When I think of my childhood in late middle age, I remember people less vividly than I remember things. I remember scented erasers made of opaque rubber topped with a strip of translucent green. Also a cheaper eraser enigmatically called Sandow. And soap. The history of middle-class India in the 1960s and 1970s can be written in soap and detergent.
Red Lifebuoy was the soap you washed your hands with afterwards. Cinthol (green) was the bar to bathe with except for people with aspirations who bought Moti, a fat round of soap too large for small hands, or Pears. But Pears was posh; any household that routinely used Pears wasn’t middle class; it was the sort of place that bought crates of Coca Cola instead of bottles of Kissan orange squash, where the children went to boarding school and owned complete sets of Tintin.
The only detergent that seems to have survived as a brand is Surf. Not that anyone used the word ‘detergent’ in the 1960s. Surf was detergent: it was the generic word for any powdered soap that came in a 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 the housewife.
There was a soap to wash woollens with called Lux Flakes, which smelt nice but disappeared from the market early on. I think our parents liked the thought of collecting petrol-perfumed woollens in giant brown paper bags so much that they were willing to pay Novex and Snowhite a bit extra for that privilege. Dry-cleaning was a way of being modern, smart and confidently middle class.
Apart from soap, childhood was defined by toothpaste. Nearly everybody used Colgate and that hasn’t changed, but for a while Binaca Green was a real contender. My earliest experience of difference was realizing that mine was the only family amongst the people we knew which read The Statesman and brushed its teeth with a green toothpaste. Everyone else took the Times of India and gloried in the peppermint joy of Colgate. We were pioneering ecological puritans: we brushed our teeth with a horrible non-foaming toothpaste that left us with a bad taste in the mouth entirely because it claimed to be made up of chlorophyll. The only good thing to be said for Binaca Green was that it sponsored a Radio Ceylon programme of filmi songs called Binaca Geet Mala.
There was a short-lived star in the toothpaste stakes, though, called Signal, which came in white and red stripes. Even a child my age who could barely recognize a polysyllabic word knew that the red stripes were made of a magical substance called hexachlorophene. Not that we cared: our interest was limited to our scientific curiosity about how the toothpaste worm came out continuously striped. It was later that I learnt that hexachlorophene caused fits and paralysis and was especially bad for children.
My grandmother claimed that this bore out everything she had always suspected about toothpaste; her solution was to make us scrub our teeth with index fingers smeared with powdered coal. She called it ‘kala manjan’, literally black tooth powder, and it came in small bottles with crude red labels. It left you feeling gritty in the mouth for hours afterwards and we resented it as we resented anything that seemed unmodern or vaguely home-made, but in retrospect it had an important virtue: you could swallow it without convulsing or dying.
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 camp in the stairwell that led up to our government flat to card the clumped-up rooi or cotton-wool inside our razais (quilts). His massive ektara made a deep thrumming sound which was amusing for about five minutes before you realized that it was the only sound it could make and left to play cricket or ludo or something.
Likewise, summer was announced by the ganderiwala or the sugarcane man who stationed his cart outside the house and ran giant sticks of sugarcane, six at a time, through his hand-cranked press. Then he’d double the husked sticks and run them through again. The juice ran through a sieve filled with broken ice into an aluminium jug. Before he gave you the glass, he mixed in a patented powder that was nine parts kala namak, a kind of rock salt that tasted — there’s no way of saying this politely — of fart. 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 for the same reason as no one boiled water at home or bought water outside except from vendors who sold it for two paise a glass: because we were stupid and didn’t mind dying young.
The cotton carder and the sugarcane man are nearly extinct in metropolitan Delhi as is Bapsi Sidhwa’s ice candy man. When I was a child in Kashmere Gate, the chuskiwala would visit once a week with his brown wooden box lined with a kind of woollen felt. He would then shape for us roughly conical lumps of shaved ice and colour them with radioactive liquids. They were horrible, unnatural colours; I ate the ice lollies because all my older cousins did but I hated the taste. When we moved to a government flat in New Delhi, I became an enthusiastic patron of the four-anna orange bar peddled by the Kwality ice cream man in the neighbourhood.
But because my childhood happened in an autarkic India, committed to the twin gods of self-sufficiency and high tariff barriers, it was the things that we didn’t have that I remember better than the ones that we did. Orange bars, HMV records, Godrej refrigerators, bond paper, Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut, Naga shawls, Phantom peppermint cigarettes and ugly walnut tables from Kashmir were nice but they were available (if your parents had the money to spare) and therefore not nearly as desirable as the things you couldn’t have except from that supermarket in the sky called Foreign.
Wrigley’s Spearmint, Quality Street and (for unknowable reasons) Kraft cheese was the toll that foreign returners routinely paid for going abroad without their families, but these were perishable things from an inferior heaven. The real loot, or maal, was impossibly rare consumer durables.
Seiko watches, for example, with 17 jewels and radium dials. Not one of us knew what jewels were doing inside a watch but they were precious and the number gave us a way of measuring value in the same way as 17 gun salutes told you something about the standing of a princely state.
The thing in question didn’t have to be expensive: it merely had to be foreign and better in some real or imagined way than its Indian equivalent. So if you played table tennis you craved Japanese Nittaku balls instead of the deceptively foreign-sounding but actually desi, Montana. Later the Chinese came up with cheap, virtually indestructible balls called Shield but those were never as fetishized as the Nittaku balls because they became increasingly available in India and where was the romance in that?
But nothing was as glamourous as a can of Dunlop tennis balls. Unlike Indian tennis balls, these were sealed in pressurized containers and when you pulled the metal tab, there was a little whoosh and you breathed in a compressed burst of scientific-smelling foreign air.
So geometry boxes by Staedtler, table tennis bats called Butterfly, Bic ballpoint pens, little flat torches that dangled off keychains, and Parker 45 pens with impossible-to-buy-in-India ink cartridges… these were a few of our favourite things. We almost never got them, but when we did, we experienced a gloating fulfilment that only scarcity can induce.
Pundits sniff disapprovingly about the consumerism that the liberalization of the economy has encouraged. This would seem to suggest that before 1991, Indians, willy nilly, lived in a state of non-consuming grace. This is just not true; the middle-class children of the 1960s loved things much more intensely than their children do simply because they didn’t have them. You can spot us at a distance in airport terminals: we’re the grey-haired men who can’t tear themselves away from the cigarette cartons even though we stopped smoking three years ago and won’t part with money to buy any for our friends. We are that odd cohort, a Duty Free Generation that never went abroad in its youth… connoisseurs, therefore, of the unavailable.