Josna Rege

60. Cod-Liver Oil and Malt

In 1970s, Childhood, India, Stories on July 18, 2010 at 11:13 am

middlepath.com.au

For most of my childhood I was extremely skinny, so much so that some people murmured that my parents must not be feeding me properly and my parents feared that I might be sickly or sickening. I was therefore given regular nutritional supplements, mostly in the form of a daily dose of cod-liver oil and malt: one spoonful of the heavily fishy fish-oil followed by a spoonful of malt syrup to sweeten the ordeal. When I was sent off to boarding school in the Himalayan foothills, in part because my parents thought that the heat might be responsible for my apparent failure to thrive, I would be called to the dispensary during recess, where Sister Digby, the school nurse, would duly dispense an Ovaltine-like fortified milk drink called “tonic.” In fact I wasn’t sickly at all, just scrawny. I had plenty of stamina for the things I wanted to do, but was somehow overcome with lethargy when faced with tiresome tasks such as eating.

St. Agnes’ convent school in Kharagpur was a long rickshaw ride across an open, arid maidan with no shade in sight. We were let out when the sun was still at its height, and in the blisteringly hot months of April and May the pitifully thin driver strained and sweated as he pedaled us home, while we languished, brains baking, in the open cab, its thin black canopy only concentrating the heat overhead. Back home, I settled myself at the dining table under the fan with a book, growing more and more deeply absorbed in it while my mother’s lovingly-prepared lunch grew cold and unappetizing. When my father returned from the institute for lunch, he too drew his legs up and sat in cross-legged comfort, pulled out a book or the newspaper, and we both read in satisfied silence, while my mother despaired of getting me to eat, let alone display proper table manners. I insisted that I enjoyed my meal all the more when it was accompanied by a good book, but kept getting caught up in the story and forgetting to eat. Besides, the descriptions of food in my books were almost as satisfying as the real food on my plate, sometimes even more so.

In boarding school we were perpetually hungry. In contrast to the long, leisurely mealtimes at home, meals at school had to be eaten in 20 minutes flat—unless we  wanted to stay on and continue hogging with a bunch of boys after all the other girls had filed out. It wouldn’t have been considered ladylike and, like most teenage girls, we didn’t want to expose ourselves to the mockery of our peers. To this day I find myself wolfing down my food, despite my father’s oft-repeated mantra, “eat slowly and chew your food well.”

So I remained constitutionally skinny, but showed no other signs of ill-health. I ran, swam, did the long jump, played netball and field hockey, and seemed to have an excess of energy when it came to talking and getting into trouble. Boarding school boosted my appetite, as we stocked up on food every chance we got. Eventually my parents relaxed, the cod-liver oil regimen was discontinued, and I was left to fend for myself. I never imagined then that fish oil would come into favor again, and that years later, in my middle age, I would be voluntarily seeking it out.

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  1. I definitly have to agree that food descriptions in books were a lot more appitizing than my moms lunch! In fact I used to hide the sandwichs she would make and never eat them. I still to this day dont like sandwichs, I have NO idea why. My moms cooking is amazing as I am sure you can attest. But the rapid eating has stuck with her as well, she is always done eating before everyone else at the table, and now I understand why!!!

    • Dear Jenn, Some of the descriptions of food in my favorite books as a child still make my mouth water when I think of them. Which do you remember? (Speaking of sandwiches, we used to call them “sambridges”, on account of their shape when you take a bite out of half of one.) And yes, Marianne and I are probably both casualties of the meal system at MH! Speed-eating is a bad habit that I keep trying to break, with no success as yet. Love, J

  2. Please correct the following sentence!

    When I was sent off to boarding school in the , in part because my parents thought that the heat might be responsible for my apparent failure to thrive, I would be called to the dispensary during recess, where Sister Digby, the school nurse, would duly dispense an Ovaltine-like fortified milk drink called “tonic.” In fact I wasn’t sickly at all, just scrawny.

    • Oops–sorry about that! Thanks for letting me know, Vincent. I’ve corrected it now. It now reads, “When I was sent off to boarding school in the Himalayan foothills…” x J

  3. Why not correct both errors while he was at it??
    Anyway, who’s counting? When you are busy typing and your brain is already in the next paragraph
    or maybe even in the next story, it is amazing how well you write and I really enjoy these so much!
    I giggled at the sentence where you said you always had enough energy for talking and getting into
    trouble! I remember it well !!
    Love,
    M

    • Thank you, Marianne. What was the second error, BTW? I invariably find errors in my posts after I’ve posted them, and though I correct them later (and please do let me know if you find one), the subscribers have already received them. This time some crucial words were missing altogether, and Vincent just wanted to know where I was sent off to.
      Wish I could re-direct some of that talking-and-getting-into-trouble energy into more constructive channels!
      x Jo

  4. Ah- yes I often felt that eating takes too much time. I too would and do get lost in the ideas and imaginations of my mind. What a rich topic to explore. I bet there is way more ‘food for thought’ on this from many women.

    • Food always tasted better to me while I was reading, but I would start devouring the book and forget to eat. Propping the book up while eating was an awkward maneuver, too…
      My Mom would be so ready to relax after having cooked that she would try to clear the counters and wash up before she sat down to ate, much to our frustration since we were perennially waiting for her to sit down. But now I totally understand. The thought of all the clearing up and putting away after the meal is enough to spoil the enjoyment.

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