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July 19, 2013

Connoisseurs of the Unavailable

This post is an email forward from a friend.  I felt an immediate affinity to my own childhood  and decided to share it with you. If you grew up in India in the 60's you will remember most of the things  described below.

 Remembrance of Things Past

 If you remember the days when Lifebuoy and Cinthol dominated the soap
 market in India, you may find this forward worth reading. Please
 forward to those who may be interested in this remembrance of how life
 was in our school days.
 When I think of my childhood in late middle age, 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. And soap. The history of
 middle-class India in the 1960s and 1970s can be written in soap and

 Red Lifebuoy was the soap you washed your hands with afterwards.
 Cinthol (green) was the bar to bathe with except for people with
 aspirations who bought Moti, a fat round of soap too large for small
 hands, or Pears. But Pears was posh; any household that routinely used
 Pears wasn't middle class; it was the sort of place that bought crates
 of Coca Cola instead of bottles of Kissan orange squash, where the
 children went to boarding school 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 1960s. Surf was
 detergent: it was the generic word for any powd ered soap that came in
 a box and was used to wash clothes. Nobody had heard of Rin or Nirma;
 a cheap yellow cake of washing soap called Sunlight was widely used,
 but it was an inferior thing, used offstage by the hired help, not the

 There was a soap to wash woollens with called Lux Flakes, which smelt
 nice but disappeared from the market early on. I think our parents
 liked the thought of collecting petrol-perfumed woollens in giant
 brown paper bags so much that they were willing to pay Novex and
 Snowhite (and BandBox) a bit extra for that privilege. Dry-cleaning
 was a way of being modern, smart and confidently middle class.

 Apart from soap, childhood was defined by toothpaste. Nearly everybody
 used Colgate and that hasn't changed, but for a while Binaca Green was
 a real contender. My earliest experience of difference was realizing
 that mine was the only family amongst the people we knew which read
 The Statesman and brushed its teeth with a green toothpaste. Every one
 else took the Times of India and gloried in the peppermint joy of
 Colgate. We were pioneering ecological puritans: we brushed our teeth
 with a horrible non-foaming toothpaste that left us with a bad taste
 in the mouth entirely because it claimed to be made up of chlorophyll.
 The only good thing to be said for "Binaca Green" was that it
 sponsored a Radio Ceylon programme of filmi songs called Binaca Geet
 Mala. (and what about the little ugly plastic animals that we
 squabbled over??)

 There was a short-lived star (not so short - in my memory!!) in the
 toothpaste stakes, though, called Signal, which came in white and red
 stripes. Even a child my age who could barely recognize a polysyllabic
 word knew that the red stripes were made of a magical substance called
 hexachlorophene. Not that we cared: our interest was limited to our
 scientific curiosity about how the toothpaste worm came out
 continuously striped. It was later that I learnt that hexachlorophene
 caused fits and paralysis and was especially bad for children.

 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", literally black tooth powder, and it came in small
 bottles with crude red labels. It left you feeling gritty in the mouth
 for hours afterwards and we resented it as we resented anything that
 seemed un-modern or vaguely home-made, but in retrospect it had an
 important virtue: you could swallow it without convulsing or dying.

 There were some not-modern things that were diverting for brief
 periods. Just before winter, an old man with a giant single-stringed
 instrument that looked like a misshapen bow would camp in the
 stairwell that led up to our government flat to "card" the clumped-up
 rooi or cotton-wool inside our razais (quilts). His massive ektara
 made a deep thrumming sound which was amusing for about five minutes
 before you realized that it was the only sound it could make and left to play cricket or ludo or something.

