That Little Girl

The following story happened a long time back - during an era where social media seemed nonexistent.

There was only the radio, no television, no CD players or tape recorders or the fancy gadgets available nowadays.

As for telephones or refrigerators, only the very wealthy could afford them.


In such a setting, a little girl was growing up. She had lovely long hair that reached below her waist.

Living in a joint family, she was surrounded by loving relatives.

There were her grandparents, her parents, brothers, uncles, aunts and cousins. Add to that a constant stream of relatives from different branches of the family tree and friends who would drop in just for chaya or to share some news and a lot of gossip.


This girl spent her days playing happily with not a care in the world.

Except once a week.

That was when she was subjected to an elaborate “ritual” which she considered torture but which everyone else thought was good for her.


Let me give some background information first.

Now, in those days shampoo was hardly used, especially in that little girl’s home.

Instead sheeyakai, or shikakai as it is sometimes called, was used.

Sheeyakai was not available in powder form as it is now. It came in dried pods. These pods were soaked in water for a few hours, then crushed by hand.

This mixture was then applied on to the hair and rubbed well before being washed off.

Without any harsh chemicals, it actually was a great substitute for shampoo.


However, there was more to be done before the sheeyakai was applied.


More often than not, she'd be playing when her mother would call.

She would reluctantly go to her mother who would make her sit on the floor.

Then her mother would apply a specially prepared oil to the girl's hair.

It was coconut oil heated thoroughly with the addition of certain ingredients like jeerakam (cumin), kurumulagu (black pepper) and uluva (fenugreek seeds).

Then the oil was cooled and kept in a bottle.

Her mother would apply the oil, starting from the scalp and work her way down through every strand of hair.

"Ooh! Aah!" the little girl would protest every now and then when her hair was pulled this way and that.


Once that was over, her mother would take her to the bathroom and make her squat on the floor. Bear in mind, there was no bathtub or fancy faucets those days.

Then, ignoring the increasing cries and protests of the girl, her mother would apply the sheeyakai paste on her oiled hair and rub it well into every strand once again. Then she'd grab a mug, take water from a bucket nearby and sluice it on the girl's head. Again more rubbing and again more sluicing until the mother was convinced her daughter's hair was clean. Then she'd soap the girl's body and after what seemed like forever, the bath would be over.


However, the ritual was not.

After towel drying the girl's hair, her mother would take her into the living room and make her sit on the wooden floor.

Actually, it was a living room cum family room cum bedroom cum whatever-you-want-it-to-be room.

The mother would then get the sambrani holder, fill it with burning coal from the wood-burning stove, then strew sambrani powder on it.

The fumes from the powder would send a heavenly fragrance throughout the room and the whole house would smell absolutely lovely.

She would then sit behind her daughter, lift her newly washed hair and move the sambrani plate back and forth beneath it.

The gentle heat from the burning coal would quicken the drying process while the melting sambrani powder gave a simply divine fragrance to the child's hair.

Finally, the ritual would be over, the protests would have died down and the child would run off to play.


Soon the child was going to be seven.

It was time to enroll her in school.

Not just any school but a convent school.

Now everybody there knew it was difficult to get enrolled in a convent school.

You had to have big bucks to get admission.

Knowing influential people would be an added bonus.

This little girl's parents had neither.


But they had determination.

So the plan went into effect.


The little girl's mother began coaching her.

It was important to impress Reverend Mother at the convent.

At home everybody spoke Malayalam.

English was not used.

The little girl's mother was concerned.

What if her daughter started blabbering in her mother tongue when Reverend Mother asked questions in English?

So with whatever knowledge of English she had, she started coaching her little girl.

She didn't have a degree in the English language but she had enough knowledge for communication.


Intensive coaching was in progress at the end of which the scene went thus:


"Now, when they ask 'what is your name?' what should you say?" asked the mother.

"My name is …......" and the child would recite her full name.

"And if they ask "how old are you?"?

"I am seven years old" came the prompt response.


One-word answers were unacceptable.

Everything had to be in full sentences with the subject and verb and whatever else was necessary in the correct sensible order.

By the time coaching was over, the little girl was fully aware of that.

If she forgot and gave a one-word answer, a look from her mother would shake her into rattling off full sentences.


Soon the day came.

It was time to see Reverend Mother.

The little girl's mother had given her a shower, not the elaborate one mentioned above but a regular one.

She was then dressed in a pretty frock.

Frock! Ha ha!

An antiquated word so commonly used long ago.

I am yet to hear anyone use them these days.


In any case, there she stood, all dressed and ready to go.

However, at that innocent age she had no idea where she was going!

All she knew was, her father was going to take her someplace!

And since going out was rare, any visit, to any place, was always welcomed.

She walked happily holding her father's hand.

Her father grasped her tiny chubby hand on his left and held a hamper on his right.


It was only years later that it dawned on that little girl, who was no more little by then, that it was bribery.

That hamper held all kinds of goodies which neither she or her brothers or even anyone else in the family, had tasted. She was sure of that.

They were imported expensive cookies and delectables.

Topping it all off was a bottle of who knew what it was........ could have been brandy or wine or some obnoxiously expensive liquor.

When grown up, she had forgotten to ask if her dad had also included a cash gift in that hamper.

She was pretty sure he had because convents were always asking for donations.

In any case, since both her parents had passed away, there was no way she could confirm that strong suspicion.


But back to the story.

So finally they reached the hallowed precincts of the convent.

Soon Reverend Mother was ready to see them.

The little girl's father handed Reverend Mother the hamper.

She couldn't remember the conversation that took place between her father and the head of the convent.

However, the questions Reverend Mother asked her and her full sentence answers with all her ducks in a row were vivid in her mind.


When they got back home, her father must have told her mother the result of that conversation with Reverend Mother.

The girl was to attend the convent when school started in January,


The little girl continued living in her own world of childhood innocence.

That night, out of curiosity. her mother asked her about the visit to the convent.

"Reverend Mother endhokke chodhichu?"

"What is your name ennu chodhichu" answered the little girl.

"Adhinu nee endhu paranyu?"

"Njaan full sentencil aanu paranyadhu."

"Adhu nannaayi."


Now, in present times, the mother would have said, "Awesome! Good job! You did great!"

But this happened in prehistoric times when people were sparing in their praise.

So "Adhu nannaayi " was a great compliment.

The little girl beamed.


And so the years passed, more and more years ………. so very many years.


That little girl grew up and passed through the various phases of life……till it dawned on her to record her experiences in this article….…..


പ്രഭ

**********


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