It&’s the little things that count and hashim khairullah recalls the brand names that shaped his childhood
WHILE recalling my childhood, I remember people less vividly than I remember things. I remember scented erasers made of opaque rubber topped with a strip of translucent green. Also, a cheaper eraser, enigmatically called Sandow, that was available And soap. The history of middle-class India in the 1960s and ’70s can be written as a soap opera.
Red Lifebuoy was the soap you washed your hands with after answering nature&’s call. Cinthol (green) was the bar to bathe with. People with aspirations bought Moti, a fat roundel too large for small hands, or Pears. But Pears was posh and any household that routinely used it wasn’t middle class. It was the sort of place that bought crates of Coca-Cola instead of bottles of Kissan orange squash. Their children went to public schools and owned complete sets of Tintin.
The only detergent that seems to have survived as a brand is Surf. Not that anyone used the word “detergent” in the ’60s. Surf was detergent. It was the generic word for any soap powder that came in a cardboard box and was used to wash clothes. Nobody had heard of Rin or Nirma and a cheap yellow cake of washing soap called Sunlight was widely used, but was considered inferior. The hired help, not the housewife, used it offstage.
There was a soap to wash woolens with called Lux Flakes, which smelt nice but disappeared from the market early on. Parents liked the thought of collecting petrol-perfumed woolens in giant brown paper bags so much that they were willing to pay Snowhite (and BandBox) a bit extra for that privilege. Dry-cleaning was a way of being smart, modern and confidently middle class.
Apart from soap, childhood was defined by toothpaste. Nearly everybody used Colgate and that hasn’t changed. For a while Binaca Green was a real contender. But we soon realized, to our dismay, that BG was a non-foaming, chlorophyll-based toothpaste that left a bad taste in the mouth. That kept us longing for the glorious peppermint joy of Colgate. The only good that can be said about BG was that it sponsored a Radio Ceylon programme of hit songs called Binaca Geet Mala.
My grandmother claimed that this bore out everything she had always suspected about toothpaste. Her solution was to make us scrub our teeth with index fingers smeared with powdered coal. She called it kala manjan, which was a black tooth powder that came in a small bottle with a crude red label. It left your mouth feeling gritty for hours afterwards and we resented it as we hated anything that seemed not modern or vaguely homemade.
There were some “not-modern things” that diverted attention for brief periods. Just before winter, an old man with a giant single-stringed instrument that looked like a misshapen bow would camp under the staircase to “fluff” the clumped-up rui (cotton wool) inside our razais (quilts). His massive ektara made a deep thrumming sound that amused for a while until you realised that it was the only sound it could make.
Similarly, the sugarcane man who stationed his cart outside the house and ran giant sticks of sugarcane, six at a time, through his hand-cranked press. This precursor of summer would then double the husked sticks and run them through again. The juice ran through a sieve filled with broken ice into an aluminium jug. Before giving you a glass, he’d mix in a patented powder that was nine parts kala namak, a kind of rock salt. The juice, ganne ka ras, was nectar and no one really minded the dirt or germs or the deep black of his fingernails for the same reason that no one boiled water at home or bought bottled water, except from vendors who sold it for four annas a glass. Other summer specials were cucumber slices with dried-up lime cheeks dipped in salt and a lurid green coriander-chilly paste and kachcha mangoes stuffed with salt and red chilly powder. Not to forget the chuskiwala who would invariably show up after hours at our school gate with his brown wooden box lined with woolen felt. He would then shape for us rough conical lumps of shaved ice and colour these with radioactive liquids of bold unnatural colours. I hated the taste but ate the ice lollies because everyone else in my class did. Later, I became an enthusiastic patron of the four-anna orange bar peddled by the Kwality ice-cream man in the neighbourhood.
Besides orange bars, other childhood memories include Godrej refrigerators, HMV records, bond paper, Cadbury&’s Fruit and Nut, Naga shawls and Phantom peppermint cigarettes (Oh! Those peppermint ciggies with their little red lips),Wrigley&’s spearmint, TDK cassettes and Seiko watches with 17 jewels and radium dials. Not one of us knew what “jewels” were doing inside a watch but they were precious – period! But nothing was as glamorous as a can of Dunlop tennis balls. Unlike the Indian balls, these came sealed in pressurised containers. When you pulled the metal tab, there was a little whoosh and you breathed in a compressed burst of foreign air.
Add to the list geometry boxes by Staedtler, table-tennis bats called Butterfly, Bic ballpoint pens and Parker45s. These were a few of my favourite things. We almost never got them, but when we did, we experienced a gloating fulfillment that only scarcity can induce.