliable as water, you will not excel …” I had to ensure that we always had a few pails of water, even during the years when the monsoons blessed us and the rivers ran full. The monsoons were unreliable, but the bureaucrats who controlled the flow of water to our homes were more unpredictable than weather. Survival of the fittest meant always having some buckets of water. My mother and I knew exactly how Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner felt when he said:
The silly buckets on the deck,
That had so long remained,
I dreamt that they were filled with dew;
And when I awoke it rained.
We dreamt of buckets that filled themselves.
When I moved to America, it was a thrill to open faucets and find running water all the time. The greatest joy was taking a shower whenever and for as long as I wanted. Sometimes I’d bathe twice a day, just for the sheer dissipated delight of it. This woman was no longer doomed to be the Water Carrier for the whole family. I felt liberated.
However, when I returned to India on visits, I realized that this liberation had its drawbacks. I saw the buckets and drums and felt guilty because I had added to the workload—the water load—for the women of the house. I felt a traitor because I overflowed with foreign anxieties: “Are the buckets cleaned before they are filled? Is the water drinkable? Has it been boiled and filtered?”
These anxieties peaked when I took my asthmatic 4-year-old daughter Mohana to India. We will never forget her first bath, in my in-laws’ home in Chennai. Jet-lagged and peevish, she wanted to sleep, not bathe. It was a struggle to get her into the bathroom. Once inside, she took one look at the murky water and started to scream. My All-American daughter expected, as a birthright, that water would be transparent, colorless, and odorless. In Chennai, that drought-stricken summer, the water looked like sludge. “I’m not as dirty as that water. Don’t!” I gave in to her protestations and decided to get her into bed. My mother-in-law was in the adjoining room, saying her prayers. Mohana ran towards her patti. Her grandmother, knowing that Mohana had not bathed, shrank from physical contact. “Thodadai, Thodadai. Patti Mudi.”
I grabbed hold of Mohana and explained, “Patti’s had her bath. You cannot touch her because you haven’t bathed yet.”
The next morning I carried Mohana, kicking and screaming, into the bathroom. ‘This is muddy water,” she howled. “This is potty water.” She shuddered and screamed through the entire bath. After her bath, Mohana ran to her patti wailing, “I’m not clean anymore; you can touch me now. I am muddy, like you. I’ve bathed in your potty water.” Both my mother-in-law and I spurted with laughter. In Tamil, the word “Patti” means grandmother. The word “Mudi” means the state of cleanliness and purity one observes, right after one’s bath, while performing the daily religious rituals. For Mohana, mudi was what the water looked like. Her grandmother was called Patti or “potty” because she bathed in such water. We assume the brain stores different languages in leak-proof compartments, like tanks, but words seep from one language to another and mix and mingle with unpredictable results. This story of my American-born daughter’s baptism in Hindu waters is a perennial source of hilarity in our family.
Reciprocally, my hydro-paranoia became a source of hilarity for Mohana. As she grew older, I metamorphosed into my mother. “Even in America,” I told my daughter, “water is a limited resource and needs to be conserved.” I began to nag her: “Don’t take such long showers; turn off the tap when brushing your teeth; use less water when dishwashing.” I pointed to the “Use Water Wisely” banners that had suddenly sprouted outside our local utility office. “The bureaucrats know what is looming ahead,” I warned Mohana. “Our taps might run dry one day.”
Mohana thought my fears were all wet. “Is the sky falling down, Henny Penny? Unlucky Ducky! Is America running out of water?” as if this scenario were as unlikely as oceans running dry.
For this reason, some years later, a headline in the local newspaper made quite a splash in my home: “California officials recycle toilet water into drinking water.” My queasiness was drowned out by reprehensible amusement. Karma had placed my fastidious daughter in California as a college student, majoring in geology, just as this “toilet-to-tap” recycling effort got under way.
“Poetic justice,” I thought and telephoned to say “I-told-you-so.”
“Darling,” I gushed. “Have you heard the news?”
Mohana listened quietly. I should have been forewarned. Still waters run very deep. Some families fight fire with fire. In my family, we women fight water with water.
“Mother, recycled toilet water won’t kill us. But MTBE might, because it is carcinogenic. Have you heard about Methyl Tertiary-Butyl Ether?” Mohana countered. “Just a single cupful in a 5 million-gallon reservoir is sufficient to render the water undrinkable.”
“MTBE?” I spluttered. “Who added it to our waters? Why …?”
“Underground gas-tank leaks have contaminated community wells in 31 states. Gas companies assumed gas tanks were leakproof, but no tank is forever watertight or hermetically sealed. MTBE seeps into ground water from these leaks. They added MTBE to gasoline to mudi—clean our air of pollutants, which it has. But it’s messed up … or should I say … muddied … our waters?
“America’s taps might never run dry, like you fear, but don’t assume your tap water is pure,” my budding geologist cautioned.
I hung up the phone, tottered to the kitchen sink, and turned on the faucet. Water poured out sparklingly clear, deceptively pure. So mudi and muddy. Was this pristine water a mirage? Was it contaminated? “Do I share the curse of the Ancient Mariner?” I thought self-piteously: “‘Water, water everywhere/Nor any drop to drink.’ Will I have to buy water and lug it home? Will that water be pure? Where will I store the battalions of bottles?”
I reluctantly squared my shoulders and flexed my muscles. Liberation had proved treacherous and temporary. I felt bound once again to my mother, her mother and grandmother, and the ancestral line of paranoid Water Carriers.
Freelance editor and writer Radhika Kumar lives in Federal Way, Wash.