It was a summer ritual that Amma observed regularly. By May, she would swing a big plastic basket and set off on a walk to Mylapore near the temple tank. The potters would sit on the footpaths and sell their wares and she would latch into fierce haggling.
As dusk fell, my game of hopscotch would come to a halt and I would spot her returning home, swinging a small earthen pot in her hand. She would wash it thoroughly and set it to dry for the night. The next day it would be filled with tap water and would be set to rest to test for cooling properties and also whether the clay was good and did not spring leaks. Once it passed, she would wash again. Then she would boil water in a big steel vessel and after it cooled down, would sieve it with a piece of muslin rag from our old clothes, and pour the water in the pot.
We always had a sturdy red Allwyn refrigerator in our kitchen, and yet in summer and usually through the year, for Madras never did have freakish winters, this was our cooling pot for water. She had a keen eye of an artiste. She was particular that the neck be not too long and narrow like “those North Indian pots” because you could not dip your steel tumbler in to fish out the water or have plastic taps at their base to get water. She wanted the base to be curvy with a little flatness at the bottom so they it could be placed on the kitchen counter without wobbling or rolling. As a master of homespun ingenuity, when we no longer used the copper boiler for heating water for our baths after the advent of geysers in the bathrooms, she placed its iron stand in a corner in the kitchen. It had three thin iron legs and a round and vacant top. The earthen pot would sit snugly on it. A steel plate would serve as lid and a tumbler would stand on it.
Like an audio spool that got stuck she would murmur a slow warning each time I dived my hand into the pot to draw the water with a tumbler: “Wash your hands”. Even after Acquaguards and water purifiers came into out kitchens and the 21st Century dawned, new refrigerators came in, the water pitcher remained. Despite the salt and hard water in our area, we drank water from a pot. “Full of iron,” her visiting sisters would announce as they dipped the tumbler in.
I had lost the taste of drinking water from a pot after marriage. After I moved to Calcutta, I had water from the Ganga, so they said, stored in plastic bottles. Later, while abroad, we just filled a glass with water from the tap on the kitchen sink and gulped it down. In Delhi, it was, as an elderly neighbour insisted, Yamuna water, stored in plastic water bottles stacked in the fridge, their icy chill cooling me down in the dry, rough heat of the city.
Here, in this urban jungle, I would drive past groups of tribals selling garden pots and also earthern pots in summer by the edge of the roads and ignore vague memories. Last week, a friend phoned in to inform she was going shopping and would I want one? I played along, not wanting to be rude. I had my instructions: Neck not to be long or narrow, the shape to be round like a bottom. What would I do with it?
It arrived with a white lime geometrical pattern around its width, with a clay plate and base to hold the drip, if any. I washed it and filled it for a night to check its coolness. It passed the test.
Would I like it after more than 11 years of refrigerated water? I dipped the tumbler and drew out a glass. I tipped it above my lips and let it go down my throat. It was sweet, with a hint of mineral and the slight whiff of mud and tasted of memories.
Amma is in Sydney now, shivering in the cold. Would it be rude to tell her I am enjoying drinking water from a pot this summer?