The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Every month on a hot early morning in Kerala, my father and his siblings and cousins and possibly even the neighbours' kids used to be lined up and force-fed a disgustingly bitter concoction of castor oil and milk. The idea was to clear their bowels, purge their innards, reduce them to quivering wrecks and restore them to full health. They would then spend the rest of the day running to the privy and losing interest in life. Several times between those times, they'd be given hot water to drink, to stimulate every possible peristalsis imaginable. By dusk, they would be ready to collapse, weak and exhausted. Their parents would then pat themselves on their backs and rejoice at having held off ill-health for another month.

Before one scoffs at yet another example of Eastern mumbo-jumbo and grandma's folk remedies, I must point out that the Western hocus-pocus of colonic irrigation is not that very different. Is it? Is it?

But what I find charming in this tale of bowel movements is that a mother's interest in her child's 'regularity' transcends cultures and traditions. This fact I learn from Gilda O'Neill's little book East End Tales. Gilda, born in the East End of London in 1951, faced very similar assaults on her tummy from her parents.

Before the advent of the NHS, the indigent had to make do with quackery and patent drugs and concoctions from the local pharmacy because doctors were too expensive. Folk remedies were common. In this, too, the English are no different from Indians. Whenever I got a cold, my mother would mix lemon juice and ginger and honey and make me eat the mixture. Gilda recalls a Fenning's Fever Cure which was so vile that she preferred to hide her illnesses rather than face drinking that muck.

Her father insisted that gargling was the answer to society's ill-health, and persisted in gargling throughout his life. Considering he was an inveterate smoker (of filterless Navy Cut ciggies!), the remedy appears to have lent him good health and somehow counteracted the effects of nicotine and tar - he died in his ninth decade. My parents insisted on gargling to clear a throat infection (but invariably it would end up irritating my throat and I'd cough even more than usual).

Meanwhile, Gilda and her cohorts were forced to have a tea-spoon of cod-liver oil daily at school.

Fortunately for Gilda, her mother's obsession with her 'regularity' didn't entail bitter medicine. Instead, liquorice sticks were soaked in water for a week. If she was good, Gilda might get a liquorice stick to chew on for the rest of the day. And every Friday, Gilda's mum would strain the water and let the kids have it as a tea. This was meant to keep their bowels going. A far better solution than castor-oil, that's for sure.


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