Friday, May 8, 2009

The Magic of Ritha and Neem with Woollens

Some of the warm clothes were lying in the laundry bag for a wash. Woollen clothes are no doubt ‘Delicate Darlings’ and once the season is gone no one cares to give a look at them till the arrival of the next winter. Most of the woollen sweaters I wash them at home. Giving the sweaters a hand wash, I hummed away a tune from one of the old Hindi movies. Music lightens the burden of the work. That’s not the only reason, I love music and at one time music had been a part of my life. Like most Bengali families, a music teacher came to teach music at home. A harmonium and table was a must. Along with the cup of steaming hot tea came a plate of jolkhabar (jolkhabar in Bengali means snacks) for the music teacher. And there was early morning riaz (practice) everyday. And now my singing is my own. That was one part of life that has no similarity with the lifestyle I lead in today’s world.

Once I finished washing I kept the washed sweaters to spread out later when the water drained out. I placed my Genteel bottle in place and sat down to relax. But some of the winters wonder days of my childhood started pouring in.

Winter days are no doubt very pleasant. There is colour everywhere. People love to wear colourful clothes. As a child I’ve seen ladies knitting sweaters mostly in the afternoons, sitting out in the sun and enjoying this as a part of their life. Ladies could be seen with their kit of knitting needles and colourful wool, knitting away and at the same time engaged in conversation…blindfold knitting that used to be. They spoke about the different designs and colour combinations for the sweaters and enjoyed this activity along with their neighbourhood gossip. Men, women and children took pride wearing hand knit sweaters. But now Branded and Designer warm clothes have made a mess with the home knitting leaving few to fewer people knowing this skill.

I still remember the Lux packets containing soap flakes used for washing clothes. Ma used Lux to wash woollen sweaters but mostly washed the woollens with Ritha (soap-nut or wash nut), a substitute for washing soap. Ritha is available in plenty in India. Ritha flowers come during summer and the fruits appear in July-August. By November-December the fruit ripens and then collected and dried and later ready for use and sale in the market. The fleshy portion contains saponin which is an active natural ingredient, a substitute to normal detergents, is used for washing.

Ma bought her regular quota of dry ritha fruits from her favourite shop in the market, soaked them overnight in water and in the morning the liquid was ready to wash the woollens. She also washed silk sarees and other soft fabrics with this liquid. Ritha wash left the woollens fresh and clean because of its mildness and at the same time preserved the colour and structure of the fabric. As this is a natural product free from any chemicals it does not affect sensitive skin of the hands. Value wise it is not only economical but also ecological. Now-a-days markets are flooded with varieties of washing liquids. I remember in our house ritha was also used to wash the hair, gold and silver ornaments and artifacts and expensive glassware.

The woollens were hand washed. Ma took care to place the washed woollies on the seat of a cane chair for the easy drainage of the water. Later she spread out old newspapers on a clean floor and spread the sweaters on them so that the woollen clothes did not loose their shape and size. The warm clothes were protected from the harsh sun’s rays and dried indoors.

Once done with the washing, it was time to put the woollens away for the next season. Neem leaves were gathered in abundance and left to dry in the sun. After it dried up, a good amount was spread on the floor of the trunk and a cloth spread over it. Then the folded washed woollies were placed carefully in the trunk with more dried neem leaves spread over them. Dry neem leaves have the properties to keep away insects and pests. Till date in villages people use twigs of neem as toothbrush as the fiber helps in cleaning the teeth properly, the leaves are also used in storage of grains, chicken pox treatment and for many skin diseases like scabies, exzema, psoriasis, and others. Ma was in favour of storing woollen clothes in trunks as they remained closed and did not disturb the contents till the next season.

With changing times, people now choose detergents and liquid soaps that are readily available in the market and easy to use, the washing machine doing the rest of the work. Fragrance filled mothballs found on the shelves of stores are used for the put away clothes.

Now its time for the Summer Collections and Designers’ are busy displaying their collections with models walking the ramp to show off the recent trends. People will find comfort in cotton wear in these hot and humid days.
Season’s cycle will travel along its path but the neem leaves in my balcony are dry and ready for use.

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