Josna Rege


60. Cod-Liver Oil and Malt

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

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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