Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Elixir of Life-Part I

Good old drinking water- my favourite drink. (I've even had a poem written about me and the quantities of water I drink- but I digress). I have to like the taste of the water I drink, though. Anyone who says that water is a tasteless, colourless liquid is probably quoting a chemistry text book. Water has a taste. And the taste of water also determines the taste of your tea, and of much of the food you cook. This post is about my first and second hand experiences of both the availability and potability of the domestic water supply.

Long decades ago, when I was a mere child, drinking water was the stuff that emerged from every tap in the house, twenty-four hours a day. ( Which led to its own set of problems. One neighbour would wash clothes every morning at 4 a.m., banging away at her laundry with a 'sota', a wooden, cricket bat like object that was used to beat the dirt out of the wet, soapy clothes, and my poor mother, a light sleeper at the best of times, would suffer). That was the stuff we drank, cooked with, that I tried to avoid filling the fridge bottles with, bathed with , washed clothes, dishes, mopped floors with etc. Water was one thing that, like clean air, was taken for granted. Slowly and steadily, scarcity crept into something as simple and innocuous as the domestic water supply. The supply was now timed- a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening. The already rather small bathroom was filled with buckets of water to meet various contingencies. Similarly, the kitchen also had some stored water too. But it was water, on tap, and that's how it was consumed.
Decades later, water became the subject of much angst. Either it was not available in sufficient quantity, or the supply was erratic, or it was impossible to drink. As cities expanded, the traditional single municipal supply became inadequate, and tubewells and borewells became commonplace. Sintex tanks found a booming market, as did domestic pump sets. There would be terrible tension between upstairs and downstairs neighbours, as the upstairs homes wouldn't get any water at all if the taps were open downstairs. Relationships were often soured because of water woes. Certain areas would have to rely on tankers to provide them with water. People would spend sleepless nights waiting for water.
In many cities, the potable water was now supplied only to the kitchen tap, and other sources were used for washing, bathing and lavatory use. The incidence of gastro-intestinal diseases also seemed to rise, and very soon drinking water was blamed for a number of ills from jaundice to typhoid to cholera and worse. Whether the source of these ills was the humble kitchen tap or the filthy fingernails of the roadside chaat-wallah, drinking water came under the scanner. Huge pans were procured in which to boil the family's supply of drinking water. Many appliances came into the market, starting with the dual chambered candle filter and the small filter that was put directly onto the kitchen tap. Much research went into the potable water business. Various kinds of equipment such as the Aquaguard and its variants came into being. Initially the emphasis was on making sure that the water was free of pathogens. (My youngest was almost a year old when we installed our Aquaguard. A cousin came to visit, and we were showing off our new acquisition. He was most amused to find the little one sitting in the garden and drinking water from the hosepipe!)
As cities expanded, and the sources tapped to supply domestic water perforce increased, water seemed to acquire variations in taste over every few kilometres. The same preparations, made by the same person, using the same brand of salt, could now easily be oversalted due to the high salinity of the water used for cooking. Though the water was rendered germ-free by various methods, the potability was suspect. Bottled water in twenty or twenty-five litre containers came onto the scene- one more delivery for the housewife to monitor. This bottled water was supplied by companies which desalinated the water by a process known as reverse osmosis. The manufactures of the reverse osmosis(RO)equipment discovered an enormous domestic market: consumers would no longer be at the mercy of unscrupulous delivery men or suppliers if they could desalinate drinking water in their own kitchens. Thus the domestic Reverse Osmosis water purifier became a part of modern life, total convenience and freedom from both water-borne diseases and excessive salinity.
But......what appliance doesn't have a 'but' attached to it, these days?
The RO machine, besides requiring periodic cleaning and routine maintenance, has an unanticipated annoying, guilt inducing feature: the waste water pipe running into the kitchen sink. When you buy your bottles of Kinley or Aquafina you don't really register that water purification involves some waste water also. After years and years of learning to be careful in one's use of water, it is rather disturbing to have clean looking water discharge into your sink intermittently. The sound of running water inspires one to go and shut the tap tightly, but here this can't be done. You learn to live with it, but it isn't a happy situation. This discharge happens at seemingly random hours- you never know when to expect it. If the discharge pipe is not securely in position, it can also soak your kitchen floor. But these are of course very trivial issues, which one does learn to live with. Thanks to the RO machine I am far less paranoid about drinking water than I used to be, but my father will still only drink the bottled supply. So now I have to deal with the
bottled water delivery guys, clean the RO tank, deal with its maintenance and also tolerate the sound of the waste water running into the sink. Bah.


