Castor Oil…


An annual ritual that we all endured as kids up until our teens was the dreaded castor oil purge.

Our mother would preside over the operation like some feared mother goddess about to bring her children to her bosom in a fiery, final rite of passage, and it came without warning.

Village remedies that might be frowned on by Western doctors were carried over by our first generation parents in the U.K, although castor oil was a purgative in common use at one time and seems to have fallen out of fashion, possibly with good reason.

We (my three sisters and I) would be woken on a weekend morning (how cruel, I used to think at the time) by the unmistakably acrid smell of castor oil being boiled up with various herbs and spices procured for the purpose of speeding the castor oil on its way – remember that worms were a common affliction in young children in Indian villages at one time.

Once we knew that the inescapable day had arrived it was a matter of who was bravest to go downstairs – in any case it usually played out as the eldest being first in line, and my sister would put on a brave face, initially, until the first dose was administered after which we would watch in terror as the doses continued to come, and my sister squirmed and protested.

My mother would sit on the floor in the middle of the living room (I think the transition from lino to carpet some time in the 70’s determined when the castor oil ritual finally ended), cross-legged and next to her was a large, deep aluminium pan filled to the brim with the warm seething liquid, greenish in colour due to the herbs and spices. Next to that was a small stainless steel dish on which were some pieces of a preserved (in salt) bitter variety of lemon, usually eaten as an accompaniment to the South Indian staple “curd rice” – this was rubbed vigorously on the back of tongue once all the doses had been administered to mitigate the immediate effects of the castor oil – retching, mostly.

We were made to lie face up between her folded legs, which she then placed around our necks to stop us moving about during the dose, which was poured from a stainless steel tumbler into the mouth from a height, while we held our noses tightly shut with our fingers – a teacloth was provided to wipe any that escaped as we struggled to gulp down the hot, bitter-tasting brew & fight off nausea.

As my mother went through the ritual with each one of us in turn, those waiting either left the room or watched with a kind of fascinated terror – the younger we were, the more traumatic it seemed.

Don’t think that our father escaped this either, he was usually first in line, almost relishing the process, and my mother last of all, although it was considered unnecessary for anyone over a certain age.

Having survived the dreaded first stage, which seemed to go on forever until we were pleading “is this the last one ?” as our mother barked the answer and got ready the next dose – the next phase was the bitter lemon pickle tongue-rub followed by jumping up and down rapidly to help the purgative go down.

The effects were rarely immediate – starting at around 7.00 a.m the ritual would end at around 10.00 or 11.00 taking into account reluctant participants, by which time the special lunch prepared well in advance would be ready, this consisted of rice and “rasam” – a watery, spicy broth – and was designed to further stimulate and agitate the already irritated bowels.

Performed at the weekend, the purge meant that the whole of Sunday became a round of toilet visits, and could spill (sorry…) over into the weekday – particularly difficult if it happened to be during the school term, as I remember vividly queueing outside the biology room for the lesson to start before having to leave in a hurry as fellow students trooped in.

Ravi Swami 2017