When I was a child, there were certain things set in stone — You couldn’t speak to anyone in the morning until you had brushed your teeth; The library was visited once a week followed by a trip to Drive-in; Saturday mornings were set aside for an oil bath followed by kashayam (homemade medicinal drink) and a set meal of milagu (peppercorn) kozhambu, steamed rice and copious amounts of ghee.
The oil bath was a weekly ritual no one could get away from. The gingelly oil would be heated in a cast iron vessel, and pounded on my head by my grandmother, mother, or Meenakshi, our squat aayah. The gingelly oil would be replaced with kerosene when either my sister or I came home with lice. (My sister, bless her, took great pleasure in chasing me around the house on kerosene days with a box of matches in her hand, insisting that the treatment was only effective if the lice were burned to death.)
The oil, once poured, was rhythmically drummed in with slaps and thumps, the intensity of which varied, depending on the mood of the person administering the massage. You would then be left in the bathroom, half blinded by the oil which had seeped into your eyes with a bowl of homemade powder (shikakai) and an unguent made of moong dal powder and other nice smelling things.
Of course, I identify all of this as nice smelling now, but back then I hated it. I wanted to use the Body Shop shower gel from Singapore. ‘The shikakai dries up and flakes out of my head and makes it look like i have brown dandruff’ I’d whine. “kozhambu again?” I’d groan.
Post bath, homemade perfume (sambrani) was wafted through my hair, and i would hold my nose as a green kashayam was administered. After all of this, if you hadn’t gone in to a catatonic state yet there was the aforementioned lunch.
Why am I thinking of all of this? My parents just left after a two weeks stay with us during which my children were treated to (or in my younger son’s mind, tortured with) multiple oil baths. The boys had a new experience, as in our home rituals are like winged unicorns. They don’t exist. Baths and brushing teeth is a punishment and something to weasel out of or negotiate over: “I’ll brush my teeth if I can have 5 more minutes of screen time!” Not that their grandmother was not interested in negotiations.
In her no-nonsense demeanour that I remember from long ago, she corralled two slippery boys into the bathroom and proceeded to render them even more slippery with copious amounts of oil. “Sucks the heat right out,” my mother would mutter. This was new for the boys, as in our home, oil application is usually a quick squirt from a bottle of Parachute onto their head before a swim.
My parents have returned and this morning, I attempted to coax the boys into having an oil bath. They looked at me and said that they would wait till their grandmother’s next trip to have one and went back to playing with their Lego.
Ah well. Some rituals are weekly and others take place twice a year. Amma, the boys are waiting.
(The writer’s parenting philosophy is: if there’s no blood, don’t call me)