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Mother applied oodles of oil on our heads when we were kids. Years later I happened to meet an old classmate and what she said only corroborated facts.

“Of course I remember both you and your sis. You girls used to drip oil!” she said shuddering dramatically.

I don’t blame her. The picture evoked makes me shudder even now, more than a quarter century later. It figures though, what she said I mean. The oil-dripping phase of us sisters is in itself a faint memory, but I remember with more clarity my little brother being referred to by the sobriquet of ‘velichenna’ (coconut oil) by one of my much older cousins. (Omigosh, I am due for a visit at my brother’s in a couple of weeks time and I only hope this bit of revelation does not shut his doors for me. Aaaaargh!!! Me and my tap dancing fingers!! Blogging is my bane!!) The long-haired and bell-bottomed in the latest fashion of the times cousin brother of mine whom we were visiting at the time, then turned to Mother and joked,

“Got it in barrels back at home eh??”

Of course, every Mallu* worth his name has it, coconut oil I mean, if not in barrels at least in huge pet bottles which are the latest in storage device. Is it for nothing that this land is called Keralam, land of coconuts?? Applying plenty of coconut oil to hair and having a bath are daily musts in every true Mallu’s life. Ooops… Let me hasten to add that the rest of the country bathes and applies oil daily too. Phew. That was a narrow escape. I think I almost had a revolution on my hands with that statement. Let me explain the difference though.

In Malluland the daily bath is a head bath unlike in the rest of the country. Every morning finds wet-haired Mallus everywhere you look: on roads, trains, buses, cars, schools, colleges, offices, markets, tea-shops, vegetable shops, sweet-shops, toddy shops, temples, fields, highways, by-lanes, inside houses, outside, wayside, beneath coconut trees,  on top of coconut trees … in short everywhere. Water shortage and the rebellious nature of the newer generation are rewriting the patterns and eating into the numbers. But even as I write this, the wet-haired Mallus still hold the forte with sheer numbers.

Most of this wet-hair will be styled in the ‘killipinnal’ (After all aren’t women more in number in Malluland?!) fashion which is THE hair style of all true blooded Mallu girls and women. You take a killu (pinch) of hair from the right side, (which can be from above your ears, from right behind it or from slightly below depending on the likings of the individual, one of those rare freedoms allowed girls) then a killu from the left and finally a killu from behind your head. With the three little pinches (killu) of hair you have collected, you make a tiny braid to hold the rest of your hair so that it can be left open. This is the standard hair-style the Mallu girls/women opt for after their head bath when their hair is still wet. And this is also the one that my monkeys… err I mean sons, especially the senior one hated (or still does??).

“What’s this??” he would ask brows wrinkled in disapproval. “This doesn’t suit you!”

“But it’s convenient” I smile at him. “Keeps my hair in place while I go about my work”

Cheee!” more disapproval

Of course this was during the time when my tresses were still in competition with the famed legendary ones of a certain Ms Rapunzel. Now that I have chopped them off (letting Rapunzel keep her title in the bargain), I don’t need the killipinnal to hold my hair in place. But I am digressing. (Sigh! What’s new??) We were talking of oil.

Oil says the general Mallu wisdom, is good for your hair. So from times immemorial Mallu mothers have been pouring oil, not only over troubled waters the gems that they are, but also over their children’s heads, if not in bucketfuls at least in spoonfuls from said bucket. The result?? Shiny hair sticking together in bunches, never free to ripple in waves oh so tantalizingly when the head is shaken even a wee little bit.

The Mallu poets, like those of their counterparts elsewhere, go ga-ga over long hair. My grandfather also went ga-ga over long hair though not in poetic form and in the process made life a bit difficult for the younger generation including yours truly who wanted to experiment with the different lengths and cuts in hair styles. They, the poets and also the novelists, probably my grandfather too, liken it to the dark clouds gathering before a storm and what not. The lot of them go into rapturous delight describing the scent of kachiya enna (heated oil) with all the accompanying smells of the different herbs mixed in it, emanating from the heroine’s well-oiled head of hair. Many of them have written about wanting to bury their heads in their beloved’s thick hair. Ugh! Now I shudder.

I am only a woman and what do I really know about what the men want!! But if I were a man, burying my face in the loveliest of hair, however much they resemble the darkest of storm clouds and oh so inviting, would be the last thing on my mind if they were oily. Of course there is no accounting for tastes. Perhaps men do like to end up with a greasy face?? But.. but…let me see, is this desire of burying faces in kachiya enna thecha mudi (hair massaged with specially prepared oil) an easy way the men have found to apply oil to their faces?? Hmmm… worth checking. Some of them are pretty lazy.

