The Material Life in Independent India- 20th century

History of middle-class India in the 1960s and 1970s can be written in soap anddetergent. Scented erasers madeof opaque rubber topped with a strip of translucent green. Also acheaper eraser enigmatically called Sandow. And soap.

Red Lifebuoy was the soap you washed your hands with afterwards.Cinthol (green) was the bar to bathe with except for people withaspirations who bought Moti, a fat round of soap too large for smallhands, or Pears. But Pears was posh; any household that routinely usedPears wasn’t middle class; it was the sort of place that bought cratesof Coca Cola instead of bottles of Kissan orange squash, where thechildren went to boarding school and owned complete sets of Tintin.

The only detergent that seems to have survived as a brand is Surf. Notthat anyone used the word ‘detergent’ in the 1960s. Surf wasdetergent: it was the generic word for any powdered soap that came ina 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 thehousewife.

There was a soap to wash woollens with called Lux Flakes, which smeltnice but disappeared from the market early on. I think our parentsliked the thought of collecting petrol-perfumed woollens in giantbrown paper bags so much that they were willing to pay Novex andSnowhite a bit extra for that privilege. Dry-cleaning was a way ofbeing modern, smart and confidently middle class.

A little-known Mumbai-based company, Nogi And Co Pvt Ltd, launched this tooth powder almost exactly a century ago.

Apart from soap, childhood was defined by toothpaste. Nearly everybody used Colgate and that hasn’t changed, but for a while Binaca Green wasa real contender. Then there was a green toothpaste: a distinct tasting non-foaming toothpaste that left us with a bad tastein the mouth entirely because it claimed to be made up of chlorophyll. Binaca Green also sponsored a Radio Ceylon programme of filmi songs called Binaca Geet Mala that was hosted every Wednesday night between 8 to 9 by the well-loved Radio Jockey [the word was not used then] called Ameen Sayani.

Ameen Sayani 1950

An Ameen Sayani reunion from recent times.

There was a short-lived star in the toothpaste stakes, though, called Signal, which came in white and red stripes. The red stripes were made of a magical substance called hexachlorophene. It was later that one learnt that hexachlorophene caused fits and paralysis and was especially bad for children.

This over-the-counter antiseptic cream was launched in Kolkata in 1929 by Bengali merchant Gourmohan Dutta and became a symbol of India’s economic self-sufficiency in colonial times. It is said that boroline was handed out free to anyone who asked for it on the eve of 15 August 1947.

The older generation used coal dust to whiten their teeth. Many a beauty lost all her teeth by rubbing them extensively with finely ground and sieved coal dust. The coal dust was taken up on a wet index finger with which the teeth were rubbed till they began to squeak. Sophisticates in the small towns used the smoother Colgate Tooth Powder, which basically was chalk dust mixed with a little soap dust and sugar.

Cotton carder, c. 1800, Thanjavur. His work continues to be much the same in small town India, though increasingly cotton is being replaced as a filling for quilts and pillows. Instead, the less lasting polyfill has become the favoured product even though it is costlier and has to be junked every few years.

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 card the clumped-uprooi or cotton-wool inside our razais (quilts).

Summer was announced by the ganderiwala or the sugarcane man who stationed his cart outside the house and ran giant sticks of sugarcane through his hand-cranked press. Then he would double the husked sticks. poke a lemon and some ginger into the crush and run them through again. The juice ran through a sieve filled with broken ice into a jug. Before he gave you the glass, he mixed salt in it from a dirty jar. 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. These things became important when relatives from foreign lands, especially America, arrived. They promptly fell sick on drinking this tastiest of drinks.

The gas stove when it came was a simple cast iron, two burner thing made by a company called SunFlame. SunFlame still makes gas stoves, but they are far more complicated in design and last about a couple of years before they need to be thrown out. The original SunFlame stove continues to serve my mother even after 60 years. Then there were the optional things in a household: HMV records, Godrej refrigerators, bond paper,Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut, Five Star choclate bars, Mangola, Phantom peppermint cigarettes. None of them was as good as those things that came from Foreign Lands.

By the 1970s Timex and Sieko watches had become part of the desireable items that one hoped a visiting relative would bring. Levis Jeans cost as much as a month's salary for a minor government official. These needed to be smuggled with the help of that friendly 'uncle's cousin brother's friend' who was posted at the Custom's Counter and would let someone bring in a couple of these things without paying the 1500% duty that the Government of India thought was its right to levy in order to protect Indian industry-- the products of which no one wanted. Bata shoes were considered very reliable as was the Twill from Binny's, the Buckingham Cloth Mills in Madras.

Of the various Indian produced goods that no one wanted was the Indian made car. The Ambassador, Fiat and Standard. These were the three major brands of car on Indian roads and we were told that they all produced designs that were outdated in Europe in the 1950s. The most characteristic feature of these cars was the hand crank. They needed it all the time. If that did not work then the entire family was asked to push the vehicle to start it. On long journeys one saw many people standing by the wayside trying to repair their car.

HMT Showroom in Jaipur 2012, April
To get a watch from the respected HMT [Hindustan Machine Tools] one had to place an order at least three months in advance. A Vespa scooter was one of the most sought after scooters on Indian roads. It normally took a waiting time of 15 years to get one. The Lambretta scooter was less in demand but even that had a waiting time of 4 years.

A cooking gas connection as also the telephone connection had to be booked at the time of birth so that by the time the daughter was to be married twenty years later the doting family could gift her a cooking gas connection and a telephone as part of her dowry.

Thanks to a flourishing District Library movement in the country many districts had a well stocked library. If you could manage a contact with the 'Uncle' who ordered books for the library there was also a possiblilty of getting the books of your choice into the library.

'Uncles' were most important. A father, howsoever important, could only have this much of a reach. You needed Uncles in every department of the government to get things done or to obtain scarce consumer goodies.

Lines for telephone, gas, scooter, medical and much more could be easily by passed if there was an Uncle suitably placed.

The big transformation that the liberalisation of the 1990s has brought about is in the Uncle phenomenon. Now they are not required any more. Now we can hanker for material goods for a good life without bothering any Uncle.

Bullock driven cane juicer. c. 1990 from near Nashik