The Backyard Runners (Humor) – My Childhood Nostalgia Series – Chapter:15
Updated on November 22, 2014
My father and mother were speaking in hushed tones. Any hushed talking used to kindle my curiosity and I was as usual eves-dropping unobtrusively.
“I have the oil enough in stock” said mother. Also Kadukkai. We only need to purchase Roja mottu, dry grapes and sooraththavaarai“
“100 grams each would suffice, I suppose” said father. “By the way, when do you want to have the ceremony?” asked father. I could hear a chuckle when he emphasized the word ceremony.
“Coming Sunday is fine; there is no school; climate is also cool” said mother.
“Okay. Don’t tell children in advance. Better to keep the surprise element” said father.
“I know, I know” said mother.
Before they could notice my presence, I took a sprint and ended up in front of my eldest sister. I was about six years old then and my eldest sister was around 19 years old. “Appa and Amma are talking secret. It seems there’s going to be a ceremony at home on coming Sunday. Do you know what it is?”
My sister looked at me quizzically.
I asked her further: “By the way, what dish will they make using dried grapes, rose buds and kadukkaai?”
There was a look of shock on my sister’s face.
“You are sure they said those items? Did they talk about any oil, sooraththaavarai etc?”
“I think so”.
“It is a Vilakkennai drinking day then” my sister smiled wryly.
“WHAT?” Though I shouted loud, I knew what she meant. It is the day of consuming castor oil (Vilakkenai in Tamil). It is the day of our annual stomach purging ceremony.
The Vital Ingredients!
Children and elders in their twenties and thirties of present generation will not perhaps know about it. This happened some 50 years ago and in those days it was common practice in many households in Tamil Nadu, India. As per Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of health care, our intestines are the store house of many germs and worms which cause several ailments; cleaning them thoroughly once a while is a sure-fire method of ensuring excellent health and well being.
Castor Oil is a good natural purgative and taking a couple of spoonfuls of it along with a concoction made from the various weird-sounding herbs that my mother and father were mentioning was the traditional household way of accomplishing the task.
It was only natural that I felt depressed. I had gone through the experience for the last couple of years and it was all well etched in my memory. No. I won’t like to undergo the experience once again. I immediately broadcast the news to my other two sisters and elder brother. And their facial convolutions turned exactly as the typical face of those who consumed Vilakkennai – repulsive and depressive! But is there any escape from such matters?
Two years earlier, we were living in another village, where my grandparents too lived. On the d-day of consuming castor oil, I vividly remember escaping the clutches of my mother and running to my grandparents’ house and hiding at the back yard behind the haystack. It was of no use. I could only delay the process by half-an-hour. When I sneaked into grandma’s kitchen feeling hungry, my grandma lovingly caught hold of me and fed me the concoction saying, “See, how sweet smelling this is!?” Sweet smelling? My foot!
One year earlier, after my father’s transfer to the adjacent town’s school, we were staying in another house in a colony near railway track. Our neighbor was Dr. Rusthom Singh, a Punjabi doctor who had recently got posted to the local townpanchayat Government hospital. Since I happened to be a smart looking boy (?!), he and his wife would exchange pleasantries with me once a while in Hindi (not a single word of which was comprehensive to me) across the compound wall.
That time too, on the d-day, I escaped my mother’s grip and ran to the backyard. My immediate brother and sister took the responsibility of catching me and bringing me to face the same ‘justice’ that they had already undergone. A wild chase followed. I went round and round the well, making hell of a noise and finally they caught me tight. My mother came to the back yard with the cup of containing the castor oil concoction in her hands; I cried aloud and vehemently shook my limbs. Hearing my tantrums, Dr Rusthom Singh rushed to his backyard and peeped through the wire fence, with a worried look!
When my father explained to him what was happening, he started laughing aloud, and called out his wife to see the fun going around ! I felt too ashamed; my prestige was at stake! I had no option but to drop all my tantrums and drink that ‘poison’ with the dignity of a Socrates!
Ah! I drank it like Socrates!
Thus at 6, I have become mature enough to accept the inevitable realities of life. The D-day arrived. The repulsive smell of the brew boiling at the kitchen actually woke me up early in the morning. ‘Oh! No’ . I pulled the blanket over my head and pretended to sleep again till my elder brother forcefully removed the blanket and mockingly smiled at me. “Come on! Get up! The grand payasam (sweet pudding) is ready for you!”
I know. There is no ‘Cocoamalt’ (our first hot drink for the morning) for us the on this day. You have to take the castor oil concoction in the empty stomach early in the morning.
Mother called us to the kitchen and we five children took it in the descending order of seniority, with the facial looks of martyrs going through a punishment borne out of a divine commandment.
“Keep this piece of clove and sour orange salted pickle with you. You should never vomit the concoction. Chewing either will prevent vomiting sensation…” Father gave the statutory instruction.
We all gulped the horribly smelling and repulsively tasting oily liquid in a couple of mouthfuls and immediately put the piece of pickle in the mouth to give a relief to the punished taste buds. After the passage of about 5 minutes spent idly looking at the ugly facial expressions of each other, without any mood even to smile at each other, father advised the younger ones to do a couple of jumping down from a higher platform. This was perhaps a belief to ensure that the oil sinks deeper into the stomach without the chance of coming out as vomit!
