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|February 12, 1998||
Beauty, naturallyKamala Das
Cousin of mine living in Sussex, at Maiden Bowers, told me that a well-known moisturiser extensively used by the wealthy irons out facial wrinkles but quilts the skin on the bosom and the rump. A lady was heard bemoaning her plight on a TV channel that dared to exhibit her newly-acquired wrinkles. You can never trust these sophisticated cosmetics, said Indira, my cousin. I nodded.
As Malayali women not yet weaned away from the beauty traditions of our ancestors we had reason to be smug. We were used to massage our bodies with Ayurvedic oils like the Dinesavalyadi or Lakshadi on Tuesdays and Friday. The oil was washed off with on application of powdered lentils. The skin retained. Its gloss even in old age. Kumkumadi oil was rubbed over the face before a bath. The leaves of the hibiscus were crushed in hot water to make a viscous shampoo for the hair. Chemicals did not ever figure on the cosmetic lists. To avoid the smell of perspiration one bathed in water boiled with the leaves of the bhel tree. To tighten sagging breasts one could fill ones bodice with poppy leaves. To soften breasts and dry the milk, jasmine flowers were tucked into the bodice.
The Nair woman's beauty secrets were passed on from generation to generation. But a certain selfishness caused them to be reluctant to share the knowledge with the rest of the world. The traditional Nair woman of the upper class does not envy the thin girls who get selected as Miss World or Miss Universe.
If called to be one of the judges at a beauty contest they sweetly decline the honour. They know that beauty is not seasoned like fashions. Beauty must exhilarate the five senses and must be permanent. A beauty must not only look comely but also must smell good. Not the artificial smell of perfumes with an alcohol base but the wholesome smell of a healthy body that reminds one of the tender leaves of the mango and of hay drying in the sun.
Until the fifties the Nayar women never wore any colour but white. White was the only colour that could be compatible with the richer colours of the Kerala landscape. The house had red tiles and white walls. The fences drooped with the coloured blossoms of creepers, hibiscus hugged the lichened walls that enclosed sprawling houses, the sea was cerulean blue, the sky touched with silver. On some days the ghost of a moon would be seen like the ynwhite face of the dead.
Eighty-four-year old Ashoke Mehta, a family friend for years, came from Gujarat to be treated at an Ayurvedic nursing home in Kerala for his arthritis. After a month of oil massage and a strict vegetarian diet he threw away his stick and returned 20 years younger. Such miracles taking place on home ground make people like me smug. Who can blame us?
Illustration: Dominic Xavier
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