Not having had the pleasure of a rural childhood of waving paddy fields, burbling rivulets and climbable trees my memories of seventy odd years ago are of a less romantic, but yet quite lively, middle class boyhood in a quiet corner of wartime Kandy. In the 1940s our eyes and ears were not subjected to the avalanche of advertising, in a variety of media, that today overwhelms our grandchildren and our querulous old selves.
Newspapers were the sole “media” available for advertising many items that, today, would not be permitted to sully their pages. Bear’s Elephant cigarettes would encourage children to count the elephants hidden in the drawing of a country scene. Winners would get a packet of crayons while their fathers – the real targets - had to provide the children with a label from the tin of cigarettes they smoked so casually, blissfully unaware of their lethal effects. Whiskies and wines were widely advertised in pre-war times but this tailed off as space could not be found for such non-essentials on the merchant ships braving submarine infested seas. Ladies were given a medical excuse for a discreet tipple from pretty potent stuff masquerading as “tonic wines” – the most famous being Wincarnis.
These were for the elite. However, everybody’s favourite soft drink was the catchily named ‘Vimto’ bright red, fizzy and readily available at the corner ‘thambi kaday’ to serve our visitors. I really do not know who manufactured this immensely popular and universally available drink – but I am sure it was not Elephant House which stuck to soda and Ginger Beer. However, Vimto’s roaring success spurred EH to cross swords with its upstart rival by producing “ayu-Bovanto” whose punning name could never compete with snappy Vimto. Another rival produced “Velanto” also with limited success.
The ‘to’ ending seems to have had the same charm that ‘ro’ has for today’s Japanese cars [Pajero, Montero, Cefiro etc] Meanwhile, masquerading as a soft drink was ‘Tea Cider’ whose slight ‘kick’ [ of suspicious origin ] made it immensely popular among the working class. The end of WW II seems to have rung the funeral bell of Vimto and its imitators. How and why this happened is a mystery I now leave to social historians.
Aspro’s many uses
Rushing sick children to the latest paediatrician was unheard of [as were such specialists] in that simpler era. Children were regularly dosed with castor oil or Epsom salts to clear their insides of the creepy crawlies infesting their guts from the ‘gal siyambala’, ‘veralu achcharu’ etc bought from the ‘vatti ammas’ at the school gates. The odd bout of fever was tackled with a pill – Aspro pleasantly sour and washed down with ‘koththamalli’. Aspro was then the only form of aspirin, packeted in cellophane and readily available in every ‘kaday’.
It did not take long for Aspro to acquire a popularity in the black market that had nothing to do with its curative properties. Petrol in wartime was strictly rationed and available only on coupons to civilian drivers. Drivers of Army trucks saw a window of opportunity and began to earn a fast buck by selling army petrol to the local mafia – who flogged it to petrol-thirsty civilians. The military authorities sought to scupper this trade by dyeing army issue petrol a bright red. But it did not take long for a sinister genius of our underworld to discover a way to restore red petrol to its original neutral tint. The magic ingredient was Aspro! One pill of Aspro per gallon of red army petrol made it look as innocently colourless as the rationed stuff, thus confounding suspicious Military Police sniffing round. Sales of Aspro now recorded a tremendous surge, puzzling the Health Department which had not observed any influenza pandemic likely to cause this run on soluble aspirin.
Malt, Tek & Blanco
Middle-class mothers had great faith in a variety of patent panaceas to improve the health and vitality of their children. Leading the field was Cod Liver Oil, incredibly fishy, dished out in tablespoons as ‘good for the bones’. Among the others was a thick milky, faintly bitter, fluid branded ‘Agarol’ and guaranteed to settle any digestive problems. In this period ‘Horlicks’ malted milk was advertised as the ideal solution for the strange condition called “night starvation” the onset of which was illustrated in picture stories of tired office workers and schoolchildren rising groggily from their night-starved slumber to gulp a cup of Horlicks and sleep soundly. It was not the zingy drink for teenage athletes that is now its new ‘avatar’. A hot favourite with children was the thick, brown and gloriously sweet stuff in large-mouthed brown bottles described as Malt –the most popular brands being Radio Malt and Keplers. Headaches and assorted pains were tackled with a dab of pungent Little’s Oriental Balm in little ‘kooppis’ from India.
It is difficult today to envisage the time when the use of the toothbrush signalled the class divide between the English-speaking middle class and the finger-brushing yokels splashing away at the village well with black charcoal stained mouths. Toothbrushes and toothpaste were yet imported commodities. Among the toothpastes I remember, which are no longer around, were Macleans and Kolynos. There may have been other makes of toothbrushes but most popular was ‘Tek’ for each brush came packed in a neat glass tube which we could utilise for various ingenious schoolboyish experiments.
Cleaning footwear had its own rituals. Leather shoes, handmade at Banda’s Bootworks, were polished with Kiwi Shoe Polish in flat round tins. In spite of the bits of rags we used to transfer the oily polish on to shoes, we ended up with fingers and nails stained brown for many days after the activity. Messy, though in a different way, was whitening our canvas ‘tennis shoes’[as they were called].
This exercise involved a flat , circular ‘cake’ of some chalky substance placed on an old saucer. This was Blanco. The modus operandi was to have another saucer of water into which you dipped a white rag, swirled it round the cake of Blanco till it was chalky enough to paint our once-white shoes. These shoes were pretty damp after all this and had to be placed in the sun to dry off. The first post-Blanco day raised an interesting mini-snowstorm whenever we stamped our feet and coated our calves.
Vimto Aspro…Blanco… fragments from a lost world, floating in the mists of memory.