At times, we would put the clove also into the mouth and chew it, just to ward away the bad taste that kept lingering at the mouth. After about 15 to 20 minutes, a sensation to burp would come and this time the smell coming from inside out would be a an awful mixture of the castor oil, the various herbs, the pungent smell of sour orange and the odd smell of the clove. As I write this, I shudder in the remembrance of such a horrid admixture of smells!
Natural Pit Latrine
Time would then pass uneventful for the next forty five minutes to one hour. Then the mild rumblings would start at the stomach.
At that time, we had not yet built our flush-out (water closet type toilet) at the back yard. What we had was the temporary rural toilet built by our father, which was situated amidst a couple of trees, some 15 yards away from the well at the backyard. Using bamboo sticks and coconut leaf thatches, our father had constructed the make-shift toilet, with all sides covered with thatches and a thatched , swinging rectangular bamboo frame to serve as the door. Inside the enclosure, A four feet deep pit and a pair of wooden planks to sit were the facilities available for us to answer the call of nature. A huge mound of loose soil (dug out from the pit) , a small mound of ash and a wooden paddle would be there at arms distance.
Go inside taking a small bucket of water with you, finish your job, wash yourself, push some soil and ash into the pit using the paddle to cover up your dirty job and then escape. That’s the usage procedure for you.
Being a thorough person by nature, father had made additional arrangements there at the back yard. There was a small (2 ft by 2 ft by 2 ft )cement tank adjacent to the well and he had filled it up with water for quick access. He had kept a couple of extra buckets and a mugs near the well for emergency use. We already had a small thatched coverage at the backyard gutter (just outside the back of the house) used as the urinal and he instructed the younger ones: “In case it becomes too urgent, you can use that as your toilet. Not otherwise”.
We had a sprawling back yard, some 100 ft by 40 ft in size, studded with many trees (coconut, mango, neem, tamarind etc) and several other small plants. In emergency situations on a day like this, sitting behind a tree was quite acceptable!
Once the mild rumblings in stomach starts, one by one we would start visiting the backyard, rather leisurely and casually in the beginning. In the next one hour, momentum will start picking up. What used to be casual walks to the back yard earlier would now be more hurried; competition would start building up: “You wait this time. Last time I waited till you finished. I feel more urgent this time….”
Gradually, more than one person would be waiting impatiently in the queue. “Ai! How long are you taking? come out fast; two are waiting outside…”
“You little one! Why come to the toilet? Go and sit behind the tree. Go, go!”
Suddenly, sitting behind a tree and relieving ourselves in the open would become infra-dig for us the younger ones. We would start arguing with the elders and father would intervene to bring some truce. Father would frequently come to the well, fetch a few bucketful of water from the well and ensure that the small water tank and the other buckets are kept filled up always.
Then those who got relieved for a while and waiting for the next call would be talking and boasting about their achievements: “I have already finished my 4th. You are still at three? I will ask mother to give you an extra doze of Vilakkennai now…”
Father and mother would keep asking us figures: “OK. You have finished 4. She has finished 5. How about Seetha? Where is Lata? How many has she done? If you cross 6, you should come and tell me…”
Visits to back yards would soon be in hurried sprints with bucket in hand, at times one person overtaking another for getting entry into the toilet at the last leg, at the nick of the moment. The loser had to wait twisting and turning outside the gate, or face the ignominy of rushing behind a tree with a worry — whether there would be a competitor barging in, unaware of your sitting there in the open!
Then there would be discussions on what we ‘saw’. It was the norm on those days that everyone would walk everywhere only barefooted — be it a temple, a toilet, a paddy field or a stable; there was virtually no awareness about drinking safe or filtered water and there was no availability of any such water either. When thirsty, children would drink all sorts of waters — river water, well water or bore well water. Sense of cleanliness was far less. Naturally, as a consequence of all these, most of the children’s intestines would be storehouses of worms and parasites.
“Ah! There were so much of ‘keerai poochi’ (hook worms) in my output”
“I had a three inch long “Naakku poochi” (tape worm) in mine. It was alive and twisting like a snake”
Particularly the younger ones would be too curious to boast about the ‘pets’ they had been growing unknowingly in their intestines and the elder children would throw a look of disgust at them! In the next one hour, everyone’s count of runs to the backyard would swiftly climb up.
The evil effect of this ‘unbridled expenditure without any income’ would soon start showing. The backyard runners who ran competing with each other on their sprint to toilet, would actually be returning with a limp back to the house, sweating and panting! Particularly if the visit number happened to be 6 or 7, the slouching and limping would be quite pronounced. It was not uncommon for the backyard warrior to slump and lie down for a while at the cemented floor just at the backside wall of the house, to regain some energy to trod back into the house!
By around 10 AM, practically all children would have been through with their 6th or 7th round of visit to the toilet. That’s the time the much eagerly awaited call for breakfast would come from the kitchen. The good news for the children was that they need not take bath that day!
The standard menu on such an auspicious day was ‘Paruppu thuvaiyal’ (Toor dhal paste) and ‘Jeeraka rasam’ (Cumin seed soup) eaten with hot, finely cooked rice and a spoonful of ghee. I can vouch that there is nothing that tastes more heavenly than this combo when consumed after the seventh and final run to the backyard!