Lovely Reetha: In which I learn about soapnuts (the hard way)

Early on in my Fulbright research, I had achieved my first goal of obtaining several kgs of (very) dirty wool. Having managed to transport it by bus back to the institute where I was staying, I moved on to step 2: washing it. I wanted to test out a variety of methods using locally available materials, including soapnuts (in Hindi reetha, in binomial nomenclature Sapindus mukorossi, and in the local Pahari languages dode–pronounced doh-day). One morning while getting breakfast I asked Saroj Didi, a friend on the housekeeping staff, if she knew where I could get some reetha. “How much?” she wanted to know. I explained that I needed to wash the wool I had brought back. She followed me to my room in the hostel and sized up my collection of cement sacks crammed with fleeces. The next day at breakfast, she handed me another sack–this one full of rattling, wrinkled yellow spheres. I had been expecting that she would know of a shopkeeper who sold reetha powder, which was what I had seen when looking it up online. Instead, she had gone straight to the source and brought me the unprocessed fruits from the tree. She explained that I would need to soak them in hot water to soften them, remove the large black seed from each one, and grind the flesh into a paste.

So I set myself up a little workstation outside the mess hall. Saroj Didi watched as I cracked the fruits open with a rock. After a period of close observation, she offered some advice. My Hindi skills being pretty rudimentary at the time (to be honest, they still are), I picked out from her stream of speech only the words “bitter,” “fingers,” and “in your mouth.” I duly stuck out my tongue and touched it to one finger, only to recoil in disgust.

soapnut workstation

Saroj Didi cracked up. “I told you not to put your fingers in your mouth!” she exclaimed. “Eat some sugar to make it sweet.” She bustled off into the kitchen to fetch me a spoonful.

Months after that bittersweet encounter, I accompanied Saroj Didi to her home in the village of Kandvari after work. As we passed under a large tree, she gestured to the round, yellow fruits fallen on the ground and trampled by the feet of the people, horses, and goats that passed along the path. “Dode,” she indicated. “What’s the profit in picking them up? Now we have soap from the shops.” Another time as we sipped tea on her front step, she described how villagers used to make rag dolls for children out of old, torn clothing. “We would attach dode seeds for the eyes,” she added. But now, she lamented, everyone wants store-bought toys instead of handmade things.

When I left the institute, I passed my rattling sack of reetha along to another soapnut enthusiast on campus. I had used it to wash some of those dirty fleeces and to do many loads of laundry by hand, but still had a lot left. Back in California, I wished I had found a way to bring my soapnut stash with me. So I was delighted to learn about a new business starting up production of laundry powder with soapnuts harvested from small farms in Kandvari. I’m proud to offer their natural laundry detergent through this shop, and look forward to continuing my relationship with the soapnut trees of Kandvari and supporting rural employment opportunities for the farmers of that community.

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