 Likewise, summer was announced by the ganderiwala or 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. Then he'd
 double the husked sticks and run them through again. The juice ran
 through a sieve filled with broken ice into an aluminium jug. Before
 he gave you the glass, he mixed in a patented powder that was nine
 parts kala namak, a kind of rock salt. The juice, the ganne ka ras,
 was nectar and no one really minded about the dirt or the germs or the
 deep black of his fingernails for the same reason as no one boiled
 water at home or bought water outside except from vendors who sold it
 for two paise a glass: because we were stupid and didn't mind dying
 young. (or until we came down with "jaundice"!! And not to forget the
 cucumber slices with dried-up lime cheeks dipped in salt and lurid
 green coriander-chilly paste or the "Polly" mangoes stuffed with a
 salt and red chilly powder mixture)

 The cotton carder and the sugarcane man are nearly extinct in
 metropolitan Delhi as is Bapsi Sidhwa's ice candy man (and completely
 so in Bangalore). When I was a child in Kashmere Gate, the chuskiwala
 would visit once a week with his brown wooden box lined with a kind of
 woollen felt. He would then shape for us roughly conical lumps of
 shaved ice and colour them with radioactive liquids. They were
 horrible, unnatural colours; I ate the ice lollies because all my
 older cousins did but I hated the taste. When we moved to a government
 flat in New Delhi, I became an enthusiastic patron of the four-anna
 orange bar peddled by the Kwality ice cream man in the neighbourhood.

 But because my childhood happened in an autarkic India, committed to
 the twin gods of self-sufficiency and high tariff barriers, it was the
 things that we didn't have that I remember better than the ones that
 we did. Orange bars, HMV records, Godrej refrigerators, bond paper,
 Cadbury's Fruit & Nut, Naga shawls, Phantom peppermint cigarettes (Oh!
 those peppermint ciggies with their little red tips!) and ugly walnut
 tables from Kashmir were nice but they were available (if your parents
 had the money to spare) and therefore not nearly as desirable as the
 things you couldn't have except from that supermarket in the sky
 called "Foreign".

 Wrigley's Spearmint, Quality Street and (for unknowable reasons) Kraft
 cheese was the toll that foreign-returners routinely paid for going
 abroad without their families, but these were perishable things from
 an inferior heaven. The real loot, or maal, was impossibly rare
 consumer durables. (like that TDK reel-to-reel tape-recorder and

 Seiko watches, for example, with 17 jewels and radium dials. Not one
 of us knew what jewels were doing inside a watch but they were
 precious and the number gave us a way of measuring value in the same
 way as 17 gun salutes told you something about the standing of a
 princely state.

 The thing in question didn't have to be expensive: it merely had to be
 foreign and better in some real or imagined way than its Indian
 equivalent. So if you played table tennis you craved Japanese Nittaku
 balls instead of the deceptively foreign- sounding but actually desi,
 Montana. Later the Chinese came up with cheap, virtually
 indestructible balls called Shield but those were never as fetishized
 as the Nittaku balls because they became increasingly available in
 India and where was the romance in that?

But nothing was as glamourous as a can of Dunlop tennis balls. Unlike
 Indian tennis balls, these were sealed in pressurized containers and
 when you pulled the metal tab, there was a little whoosh and you
 breathed in a compressed burst of scientific-smelling foreign air.

 So geometry boxes by Staedtler, table tennis bats called Butterfly,
 Bic ballpoint pens, little flat torches that dangled off keychains,
 and Parker 45 pens with impossible-to-buy-in-India ink cartridges
 (remember them?) - these were a few of our favourite things. We almost
 never got them, but when we did, we experienced a gloating fulfillment
 that only scarcity can induce.

 Pundits sniff disapprovingly about the consumerism that the
 liberalization of the economy has encouraged. This would seem to
 suggest that before 1991, Indians, willy nilly, lived in a state of
 non-consuming grace. This is just not true; the middle-class children
 of the 1960s loved things much more intensely than their children do
 simply because they didn't have them. You can spot us at a distance in
 airport terminals: we're the grey-haired men who can't tear themselves
 away from the cigarette cartons even though we stopped smoking three
 years ago and won't part with money to buy any for our friends. We are
 that odd cohort, a Duty Free Generation that never went abroad in its
 youth - connoisseurs, therefore, of the unavailable

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