Shorts In The Dark
How soap became modern India's Kurkure
The 'family soap' was a separate category and sold as such. 'Hum log' ka sabun.
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Lately, I have been thinking a lot about soap. The humble bathing bar is, according to recent surveys, decreasing in popularity, and is being replaced with liquid variants of all kinds: facewash, bodywash and handwash. It seems like hogwash to me, but a friend, a recent convert to bodywash explained his reasons: the bar of soap was simply inconvenient and it had an irritating tendency to slip out of his hands while he was under the shower. So he switched to the liquid form. Fair enough. Though I couldn’t help thinking: “They got you babe... those clever marketing mad men!”
I grew up in the 1980s and the 1990s. Back then, it would have been considered wasteful and extravagant if one person owned three kinds of soap. In fact, soap wasn’t an individual thing then, it belonged instead to the family as a whole. The "family soap" was a separate category and sold as such: "Hum log" ka sabun. And most family soaps were, for some reason, coloured green. There was Hamam, and Rexona, and Vigil, a late entrant, whose advertisement featured Dilip Vengsarkar bathing with his happy nuclear family. The idea was that a family that bathes together, stays together. There was also Margo, the neem soap, which like bitter medicine, was supposed to be good for you, but, erm, well, didn’t taste that great. So if you ate dal and rice using your fingers, immediately after washing your hands with Margo, chances were you’d get this slight bitter neemy flavouring with your food. Margo was a father’s favourite. Kids hated it.
We loved Liril though, and the Liril ad, with the Liril girl frolicking under a water fountain. There was also a story which every schoolboy knew, and told, about the Liril model dying while shooting the advertisement. In the story I heard, she got swept away in the swirling waters. Apocryphal or otherwise, the story added a touch of mystery to the stripy green soap.
Among the family classics were Pears (which middle class India always pronounced as "peers"), and Mysore Sandal Soap, both of which were my grandmother’s favourites. To this day, I associate those smells with her. Sandalwood meant granny. The translucent bar of Pears was difficult to get a grip on, a baby turtle in a boy’s tiny palm. It would slip and jump, and vanish under a bathroom shelf, and had to be cajoled out of its hiding place.
The beauty bar was a distinct category from the family bar, with Lux being the market leader: "The beauty soap of film stars". Famously, it was Shah Rukh Khan who inverted the long tradition of Bollywood heroines appearing in Lux commercials. Shah Rukh luxuriating in a bathtub, just like a starlet – Lux had changed with the times, and gone metrosexual.
But there was one brand of soap that marked itself out from the clutter and established its own niche. I don’t know how and when this happened but the red rectangle called Lifebuoy became the preferred potty soap of the nation. When the Indian got off his squatter, he reached for his Lifebuoy. When you went to the railway tracks, you carried a Lifebuoy with your lota. The soap cut across class and religious lines: the war against germs united the nation. Savlon lost out.
Lifebuoy was actually endorsed by doctors. Our family GP whose favourite word was "anyhow" backed the soap’s germ-killing properties: “Anyhow, you should always use Lifebuoy,” he’d say after giving you a thorough check-up and washing his own hands with Lifebuoy. This carried some weight, for he was quite the sceptic in medical matters, favouring a tough-love approach. Diagnosing IBS, he’d say: "Anyhow, only people who work from home get this condition. Now suppose you were travelling in a second-class compartment with a filthy washroom. Would you keep going to the toilet then?” Lifebuoy, of course, couldn’t put smelly stuff in its commercial, so it sold itself as a 'health soap': Tandurusti ki raksha karta hain Lifebuoy.”
There were brands that tried to break the family bar/beauty bar categories, but with limited success. There was Bubbles for kids. Aramusk was sold as an ultra-masculine soap. Aramusk, the soap for the mythical yuppie wouldn’t fit into the family budget and never became a blockbuster soap like Cinthol, which occupied a unisex category of its own.
Soap, in socialist India, was not something you splurged on. It had to be affordable, it had to last, it was purely functional. It was linked to austerity. You made a soap last till it was a sliver. The sliver itself would never be binned but relocated to another part of the household: next to the tap on the terrace, or the kitchen, or it became the "servant soap". Sometimes, three slivers - Liril, Hamam and Lifebuoy - would lie in a soapdish and meld into one new soap: a sangam of Ganga, Jamuna and the invisible sliver of a river: Saraswati.
It’s interesting that the old brands have survived into present times. Rexona and Hamam are still bestsellers. New multinational brands like Camay remain peripheral to the market. Dettol and Lifebuoy are going strong. But they’ve all diversified into unpleasant variants. Every month there’s a new version of a classic soap. Soap is the new Kurkure.
For the purposes of research I bought a couple of bars. Lifebuoy Lemon smells awful, a combo of fratboy barf and medicinal syrup. There’s Dettol Cucumber, with "real cucumber extracts". I wonder which mad scientist comes up with such formulae. These flavoured soaps, dear reader, are neither bathable nor edible. Personally, I stick to Savlon: it’s so 1980s, and yet it’s contemporary. Like five-pocket Levi’s, it’s a design classic. And thankfully, they don’t have a mango variant yet.