Sometimes the most mundane of experiences can serve as a particularly acute reminder of how my life in the present differs from that lived in the past. And sometimes that experience can serve too, to put a simple daily act into global context.
For some twenty-five years now, whether in the US (1987-2000; 2002-present) or in Australia (2000-2002), I’ve performed the simple act–daily–of taking a shower. (Yes, daily; cut the snickers please, and let’s get serious.) I might occasionally lose track of my location in the mental maps of the immigrant’s world but stepping under a running shower never fails to remind me that for the first twenty years of my life I lived somewhere other than my present location.
That simple act, of stepping under a pair of faucets–one marked ‘Hot’, the other ‘Cold’–which soon direct streams of water at appropriate temperatures to the shower head, jolts me out of whatever reverie I might be absorbed in and concentrates my mind wonderfully on the unimaginable luxury at hand: running hot and cold water. I have showered in dingy bathrooms, with dirty shower curtains, moldy tiles, slippery bathtubs, freezing floors, rusty taps, drafty windows, foul toilet bowls, and every other affliction you can imagine, but unless there has been a catastrophic problem with the water supply, I am guaranteed running water. Sometimes, a malfunctioning boiler has meant no hot water, sometimes, building repairs have necessitated a temporary cessation of water supplies to apartments. But, otherwise, the water flows. (And this has been true of drinking water as well: turn the taps, the water flows. In New York, it doesn’t need to be filtered, and tastes damn good.)
I don’t think I will ever cease to think of this as a luxury (even though it might have come to be a luxury I take for granted.) Bathing, not ‘showering’, in India meant: in the summers, strategically timing one’s baths for the morning so as to avoid the heated water from the overhead tanks in the afternoons; in the winters, heating up a bucket of water, using an electric heater, mixing it with cold water to get the temperature right, and then quickly, chucking mugfuls over my soaped-up body to finish the act. (Delhi winters made this business particularly miserable.) The overhead shower with running hot and cold streams still remains a rarity in Indian urban settings, though hot water in the Delhi winters seems to have become more easily available thanks to the almost-ubiquitous electric water heaters. The business of drinking water was even more onerous: potable water was only available for a few hours a day; it had to be stored and filtered before being used. I grew up getting used to the windows of time for this supply and making sure I did my bit to keep our home well stocked with drinking water. I left that all behind but it left its mark on me, one that assures I cannot be glib about my present comforts.
I’m inclined to think that this century of ours will see serious armed conflict fought for water supplies. Perhaps water will come to replace oil as the new liquid worth killing for. Thousands die every day because they cannot drink clean water. Whenever I step into my shower, or do the dishes with a running tap, and let dozens and hundreds of gallons flow, it’s hard for me to not think that I occupy a very peculiar space, that there is something Nero-ish in this daily activity of mine.