It was early morning on January 4, 1932. Gandhiji had just announced the civil disobedience movement in view of the failure of the round table conference. He had cancelled his programme of taking the night train from Bombay. This had upset the plan of the Bombay Police to pick him up quietly from some small wayside railway station and whisk him away to Poona.
Earl of Willingdon, the Viceroy had ordered the arrests of Gandhi, Patel and Nehru to prevent them from mobilising the satyagrahis. He had spent a sleepless night, worried about the reaction of the people to the mass arrests. He was relieved to receive the early morning message from Mr. Wilson, the Police commissioner of Bombay that Gandhiji had been picked up and sent to Yerwada jail without any event. The Viceroy could now relax, and he left the office for his inner chamber of the sprawling Viceroy's House for a refreshing bath with a soap made specially for him in ----- Calicut!
Fiction? Not really. The story of the Kerala Soap Institute which used to supply soaps to the Viceroy, among other dignitaries, has been brought out by one of Calicut's brilliant amateur historians, Advocate Seluraj. Published in the City Supplement (Nagaram) of Mathrubhumi dated 6 Nov 08, the story traces the rise and fall of one of the leading industrial units of Calicut, the Kerala Soap Institute (1914-2001 RIP)
Calicut was introduced to modern industries through the Basel Evangelical Mission's magnificent effort to bring in a new culture among their converts. BEM established a chain of tile works and textile mills in Calicut, Kodakkal, Vaniamkulam, Tellicherry, Quilandy etc. Their effort spanned a period of 80 years from 1834 to 1914. When the first World War started in 1914, these units were taken over as enemy property. (Please read the fascinating story of BEM and Commonwealth Trust in Jayaprakash Raghaviah's interesting presentation here)
It may be a co-incidence – the Kerala Soap Institute was set up by some enterprising Englishmen, in the same year that BEM institutions folded up, in the heart of what was known as the English Quarters, on Evans Road (the present Gandhi Road). As one crosses the rail over bridge from Christian College to the beach, one encounters on the right a large compound with wild overgrowth, a broken iron gate, dilapidated buildings and a heap of waste. This was the Kerala Soap Institute. It used to be a busy factory with a long row of vehicles waiting to get their cargo of soaps, washing powder and shark liver oil. Thousands of schoolchildren in and around Calicut would remember the mandatory excursion to the soap factory from where they would return with their trophy - a sample sandal soap or sometimes only the waste soap chips. The ice candy from the street vendor never tasted so good!
The factory was shifted to this new location in 1918. How the sprawling 4 acre land was acquired is itself a story of perseverance and dedication of Mr. F.A.Nicholson, the Director of Fisheries of Malabar who was entrusted with the task. The new enlarged factory was called an Experimental and Demonstration Unit to impart training in soap making, apart from making quality soaps.
It was here that the famous 'Willingdon Soaps' were being made. As Willingdon was the Viceroy of India between 1931 and 1936, he must have authorised the use of his name and insignia during this period. The carton has the legend : “By Appointment to His Excellency the Earl of Willingdon , Viceroy and Governor General of India”. It also carried the vice-regal insignia and a picture of the Viceroy's House (the present Rashtrapati Bhavan) with the Union Jack fluttering majestically! Thus it came about that Malabar was supplying soap to wash the sins of someone who, as the Governor of Madras in 1921, had presided over the atrocities which culminated in the Malabar Wagon Tragedy.
The KSI continued as a Madras Government unit till 1956, reportedly supplying soaps to the President of India after 1947. But, its days of glory – when renowned oil technologists like K.S. Murti were serving the factory – had ended by then. The factory was re-organised as a Company in 1964 and was famous for some of its products like Washwell soaps and soap chips, Kerala Sandal, Kerala Coal Tar (Carbolic Soap), Shark Liver Oil (for the brave!) and Adamin Fish Oil Capsules for the rest. It also had a hydrogenation unit making Sudha vanaspati and Vimala refined oil.
In 1975, production was shifted to the Italian plant set up in West Hill. Only the administrative and marketing units continued on Gandhi Road. The plant had, however, to be closed down soon due to financial problems. There was an attempt to revive the unit in 1996 but it finally folded up in 2001, handing over the vast property to reptiles, foxes and rodents who peacefully cohabit with the drug peddlers and bootleggers! The State Government has many proposals – the latest being to construct a Convention Complex - but real estates sharks seem to have other plans!!
Adv. Seluraj's article in Nagaram (Mathrubhumi) dated 6th November 2008 .
Photo: courtesy The Mathrubhumi