A couple of weeks ago, I decided that I wasn’t going to buy any more products that had synthetic detergent surfactants. Which meant everything my local grocer stocked for cleaning clothes, vessels, or floors was out. No more quick trips to the local shop to buy washing powder for clothes, no more 2 litre cans of floor cleaner, but it also meant some guilt-free sniggering at advertisements about ‘bathroom specialists’.
I still had material that would last a month (and I wanted to believe that the waste water treatment on campus was effective), so I had some time to figure out alternatives and substitutes. I was also looking for a reasonable way of dealing with the ants and cockroaches that had added themselves to my menagerie (which now has a stray dog, assorted plants rescued from cracks in the wall, a batch of thriving earthworms, and a struggling vegetable patch). The other members of the zoo (especially me, and especially while cooking) were objecting to these two new entrants and they were remarkably tenacious. I swear that the ants that had colonised my kitchen ate red chilli powder.
Sometimes, help arrives even before you go looking for it. A series of whatsapp messages answered most of my queries, and I felt empowered to try this new phase of domestic goddess-hood.
First off, it seems like white vinegar is probably my best friend. It can replace practically every surfactant in my home – whether it is the floor cleaner, the blue bathroom liquid, and even the whitening agent for clothes. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new superhero in the house.
Add a capful of white vinegar into a bucket before mopping the floors instead of one of the technicoloured liquids with the excoriating smell. This is particularly useful if you walk barefoot in your home, or have a pet with allergic reactions in her paws. Consider a few drops of an essential oil for a pleasant fragrance (I am told that lemongrass and citronella are excellent if you are battling a mosquito menace. Our milkman swears by the cowdung slurry for his mud floors, though, especially in the rainy season).
Splash white vinegar on your bathroom floors and let it soak for a bit before scrubbing. You can even try it for your toilet bowls, (and baffle Abbas when he visits your home with his blue liquid), since ceramic is one of the easiest surfaces to clean. For grout, alternate vinegar with baking soda and scrub after each application. Most greasy, fungus-y green growths will disappear (and your skin won’t itch at the end of your cleaning session).
On a hike with some school students, I had the experience of cleaning my plate with ash and a coconut husk. It was a hilly region and water was scarce. The organisers were conscientious people, and so they used traditional methods for cleaning, to ensure that the group was treading lightly on the environment. If ash and coconut husk seem too rustic for your taste, there are soapnut-based powders for your vessels, soft enough that you can clean expensive chinaware as well. For silverware or brass, consider lemon and tamarind (along with some focussed scrubbing). For the final shine, vibhuti is a good option.
A friend once told me that she uses only soapnuts for her clothes, since she isn’t exactly a car mechanic who needs to get grease off her clothes. For most of our clothes, that are mildly soiled, soapnuts, lemon, and (yep, you guessed it), white vinegar are sufficient. If you want sparkling white whites, you just need to pre-soak the clothes in warm water (and then dry them in direct sunlight! Show me a tropical sun and I can show you some whiter-than-white whites). If you have delicate clothes, especially handlooms coloured with natural dyes, use salt in the wash water to ensure that the fabric remains in good shape, and the colour lasts long.
But what about my ants and cockroaches, you ask? I am going to attack the next invasion of these remarkable ants by bathing my kitchen counter with neem oil. If some of it ends up on my plate, well, um… good for my intestines, I guess? Before winter ends, I am going to get some neem leaves to place inside my rice bag, and add some dried red chillies to the boxes in which I store pulses (they seem to attract every bug in the planet. But I am told that I should be glad that the bugs like my groceries, because that means the produce isn’t full of insecticide. Whodathunk?).
And if you want a really foolproof way to keep the roaches away from your home, drop us a line or leave a comment. It’s a certified, grandma-approved technique, and it blew me away when I first heard of it.
*Abbas is an Indian actor who appeared in a commercial for popular chem-based toiler cleaner brand
*Vibhudi is white ash which is made of burnt dried wood used famously in Hindu rituals