The Miracle of Powder

23 Sep

My grandmother, says one of my aunts who is old enough to remember, was a very stylish woman in her youth. I only remember her years of widowhood, so I can only imagine what it must have been like, but I’m inclined to believe my aunt given the evidence of her talcum powder.

My aunts would get her fancy compacts with little mirrors in them and every time the sisters got together there was always an impromptu make-up lesson with the lot of them exchanging tips on technique: blending, brushing, smudging and so on. Grandma would listen with great interest but her first love remained her bottle of talcum powder.

Everyday, twice a day, sometimes thrice if she had nothing better to do, she would sit in her favorite armchair by her bed, and swirl a big powder puff around its battered pot (faithfully refilled from a giant bottle every two days by her devoted sister) and brush it all over her face. After repeating this over and over again for five minutes, she’d stop and flick her head at her sister, who’d pick up a hand mirror and show her her reflection. If no hint of natural color remained, she would sit back, satisfied and go on to other things. Otherwise, it was back to the powder. She had very fair skin to begin with, but by the time she’d rubbed powder into it for eighty years, it’d turned a sort of pasty white and the powder itself had resisted all efforts of soap and water (of which there was plenty because she was a germaphobe) and managed to integrate itself into her skin.

If you touched her face, it felt like parchment paper except it was really soft and smelled of roses. At times you felt, if you watched her long enough, you would see her face flake, powder and crumble away. Not in a creepy way, though – it all felt fascinating and wonderful.

The un-fascinating and un-wonderful part of it came during the summer holidays when I’d look up and find her intently studying my face. “Why can’t you put on a little powder?” she’d say once she was sure she had my attention.

“Uh, I don’t want to.”

“Little girls in Madras always powder their faces,” she’d counter.

“I don’t live in Madras,” i’d point out the obvious.

“They powder their face, line their eyes, wear a nice bindi and put flowers in their hair,” she’d continue rapturously as if I hadn’t said anything.

“That’s nice,” I’d say. Well, what else could I say? “Gee, Grandma, have they ever thought of suing their parents for cruelty to dumb children” would not have gone down too well. Although it must be admitted that there really was no adequate response when she was in one of these moods.

“Nice?” she’d scoff, ignoring my extremely noble attempts to humor her. “What do you know about nice? Just look at you!”

In all fairness, I wasn’t going through my most spiffy period right then. The onset of adolescence hadn’t brought about any desire to become a hooker or turn into a junkie (I really have to stop watching Lifetime and Hallmark) but I would frequently refuse to brush my hair, figuring I’d done my duty by shampooing it, and my idea of a nice outfit could be very simply explained as “the opposite of whatever my mother thought appropriate”.

So I’d hunch my shoulders and return to my book. Sometimes Ma would wander in and be caught in the crossfire.

“It’s a judgment on you,” Grandma would observe with satisfaction. “Your daughter is just like you!”

Ma would look daggers at me – an empty threat, I knew. When the mood came upon her mother, she could find just about anything to complain about. I was just a handy excuse.

“Why don’t you teach her something?” Grandma would go on.

Once or twice I’d make a tactical mistake and tell Ma about the plans Grandma had drawn up for me. “She wants to put big orange flowers in my hair after drenching it in coconut oil and plaster my face with talcum powder,” I’d complain when the cribbing became unbearable and manners forbade me from giving a 70-something year old a piece of my mind.

This, of course, would immediately tickle my mother’s funny bone and she’d spend the next half hour teasing me about it, while simultaneously making my grandmother think she was on her side. “And what is wrong with that?” she’d ask. “We’ll start with the top of your head. We’ll dribble some warm oil and it’ll drip down – drip drip drip,” she’d emphasize, knowing just how much I hate the feel of grease dripping on to my skin. “And when it’s slowly trickled down your face, I’ll massage it into your cheeks. Rub it on your forehead. Maybe smear some on your neck. It’ll make your skin soft and supple.”

Grandma would nod approvingly.