Anonymous said...

I didn't know that there are now in-house RO machines available in India. Wow! What about replacement membranes? Don't they get expensive? Have they started manufacturing the membranes in India?

dipali said...

Lekhni- I haven't a clue about the replacement membranes. We bought ours last July, and I've blanked out all the technical stuff. Will check it out and tell you:)

Unknown said...

Hmm all that running around after water makes it all that precious . Incidentally how much water do you drink?

Nat said...

housewifely woes huh. it's always one thing or the other rt? :)
I totally agree with you that water has a taste. Years ago, when we used to come down to India water used to taste so different the first few days (bawdi ka paani?!). Took a while to get used to and then coming back it was the same thing all over again. Water in the middle-east tastes chlorinated and salty if I remember correctly. And now here in the US thanks to carbon filters it tastes well crisp and carbony. :/
Nowadays I see my kids going thru the same thing when in India. Nosh was having a bath and suddenly she wretched bcos the hotel bathroom water tasted of rusted iron. She ran out of the bathroom miserable. lol. Once we reached home she was better though. Both of them couldnt get used to water all over the bathroom floor and that tickled me bcos they were tippy-toeing all over lol!

Neera said...

Apart from other things, a lovely trip down memory lane, as always ..I remember water coming for I think about 3 hours or so every morning and evening and thats what prompted us to get all bathed and ready before 9:00 am when Ramayana started on Sundays :) 'Baltis' had to be filled for the rest of the day.

Banno said...

My sister-in-law who has a RO machine at her house in Surat, puts a small bucket in the sink for the waste water and they use it for watering the plants, or whatever.

Anonymous said...

This is history and improvement of water...:-)))

Never knew somebdy could write so much abt it...
about the Ro machine ....are they used domestically??

I have no clue abt it....

dipali said...

@eve's lungs: I'll tell you in Part II!
@banno: no plants for the last few years(:
I do try to use it to soak the dirty vessels.
@chakoli: RO machines have been available for some years now. If you watch TV you'll see Hema Malini advertising the Kent RO. Eureka Forbes market the Aquaguard RO. I'm sure there are others.
@lekhni : there is one Indian manufacturer of the membrane called Permionics.(I googled) But mostly they are imported. The machine is quite expensive anyway-we'll see about the replacement membrane when required.
@nat, neera: Thanks:)

Neera said...

Hey Dipali, incidentally I remember someone telling me that with the kind of water in Delhi, the RO machine discards about 90% of the water that comes from the tap and only the remaining is deemed fit for drinking. (This was about 2 years back) Any idea?

Anamika said...

Such a lovely post! I come here fairly often but this is the first time i am commenting.
I remember vividly the stressful days when we had to make do with rationed water. To be honest, I dont miss that time. By the third day of water woes, I would start eating less and drinking less water just to avoid using the bathroom!! And then news of water coming to the ground floor homes would reach us and we would rush to their houses to fill up buckets and sometimes even bathe there. Being on good terms with them was not an option, it was a necessity. Thankfully we had kind neighbors.

How true and how sad. On my last visit to Mumbai, water supply was re-regulated by the building watchman (smart guy I say) and there was load shedding for 3 hours everyday. Steep home prices had my head spinning and forget parking, even driving through our alley was a nightmare. A developing nation is not how many glitzy malls and McDonalds sprout up, its how the common man accesses basic everyday needs.

Choxbox said...

nice post dipali.

we lived on the 3rd floor and had to fill drinking water from the ground floor, which is how i built my muskals!

on a related note, a friend went to the US for the first time and stayed with a bunch of pals. woke up in the middle of the night and wanted a drink of water, wandered into the kitchen and couldnt find water anywhere. searched high and low and finally woke up the others to ask where the hell they stored their drinking water!

Choxbox said...

and oh btw nothing tastes better than water stored in a mitti ka matka!

Anonymous said...

tagged again! :)

Unknown said...

Damn! Reading this post made me realize I hadn't had water all morning and I rushed to the kitchen to get some. tastes good. There's nothing like it is there?

dipali said...

@neera: I suppose it depends on the amount of dissolved salts. I'm now consciously trying to store it for mopping the floors as well.
@anamika: welcome. What you say is so true- there's no point in having swanky buildings and glitzy malls if the basic civic amenities and infrastructure are inadequate.
@choxbox: muskals come in handy when carrying your babies around:) And of course, matkas and suraahis- haven't used either for years- I must, this summer.
@jawahara:let's toast each other with our favourite drink- aqua hopefully pura!