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Water, my dear South Indian friend (my letter to Akella Ramani)

By: Mayumi Yamamoto

Photo of Akella Ramani in Rishikesh, 1987

It was in 1987.
I was a student of Jawaharlal Nehru University,
under the scholarship of the Indian government.

Being a student of anthropology,
I was required to learn a local language, and
get used to the local way of living.

I stayed in a hostel with Indian students from different states,
with their own respective languages.

Every students of JNU stayed in a hostel
attached to a staff quarter where an assigned professor lived as a guardian.

In the hostel,
tap water was available only twice a day:
It was early in the morning and in the evening.

Each time, water flowed from the tap just for around two hours.
For the rest of the day, water pipe was dried up.

So, when I arrived at the hostel to reside as an international student,
first of all, I was told to buy two buckets so as to fill them with water.

Otherwise, I would be in trouble, without water
for washing and moving my bowels.

Since the very next day of my arrival in India,
I had to wake up early every morning for water
—even if I stayed up late the previous night.

We used to enjoy night campus life as every student lived in the university compound,
Where we found small tea shops here and there open till midnight.

However, we had to go back to the room
before late evening,
just to be in time for the water supply.

Otherwise, we would have to ask for water from other students,
that made us blue
since the quantity of water was not enough for everybody.

With the tap water pooled in two buckets,
we had to manage to wash clothes and dishes, and
keep our body clean.

As a female,
long hair was difficult to keep clean with limited water.

Indian students used to apply a sort of shampoo to the hair,
which was said to keep it somehow clean
without washing it with water.

My friend was a typical South Indian woman who always wore sari, and
bindi on her forehead.
Her long hair was woven into three strands
exactly as seen in traditional Indian paintings.

Those days, India was represented by North India.
But for me, it was represented by her, from South India.

She was India.
She was an ideal, too, for a Japanese anthropologist.

She managed to keep her hair clean in the method as I explained above
—without water.

She taught me how to wear sari without using safety pins for fixing, and
how to eat curry mixed with rice by hand
elegantly, and
in a rather sophisticated manner.

I always followed her,
how she behaves as an Indian lady, but
I had my hair cut very short against her advice.

I couldn’t keep my hair long in the same way as she kept
—without water.

So I was mistaken as a male in her hometown because of that.

Water is indispensable.

More exactly,
whether the water is clean and hygienic
or not
is a more important concern.

The tap water in the hostel was supposedly not potable.

So, drinking water was provided by a water cooler
placed just in front of a mess hall, and
several pots of water were always put on each dining table.

Despite that, initially, I bought bottled water for myself.
I was afraid that water was possibly contaminated
by some unfamiliar virus to me, a Japanese.

Then, gradually, I got used to Indian drinking water
served by the men working at the canteen.

My body made in Japan seemed to have been customized for Indian life.
I was gradually becoming ready for a field survey there.

To survive the Delhi heat,
water was important
not only to avoid dehydrating a human body,
but also to make the room temperature cool.

After lunch, students stayed in the room and had a nap on their bed until evening,
with water spilled and spread on the floor to keep the room cool.

The hostel was constructed with bricks and cement,
unlike the Japanese house built with woods and floored with tatami which absorbed liquid.

I never imagined water may be spilled and spread all over the floor of a room,
with a ceiling fan to stir the air and dry the wet floor.
The temperature in the room slightly cools down.

Summer in Delhi was terribly hot and dry that water spread on the floor evaporated soon.

In May, Delhi’s heat became too unbearable, day by day,
for anyone to stay at the poor facility hostel.

One after another, students disappeared from the campus and so did I.

I shifted to a small town on a hill station called Mussoorie
to avoid heat as well as water shortage problems, and
to learn Hindi,
as the university campus and hostels were dominated by English, and
my South Indian friend did not know Hindi,
the official language of India,
at all.

She is my India.

And this is my memory of heat and water,
with sweet memories of my Indian friend.

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