At a pharmacy today, I overheard a rather unusual request for a bottle of coconut oil. And not by an Indian at that! The pharmacist handed the ware over to the customer who remarked ( a bit obscurely I thought) ,that ” Coconut oil is the new thing now isn’t it?”
I don’t know what she wanted it for ( was very curious to know though) and if only I could have shared the role that coconut oil played in my life while growing up in India ! She probably wouldn’t have minded hearing either but the opportunity to expound on it did not present itself!
How well I remember the smell of coconut oil! For many years our kitchen always smelt of it as my Mum used to cook in it. A not-unpleasant smell, but quite strong and strangely sweet. It’s flavour used to colour everything we ate-from pappadams to curries. In the cold winters of Gujarat it would harden into an opaque white mass,which would then clear through decreasing degrees of cloudiness as the day turned warm!
And of course, it was used liberally as a hair-oil ;guaranteed to make hair black and lustrous as all the adverts promised and I think it did! The hair oil was always separate from the cooking oil ( of course) and the brand we used came in a blue tin with a picture of coconuts on it. As my hair was very long ( I could sit on the ends), my mothers’ help had to be enlisted to oil it satisfactorily. She would sit me down on the floor while she perched on a sofa or chair and then section by section,part and oil my hair. Although I hated oil in my hair, my eyes would close involuntarily with the massage and I would finally leave the last shred of resistance and just enjoy it!
Coconut oil ( at least in South India) was also considered a good moisturiser for the skin. My brother and I would smear it all over our arms and legs after our baths in winter and then glistening all over,set off for our next activity ( though it would be absorbed very quickly)!
In our summer vacations, we would go to the village where my grandmother lived-a little one called Ramayanpatti ( later re-named Rajagopalapuram!)not far from Cape Comorin at the very Southern tip of India-an idyllic place replete with rice paddy fields and groves of coconut trees ,to spend the most memorable holidays. My grandmother would take us by bus to Tirunelveli town for her major grocery shopping and as a special treat ( which I would beg for ), we would make the return journey in a ” Jataka” or horse-drawn cart,rather like the covered wagons seen in the old Western films but smaller and covered with a wooden and canvas cover open at both ends. It had only two large wooden wheels in the middle which made for a bumpy trip and a see-saw effect when one was boarding it! My favourite perch was at the rear end with my legs dangling out and facing the traffic behind us and watching the scenery recede.
The last stop in town would be to buy the cooking oil-always coconut oil-and this was always in the same ‘oil depot’ where an array of various oils were stored in various containers with wooden hinged lids. It was a rather dark,cavernous establishment and a man would come out of the gloom and deferentially point out the best-sellers to my grandmother.
She would demand to inspect them first whereupon the shopkeeper would then produce various wooden ladles made of coconut shell halves and then rather like a wine-tasting session,would ladle out samples for grandma to sniff at and run a beady eye over and sometimes rub between her fingers. I can still recall the distinct smell of that shop and would watch in fascination the whole rigmarole of choosing the right oil. It was like taking part in some secret ceremony or ritual with the dark store,the man from the shadows offering up potions and my grandmother like the high priestess shaking her head till she was satisfied!
Once the choice was made,the shopkeeper would then ladle out the required amount ( by weight) into my grandmothers ‘ own container before he bowed us out of his store and we clambered into the jataka again!
From her own coconuts on her trees, my grandmother would get her servant to tear off the husks and make them into smaller scrubbers for doing the dishes with or loofahs for our bath! These, we would carry back with us to Rajkot! In Tirunelveli,mattresses would often be stuffed with coconut husks and make a scrunchy sound when sat on!
So ,forgive me if I have bored you with this trip down memory lane but the chance remark in a New Zealand pharmacy couldn’t help but send me off to Tirunelveli for a while! Talk about Time Travel,eh?!