Our lather who art in heaven: A soap opera

There’s a reel doing the rounds on Instagram in which Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi are, in separate occasions, asked about their skincare regime. The audiences are different, but the question is the same: What’s the secret behind your glowing face?

Last month, speaking in an interaction with students from Jaipur’s Maharani College, Gandhi is seen saying that he uses nothing – no soap, no cream, only water. Modi, when asked the same question in a 2020 interaction with Rashtriya Bal Puraskar winners, attributes his facial glow to the oil of toil: ‘Mehnat ke paseene ki maalish se.’ Frankly, it’s unlikely that both men have never used soap.

In economics class, we were taught that goods are divided into three categories: necessity, comfort, and luxury. Back in the 1980s, a soap bar was all three rolled into one. Those were the days before facewash, body wash or shower gel became a thing. The entire family used the same bar. The cost was a factor. The bar was used until it became a sliver and ultimately vanished into the thin, wet air between one’s palms.

What India wanted in a soap was best encapsulated in the TVC for Vigil, featuring Dilip Vengsarkar. The jingle spelt it out: ‘Parivaar ka saabun Vigil‘, ‘Iski keemat kuch bhi nahin’ (₹2.75), and ‘Zyada din tak chaley ye Vigil’ (a soap for the entire family, which fits your budget and lasts and lasts). The commercial had a slippery moment that required suspension of disbelief: father and son lathering each other and frolicking in a porcelain bathtub. All we middle-class families (the target consumers) had was the plastic bucket or the metal pail. But buckets are not sexy.

A new soap was an object of beauty. I’d open the packaging like I was opening a fragile envelope. I’d run my fingers over the embossed brand name as if it were a crown. Wait, there was a soap called Crowning Glory – a ‘beauty’ soap. Soaps were divided into two categories: beauty and ‘tandurusti’. Lux (‘The beauty soap of filmstars’) was the former, while Vigil (‘Tandurusti ka sabun Vigil’) and Lifebuoy (‘Tandurusti ki raksha karta hai Lifebuoy’) promised robust health.

Our bathrooms didn’t have a bidet or hand-held toilet sprinklers. (TP? What’s that?) Lifebuoy, launched in India in 1922, took care of the matter in hand. Come to think of it, I see parallels between soap and car design. Both used to be hard rectangles. Remember Hamam? Gradually, they developed rounded edges, although contemporary Cinthol still likes to keep it retro. Soap commercials were the stuff of urban legend. In school, we gossiped about how the Liril girl had slipped and died while shooting the waterfall ad. (She hadn’t.) A cake of soap had associations. Bubbles was for children. My tender mind fell for the advertising. I convinced my parents to buy me one, in addition to the family soap – Margo. I hated Margo because the neem made the skin taste bitter. Please don’t ask me why I was licking my skin.

My grandmother, I associated with Mysore Sandal and Pears. As a Bubbles boy, I dreamt of growing up quickly and switching to Aramusk, the soap for macho men. But the switch didn’t happen. As a university student in England, I was a repeat buyer of Imperial Leather, I think because it was the cheapest soap in Sainsbury‘s, and I wanted to save my scholarship money for better things. Like pints of bitter.

On trains, both the Bombay local and the long-distance mails and expresses, one could buy a booklet of paper soap, which seemed like a miracle: soap on a sheet! The hand sanitiser came and killed that.

Oh man, soaps are not what they used to be. Even Lifebuoy comes in many ‘flavours’ and colours: green, yellow, etc. In my late 40s, I’m a committed Margo loyalist, just like my parents. I think I’m growing old. Time to have a bucket bath and roll back the years.

(The writer is author of The Butterfly Generation: A Personal Journey into the Passions and Follies of India’s Technicolor Youth)


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