Common sense about common salt

WHEN I WAS a child, illnesses in traditional Indian families were not remembered as connected with germs, but with events and the suprarational. One heard that at a marriage, somebody's third son broke out with the measles and somebody's aunt sprained her ankle in her anxiety to catch a glimpse of the bridegroom. Or, it was of colic brought on by the evil eye of someone in whose lap earlier that day the baby had been gurgling happily. And, even of earaches resulting from watching a Ramlila performance in the open, with chilly October winds playing havoc with those who had left their scarves behind.

There could be no way to cure such ailments quickly, except by using the remedies that came out of grandmothers's spice box. In my grandmother's kitchen, where she ruled supreme, she was like a master weaver. Her square, wooden spice box contained her raw material; the aromas and flavours were her woof and waft, and the enormous iron ladle, her spindle. With these, she wove spices into unpredictable curative patterns.

In her scheme of things, salt was the prime asset -- as valuable as money or medicine or to ward off nazar, the evil eye. If you ate someone's salt, you could not dream of deceiving him or her; if you dropped salt, you'd have to pick it up with your lashes when you died and entered the nether world, and a namak haram (one who is disloyal) was a most loathsome villain. It was a time when a bag of salt could be bartered where I grew up for a ferocious sheepdog pup or for a string of semi-precious stones from Tibetan shepherds who came down with their flocks for the winter.
Magic mix The saline miracle worked as an astringent when rubbed over sores and bleeding gums with a few drops of pungent mustard oil. Coarsely-ground salt, made into pebbly packs, were heated to foment bruises and sprains. Salt, mixed with warm water, soothed both tired feet and sore throats. Ans, when the monsoon arrived, we were all made to carry small paper packets of salt in our pockets, to be used to peel off the ever-present leeches from legs and thighs. A pinch of salt dabbed on the leech would soon transform the bloodsucker into a little, blackj comma-like figure, frantically wiggling its end. The leech would drop off finally and the blood would pour from the leech-bites on our legs and turn the slate-paved school verandah incarnadine.

The versatile salt would also be mixed with many herbs and spices measured out carefully by grandmother's deft hands. Her servants would stone-grind the magic mix to a paste, fine enough to meet even a mother-in-law's approval. Of these, the green coriander-chilli-salt chutney was for the monsoon months, to be eaten with hot, roasted corn-on-the-cob or sliced Karadia cucumbers. The paste had a soft, lumpy appearance and absorbed the moisture of those rainy months with no loss of taste.

Cummin salt, in contrast, was for the dry months. It was a digestive and when combined with asafoetida, could help to assimilate even the hard Kafal berry stones, green apricots and golden plums that were thought to cause diarrhoea. A pinch of black rock salt from Saurashtra made this magic potion even more effective.

Then there was Jamboo salt, which, when blended with a Tibetan herb and common salt, exuded a sweet, onion-like aroma. It tasted heavenly with hot, buttered rice and was said to have a warming effect on blocked sinuses. Noses ran freely after it was eaten, and when one sneezed, the adults said, "May you live a hundred years, with this blessed sneeze."

Mrinal Pande is the editor of Hindustan Saptahik.