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Anchor and Oil
One of the most complex characters in Sir V S Naipaul’s The Suffrage of Elvira is Ramlogan, the fat, hairy rumshop keeper who constantly feuds with his neighbour, the Goldsmith, over a multitude of grievances, mostly the fruit trees which border their properties. This work of Naipaul pokes fun at the second full-adult franchise general elections of 1950 and the colourful people who made pre-party politics in Trinidad more of a comedy sketch than real campaigning.
One of Ramlogan’s daily rituals is taking an afternoon bath, following which he greases himself liberally in Canadian Healing Oil. His anointing would take place with the theme music of the Indian movie Jhoola being hummed incessantly. This concoction also finds its way into A House for Mr Biswas as one of the many remedies used to assuage the hypochondriac Mrs Tulsi.
Canadian Healing Oil, like Ferrol Compound and bay rum is one of those West Indian classics that have survived time and marches in medical research. It is still considered a universal remedy for sprains, fevers, arthritis and migraines to name a few.
Manufactured in British Guiana since the early 1900s, it is still sold in its familiar black box. Booker’s Drug Stores distributed this and Ferrol throughout the British West Indies where medical attention was expensive, scarce and often viewed with suspicion.
Booker’s also published an annual almanac which not only entertained with puzzles and games, but also contained testimonies of the wonders of the drugs that it sold. There are many who will tell you of the miracles performed merely by slathering the oil effectively.
Canadian Healing Oil is a pungent brew of essential oils, particularly eucalyptus oil which is combined with a few other unguents to create a product which if ineffective for everything else, at least assails those near the user with a proper “sick room” smell, thus reassuring non-believers of its potency.
In the novel The Mystic Masseur, Leela, newly wedded to Ganesh, packs her things in a cardboard suitcase or “grip”—it contained her clothes as well as family photographs. The grip also appears in A House for Mr Biswas as one of Shama’s possessions and equally with Leela, it served as a vault for personal secrets such as letters to an expatriate pen pal.
Anchor cigarettes were an entry-level brand of the John Player Navy Cut cigarette range. Player’s as it was simply known, had been sold in Trinidad for a long time but without resounding success. These smokes were sold only in flat, black metal tins of 20 and so were generally out of the reach of the lower income smoker. Trinidadians were generally pipe smokers, both male and female.
They smoked a cheap locally grown leaf which was sold cured and wadded in most shops. Those who wanted something different could buy wrapping papers and mince the leaves to produce hand-rolled cigarettes. There was as yet no such thing as the “retail” cigarette sold singly until Anchor hit the market in the 1920s.
Anchor cigarettes eliminated the expensive tin case of Player’s and substituted a cardboard box with eight cigarettes inside, wrapped in a silver foil paper. The price was also right since a cent bought two Anchors. Realising that it was up against a market of pipe smokers, Anchor’s promotions were aggressive. For people who collected the right number of boxes there was the famous Anchor cardboard grip.
There were also mugs, glasses and even fancy cigarette cases to be had. Anchor was successful in gaining a significant share of the local smoker’s market and did quite well until the introduction of tariffs on imported tobacco combined with the rise of the West Indian Tobacco Company forced it out in the 1960s.
This column concludes our look at the Trinidad of Sir Vidia Naipaul since we began to examine the landscape and its literary road markers five weeks ago. It is important that students of English literature be steeped in his early works, not only for their value as the works of a great author, but for the roadmap to a Trinidad that is long gone that spreads itself across the pages.
The NGO, Friends of Mr Biswas, which was founded by Prof Kenneth Ramchand, has done yeoman work in spreading appreciation for the works of Sir V S Naipaul, but there is a woeful deficiency of even the most basic knowledge of the Nobel Laureate at the secondary and primary levels. It is hoped this will not be the case in the near future.
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