Well like I said, I am not too sure about the veracity of this desire on the male of the species, whatever the poets say. Poets everyone knows, are crazy (I am sure Obelix would agree with me) and so are novelists. So one cannot actually go by what they say. But our mothers would have us believe that the perfectly oiled hair was what a girl was all about to the men. Once reading a story where the hero waxed eloquent about the smell of shampoo from the heroine’s hair, Mother went so far as to dismiss it saying it simply could NOT have been written by a man but was surely the handiwork of some devilish woman. So closely knit is the poet/novelist and kaachiya enna!

This total faith in oiling your hair finds its exact parallel in watering of plants in summer. You water the plants profusely and daily in summer. Same goes for the use of oil mothers of Malluland teach the young ones. Daily and in huge quantities if you want your hair to grow luxuriantly. I know some of you are baffled by what is wrong with oiling your hair daily. I am sorry I didn’t tell you the res of the matter. The Mallu does not wash the oil away from his hair. It remains on the wet glistening head of the Mallu even after his/her bath. The next day more of oil is added to the already existing quantity on the head.

Now take this liberal use of oil, the head bath and the humid climate of Malluland and you have Disaster on your hands. Enter any public transport at peak hour or any busy area thronging with people and all you can smell is profuse sweat (common all over the world where humans congregate in large numbers) and rancid coconut oil, (which is pure Malluland special). The humidity here makes you sweat like a pig. By the way do pigs sweat?? I ask its forgiveness if I have got my facts wrong. The profuse sweating and coconut oil are a deadly combo for suffocation and also for falling sick.

I was forever a sick child. Colds and fevers were my best buddies, not to mention the wheezing. Look at how the conversations used to go in the college hostel.

Scene 1

Friend: Hey lets go!

Me: (mumble mumble)

Friend: (comes over and puts hands to forehead) Oh God you have a fever! (Runs to fetch Matron)

Scene 2

Friend: Let’s have ice cream

Me: Hunhu I don’t feel like it

Friend: (too stunned for words hence unable to react for a few seconds)

Me: (wearily)What??

Friend: (puts hand to my forehead) Gosh you have fever!

I hope you get my point. I was called the Pani Kutty aka Fever Girl. Though college and hostel meant a lot of freedom from Mother and her oil dispensing methods, habits learnt at your Mother’s knee, die hard. With no Mother to supervise things, the quantity of oil was reduced drastically and shampoos were brought into the picture. But, my thick and unruly long hair refused to obey new orders and stood out in defiance making me look like a rakshasi (female demon) of the epics and I am thankful that the song ‘Rakshasi rakshasi’ which is popular now hadn’t yet been written those days.

It may come as a shock to the younger generation, but those were ancient times and conditioners were not yet heard of and were unavailable in the market. I had to tame this thick unruly and long hair of mine. So reluctantly I used to apply a little, just a wee little oil and in true Mallu style, leave it in my hair. Needless to say, I used to promptly fall sick. Not everyone can handle oil, sun and humidity the same way. I was one among those who couldn’t. Well, who thinks about the welfare of individuals, isn’t common good what it’s all about??!!

One day years later when I remarked about my frequent headaches, colds and sore throats whenever I venture out with oil in my hair, one of my uncles said it was only natural that it occurred so. Oil and sun and humidity, what else do you expect?? ‘All this oiling of hair was for the times when life was not led the way we lead it now’ he said. Right then I wanted to dump a truck load of red bricks on the collective heads of the elders in my family of the ‘We For Oil Brigade’ for all the suffering they had put me through. By then of course having married and moved away to a home and family of my own, I had already put an end to this method of storing oil in your hair and its slow transferring to pillows, sheets, husband, kids …in short anything the hair came in contact with.

In subsequent years, I stuck to the new wisdom that says, oil does its work in the first half an hour of applying. So, after the mandatory half an hour or even one whole hour, I banish it via the medium of a shampoo and water down the drain to regions so specified by the Municipal Corporation where I believe it truly belongs once its work is done. And I tell you from the time I reduced my contact time with coconut oil,  I was transformed magically from the Forever Fever Girl to Occasional Fever Girl! I made sure that my monkeys …err I mean sons, also followed the same pattern.

Yet I see a lot of people around me putting to good use the coconut oil produced in God’s Own Land by the barrels and surviving pretty well too. Alas, the oil consumption in my own home is down to the minimum. Of course I tend to hear disparaging remarks about my ‘chembicha mudi’ (rust colored dry hair due to lack of oil) which according to Mother and all other seniors as also the will always be bound by tradition and nothing else types who are fans of shiny black hair where the shine and the blackness are from the oodles of oil, is no longer as thick or as black as during the oil-days. Me?? I love my mudi (hair) the way it is, chembichu light and bouncy. Oh yeah I am happy with my hair.

*Mallu – is a Malayali, like me, resident of the God’s Own Country which is none other than Kerala, land of coconuts and coconut oil.