Finally, I would be forced to either carry the attack into the enemy camp by making fun of them or get up and leave the room. Even worse was when Grandma would start talking about my lack of girl-smarts when her other daughters were in the room.

“Look at her,” she’d command like I was some kind of particularly repellent venom-oozing caterpillar. “Look!”

Dutifully, the rest of them would turn to me and look.

“Why can’t she put on some powder at least?” she’d moan like she was asking me to remove a dagger from her chest.

My aunts would look me over carefully as I belligerently stared back at them from under my wild tangle of hair.

“Well, yes, you could put on some powder,” one of them would finally say in a disinterested voice, saying the expected thing.

A weak chorus of assent would go up but that was enough to put Ma on the defensive.

“You don’t know how difficult it is to bring up a daughter,” she’d inform them, full of the righteous indignation of One Who Has A Female Child Unlike The Other Unfortunates In Front Of Her.

That would vanquish the aunts but my grandmother, who’d pretty much brought up six girls on her own, was another story entirely.

“Nonsense!” she’d thunder. “You are simply not strict enough with her.”

At which point they would invariably remember all those occasions in my infanthood when they’d tried to be strict with me and all discussion would come to an abrupt halt. I’ll tell you one thing – when you’re a baby, go ahead and have a filthy temper. It’ll hold you in good stead amongst your family members when you’re older. You can always curb it later. Just remember to be charming and cute and giggly and affectionate when you’re not throwing a tantrum, so they don’t “accidentally” drown you in the tub or something.

How odd then, that one of the first times I felt truly adult was when I bought a bottle of talcum powder. It might not reach the levels of kabuki my grandmother would have approved of, but guess what? It really keeps the dreaded grease out.


Posted by on September 23, 2008 in Life, Personal


17 responses to “The Miracle of Powder

  1. Banno

    September 23, 2008 at 9:20 pm

    5 aunts and a grandmother, and of course, a mother. No wonder you succumbed finally.

  2. Jayalakshmi

    September 23, 2008 at 9:31 pm

    mmmm …the smell of Cuticura powder fills me with nostalgia. Do they market it now?..

  3. Amrita

    September 23, 2008 at 11:48 pm

    Banno – hahaha, i guess the nagging won?

    Jayalakshmi – I don’t know but I hope so! What else will people do for talcum? 🙂

  4. complicateur

    September 24, 2008 at 2:07 am

    For the concerned, Cuticura is still the leading brand of talcum powder in the deep recesses of Kerala.

    “They powder their face, line their eyes, wear a nice bindi and put flowers in their hair,” – I can guarantee all women in Madras did not look like Usha Uthup. If they did I most certainly would not have started having crushes from the 4th grade.

    My Mom has a similar affection for talcum powder. Her application methods, unlike your grandmother, are highly suspect. I still remember her powdering her wet face as soon as she emerged from the shower to the background of MS’s Suprabhatham. She would do such a poor job applying that the powder trails would like nimbus and cirrulus clouds on a brown sky. My amar chithra fanatic cousin would exclaim “Hey see that one is in the shape of Rama shooting an arrow and there Ajatashatru is leading the entire Magadhan armies…” and such. It got so intolerable as I got older that nearly every morning I would command her back to the mirror and if she didn’t spot the cloud cover I would buff them off with my thumb. Thanks for that little memory trip.

  5. neha

    September 24, 2008 at 2:13 am

    Ha! I so know this. Grandmother was a big fan of talc. And my annual visits to Madras only made things worse. Just to prove her point, there’d be more talc on her face than normal.

    And the grief over pottu and sitting straight.

  6. DewdropDream

    September 24, 2008 at 6:03 am

    My mother and grandmother both are the complete opposite of your set. They hated seeing me apply any sort of ‘cosmetic’ and that was probably the one thing they agreed on unequivocally. It suited me just fine most days because I wasn’t into make-up as such (or flowers in my hair)… kept my skin great for a long long time but living away meant I discovered the wonder effects of shampooing and my hair is definitely better than in all those years when I lived at home.

