The ritual of an oil bath

Saturdays were always dreaded. No kid likes to have to sit for an hour, forbidden to touch anything, with a strange feeling of something snaking down your neck – something growing, silky and wet. Oil baths were the most boring ordeals in our house. I hated them from the bottom of my heart because it meant over an hour of sitting through the neck wringing torture of having powerful arms rub the oil into your head – yes, you read it right – into your head. I always felt dad hoped the oil would seep in and perhaps make our hair better or brains work like well-oiled machinery. Oil baths were painful.

They also had their own recipes.

Olive oil was always good but the real veneer only came with gingely oil. If you really wanted it good there was gingly oil boiled with turmeric, black pepper and betel leaves to create a concoction that would give you the finest skin on earth. Didn’t quite happen though it could be worse.

The oil had to be cooled but dad, who was the chief superintendent of oil baths, preferred it warm (which was always hot) when he’d rub it into our bones.

Oil baths started from Friday evening with us not planning anything for the first half of Saturday because we had to have a serial oil bath. The bathroom floor was always slick by lunch hour. We (mostly I) would whine about it just being a week since our last wash and dad not even listening to it. I didn’t have bad dreams though I think all the bad dreams I can recall might have been through my Friday night’s sleep.

Saturday arrived like soiled cotton wool dropping from a mechanic’s hand – just this time it wasn’t grease but gingely oil. We had two cups, stainless steel, marked for this anointing – one for holding the oil and the other for mixing the shikakai (soapnut) powder with water. This had to be brought to a consistency which made it nearly drip from your fingers but not really pour off. Now that I think about it, perhaps what I really hated was the shikakai powder (Tamilians call is seehakai).

Shikakai burns. Whichever sensitive part it touches, it burns. God forbid it gets into your eyes (and how long can you ask a child to close his eyes and not know what’s going on around him), and you can run all over the house and bump into things (because you have shut your eyes tight) only to be caught by the firm hands of someone (dad) and spanked (dad) and hear a voice scold him for being tough on the kids (mom).

Oil baths are, hence, split into two parts: not touching anything (when you are all oiled up) and not opening your eyes (when you are washing the oil off with shikakai). Find me a kid who can spend over an hour not touching anything and 30 minutes with his eyes shut and I will find you nirvana.

Perhaps I assume you understand the travails. Maybe I should explain.

Oil baths start with the deep massaging of oil into your head. While strong hands rub them hard on your scalp you need to hold your neck firm. You cannot slacken as your head might go in and get stuck between your lungs (yes, I knew what lungs were then). There would be brief pauses when I would get to relax my neck but brief was not long enough. I would beg for a timeout and find something to divert attention but soon I had run out of tricks. The hands kept pressing the oil into (or rather out of) my head. The justification was the rubbing vigorously would draw out all the heat from my system and cool me down. Buy me an ice-cream I say! Nevertheless, I could actually feel the heat leave through my head. I never mentioned it for fear of encouraging my father. Trust me when I say that you would hear a soft buzzing when he was done and you just might topple over if someone touched you. My cerebellum was tipsy!

Why start with the head? Because they need to “soak” the longest in oil. Why? Don’t know. Maybe because the brain simply needed that much time to realise it was drenched in oil. Then came the face which was delicately handled lest the components get mixed up. Then came the arms. Ladies and gentlemen, there is no known technique to lengthen your arms other than the oil rub ritual. My dad would hold one end of it (the loose end) and with his other hand create a C-shaped vice with his forefinger and thumb and run that up and down the length of my arm. I could hear the shuttle whoosh back and forth over the loom of my hand. Soon my arm would be so hot I could nearly see a mirage near the bend of my elbow.

Eventually we’d cover one part at a time till I was too exhausted to even stand up. Somehow, my father had the energy to bathe all the kids on the block. Once coated in a fine film of oil from head to toe, we had to marinate in it for another 30 minutes or so. That was mandatory else the oil would have no effect. Dad would also pour a couple of drops of oil into our ears to helps clean the inside. French fries wouldn’t feel so oily as we did.

Nice and shiny

Then we were ushered into the bathroom one by one and washed clean with shikakai. We had to use hot water because oil washes off well in hot water (like the grime in your skillet). So a few mugs of hot water, then a full rub-a-dub-dub of shikakai face pack (more like body pack) and then more hot water to wash it all off.

When we emerged from all of this we were too drained to appreciate the cooing by our mother about how fair we had become and how polished we look. We had enough energy for lunch and then dozed off in the noon heat.

Dad thoroughly enjoyed his oil baths. I am told that when my enate grandfather came to meet my agnate one and my father (to propose a wedding with his daughter), my dad was well oiled and busy washing clothes. How that picture impressed the gentleman (may his soul rest in peace) is beyond me, but it did and he was happy to get my mother married to my father (which is obvious). Dad never missed his oil baths.

I would always wonder what there was to it. It would be like explaining the joys of sitting on the banks of the Ganga (without hurling pebbles in) for hours. No child would like it, but like appreciating Shakespeare, one grows into it.

Today (actually, tomorrow) when I ready myself for an oil bath I realise how wonderful it is. For an hour or so, I have an entire room to myself where I enjoy rubbing oil all over. I sing songs or imagine dialogues with friends. I cannot touch anything so no surfing the web or answering phone calls. I ponder over human behaviour and the world in general. I might holler across rooms and have trite discussions with mom. I quieten my mind and observe that stillness. I design recipes and plan tours while vigourously rubbing oil over my shins. Then I let it all marinate, the thoughts, the whole week’s exertion, the voices of people on the street below, the doubts, the fears, the music, muscles on the back of neck and slowly trace that gradual unctuous snake traversing down my spine, that excess oil which makes its way into my life on Saturdays.


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