Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Oil, Boil, Toil and Trouble

This post was inspired by Shyam's post on baths!
“Rapunzel, Rapunzel – let down thy locks.”
When Mom appeared bearing a steel katori clenched with tongs – Rapunzel knew she was in for the weekly torture installment. She cursed her Mom for being so old-fashioned that she wouldn’t permit Rapunzel to chop off her locks. She double-cursed her dance teacher for being in cahoots with her Mom, “We are doing Nala-Damayanthi this year you know, keep her hair long.” (That the Damayanthi role never materialized and Rapunzel was relegated to being an obscure courtier, ironically her locks tied up and hidden inside a cardboard crown is a different story altogether.)
Anyway Rapunzel was duly escorted to the backyard and made to sit on the lowest of the four steps that led to the sunny area paved in huge cobblestones. There was a metallic plonk as the katori full of hot castor oil was placed down. Then Grandma and Aunt R coolly dispatched Mom and set themselves on the top-most step.
Grandma pulled at the left braid and Aunt R the right and mercilessly unbraided the plaits like they were some rugged sailors unfastening ropes tied to the sails in stormy weather. Without any warning the hot oil would suddenly be applied to Rapunzel’s scalp. Castor oil is evil smelling and must be the world’s thickest substance. Applying it to one’s hair feels like one is applying a gooey mass of honey and not just that it tugs at the roots, when your hair is whisked in the opposite direction it feels like a bunch of nasty imps are trying out moonwalking on your scalp!
Centuries later the last of the oil is drained out of the cup and Rapunzel’s tresses are tied up in a style that would make Medusa seethe with envy. Rapunzel is strictly instructed to stay put on the steps and bask in the sun. She morosely watches the maid washing clothes, secretly wishing the clothes the maid was hitting against the washing–stone were Grandma and Aunt R, as the oil drips down her nose and chin.
Meanwhile Mom puts in an appearance again as she scurries too and fro carrying coconut husks and bits of firewood to heat up the water in a copper cauldron. For mysterious reasons the electric geyser is never used to heat up water for washing off castor-oil infested persons. Aunt R is busy too, mixing shikakai powder in a brass bowl. Shikakai is a fine brown powder that burns and stings your eyes and is apparently the only stuff on earth that will get the castor-oil off you. It is mixed into a paste like consistency that resembles a bowl of mud.
The next step of the ordeal is being made to sit on a low stool as Grandma pours mugs of hot water on your back and into your hair. Observe Mom has done the disappearing act again! Aunt R will then proceed to rub in the Shikakai paste into your hair. She acts like Rapunzel has about a 100 years worth of grease that must be scrubbed off at any cost and I am not exaggerating when I say if any of my North American neighbors had heard the sounds emanating from the bathroom they would have called 911.
No matter how tightly Razpunzel squeezes her eyes the insidious shikakai particles manage to sneak in – Grandma finally grudgingly hands her a mug of water to rinse out her eyes. The last mug of water is poured and Mom is here again – with two towels. She and Aunt R squeeze all the excess water out of Rapunzels’s locks and Mom then proceeds to wind the thinner of the towels around the tresses with a skill that would have earned her a fortune if mummy embalming were still in vogue.
Rapunzel semi-dried with gritty pieces of shikakai that even 4 buckets of water could not dislodge is led to the same steps on the backyard. You get the routine now, Mom vanishes Grandma and Aunt proceed to unravel the bound up hair. Rapunzel is made to stand and bend her head – her hair is brought up from behind her head and made to fall in front of her face. The towel is used to smack the hair hard and just when Rapunzel is convinced her neck is going to be stuck in this awkward position forever she is set upright and given a vigorous towel rub.
She is then left to wallow in her red-eyes and sore scalp for the sun to dry what ever was left of the moisture. The small mercy is that she is allowed to read – now that there is no oil to spoil the pages.
And did you think this was over? Once your hair is dry the ordeal continues with Aunt R combing out all the snarls and knots – did we mention her gentle tugs and soft touches – obviously not because they just didn’t exist. Once all the arduous work was done Mom arrives (fanfare) and proceeds to put back Razpunzel’s tresses in its usual 2 braids and as a sort of consolation prize affixes a strand of malli (jasmine)to the freshly laundered locks.
(Years later – Rapunzel (sporting a shoulder length bob) – knows she would be willing to pay a King’s ransom if only she could have her hair massaged and washed by Aunt R and Grandma.)

Acacia Concinna is a small shrub-like tree which grows in the warm, dry plains of central India. For centuries the people who have had access to this tree have used its pod-like fruit to clean their hair. They collect, dry and grind this pod into a powder which is considered a superior cleanser for "lustrous long hair" and has been reported as "promoting hair growth and preventing dandruff". Because of these benefits, this powder was named "shikakai" which literally translates as "fruit for the hair" .
Typically, shikakai is mixed with water to make a paste which is worked through the hair. It lathers moderately and cleans hair beautifully. It has a natural low pH, is extremely mild, and doesn't strip hair of natural oils. Usually no rinse or conditioner is used since shikakai also acts as a detangler. This ancient product is probably the world's original pH balanced shampoo.


  1. what a funny and interesting read.

    was rapunzel not subjected to traditional sambrani smoke post-bath?!

  2. Looks like you've been through the dis-TRESSES-ing ordeal too.

    At my G'mas the Sambrani smoke was exclusively for the tiny babies. I love the fragrance of sambrani!

  3. ha ha.. The Sunday routine in Indian homes. Only in my case it was coconut oil...

  4. Oh.....do I remember these rituals?! The whole Sunday morning gone in this pursuit.... Anyway, my hair is shoulder length now and is not afforded a second glance by anyone including myself. Sigh....we do have to relook at our priorities huh :)

    Good one Rapunzel....