    I do miss having mum plaster my head with half a bottle of oil though.

  7. M

    September 24, 2008 at 11:01 am

    wow, you had a “forward” grandmother! Both mine belonged to the using-powder-means-you-are-a-harlot school of thought, though the Delhi-Paati was known to use some powder as deodorant in the hottest parts of summers in the pre-a/c days.

    Love the image your post conjured up though, especially of powder-kabuki!


  8. Hades

    September 25, 2008 at 4:56 am

    My Nani still uses Cuticura powder.

    Large Orange and white bottles. For some reason Cuticura never bothered to take out smaller packs.

    However, I was never pressurised to apply any.

    I did try tough as a kid, though, but was met with ‘powder is for girls’ jibe.

  9. Hades

    September 25, 2008 at 4:59 am


    The last line should read :

    I did try as a kid, though, but was met with the powder-is-for-girls jibe.

  10. Pooja

    September 25, 2008 at 10:57 pm

    So much of life is about coming full circle – great piece!

    On a side note, I never went near anything compact-like – until I moved to Chennai. So your post stirs some fun, personal memories too.

  11. dipali

    September 26, 2008 at 7:20 am

    My family was also the no cosmetics variety, though my father would dab a little 4711 cologne on his face after shaving.
    Talc was strictly for the armpits. Deos came in later- we’d hate wearing dark blouses, as white powder patches would look so awful!

  12. Amrita

    September 26, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    Complicateur – Man, I really hope your mom doesn’t surf blogs or she might add a little something to your payasam next time you go home 😀

    Neha – tell me about it. The pottu was the worst. She really, really, really wanted me to be one of those bindis with jeans girls and did NOT like it that I refused.

    DDD – the oil is something i absolutely do not miss. I think they really wanted me to put some on because I wouldn’t put any cosmetics on until I went to college, whereas I had all these girly cousins who had to be dissuaded from trying on any. They thought I was a freak, in short 😀

    M – oh yes she was! She was very strict about what was allowed and what wasn’t but within the parameters she’d doll up to the nines and liked to see her little girls do the same. I think it was a small town south Indian version of the flapper syndrome. She was very 1920s chic 🙂

    Hades – lol, you should have come to our house, where the boys were always encouraged to try out whatever they wanted and then spend the rest of their lives agonizing whether their dratted family would begin to reminisce in front of their tough guy friends 😀

    Pooja – I still don’t much care for the compact. My mother says I’ll feel differently when i’m older and the crows lines begin to show 😦

    Dipali – I actually tried to meterosexualize my dad a bit by introducing him to facewashes and scrubs. Oh, and my mom and I finally convinced him shampoos were better than soap about fifteen years ago. The man has no vanity whatsoever. I remember the white patch armpits!!! All aunties had them! Hahaha!

  13. memsaab

    September 27, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    My grandmother smelled of Noxzema skin cream (maybe doesn’t translate to India) but my mother was of the “makeup is for harlots” school until I began to make my own eye shadow out of talcum powder and watercolor paint (mid 70s, and I went with bright blue as my color). When she realized what I was up to, and that it would probably blind me with toxins, she gave in finally and I was off and running with the makeup thing.


  14. Amrita

    September 28, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    Memsaab, you and my mother would get along famously! She’s a little older than you but she was a very DIY fashionista in the 60s (with frequently startling results I hear) coz she was only allowed to dress up as her mother thought appropriate. Of course, it seems a family tradition – back in the 20s when grandma wasn’t allowed to put on makeup by my great grandma, she’d chew some paan and spit it out to redden her lips before she went out. 🙂

  15. memsaab

    September 30, 2008 at 1:43 pm

    Well then I can’t wait to meet your mother! She can take me to all the best places to buy kajol.

  16. Amrita

    September 30, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    Oh, she’d love you! next time either one of you is in the same country, I’ll have to arrange it!

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