Taste of Life: When “Korphadicha muramba” became a synonym to talk about STIs

“Korphadicha muramba” was being used to treat STIs by the natives of Pune. So naturally, people having STIs would eat it a lot. Whenever the authors wanted to draw the attention of their readers towards the growing number of patients with STIs, they would simply mention that “more and more people are now eating Korphadicha muramba”
“Korphadicha muramba” or Aloe vera jam was being used to treat STIs by the natives of Pune. (Shutterstock/REPRESENTATIVE PHOTO)
“Korphadicha muramba” or Aloe vera jam was being used to treat STIs by the natives of Pune. (Shutterstock/REPRESENTATIVE PHOTO)
Published on Oct 21, 2021 04:18 PM IST
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ByChinmay Damle

On April 13, 1866, the newspaper “Jnanaprakash” expressed anguish over the youth in Pune “succumbing to the lure of sex-workers”. “We have known that several notable citizens of this city are regularly seen visiting sex-workers. Prostitution has long thrived here, but now we should think about the future of the younger generation. The youth of Pune have been seen patronizing the flesh trade. Due to this, sex workers from other towns and villages have now started operating here”, it wrote.

This was one of the hundreds of articles and editorials published in the last few decades of the 19th century in various Marathi newspapers expressing concern about the flourishing prostitution in Pune. Social leaders like Gopal Hari Deshmukh alias Lokahitawadi, Mahadev Govind Ranade, Mahadev Moreshwar Kunte actively cautioned the youth against visiting sex workers. BG Tilak and GG Agarkar later campaigned against prostitution in their newspapers “Kesari” and “Maratha”. After the 1860s, when Marathi newspapers started printing advertisements, the majority of those featured medicines to treat venereal diseases, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Most of the articles published then condemned prostitution on moral grounds. The leaders wanted young men to “give up vices like liquor and visiting brothels, and commit their lives for their country”. A few articles though, mostly written by Tilak and Agarkar, wanted their readers to know about the dangers of venereal diseases and STIs. The newspapers chose not to, or could not, write about the health hazards openly. Owing to the constraints of those times, and the unease felt by the authors, this had to be hinted at obliquely. They instead, very cleverly, adapted a euphemism to talk about venereal diseases.

The said euphemism was “Korphadicha muramba”, or Aloe vera jam. This jam was being used to treat STIs by the natives of Pune. So naturally, people having STIs would eat it a lot. Whenever the authors wanted to draw the attention of their readers towards the growing number of patients with STIs, they would simply mention that “more and more people are now eating Korphadicha muramba”. This usage made venereal diseases and STIs look less scandalous. It also saved the authors from any possible embarrassment whatsoever while writing about the topic. While Marathi newspapers were using Aloe vera jam as a euphemism for STIs, English newspapers published in Britain, and India had started using “Fish market” as a euphemism for brothels.

Aloe vera had been used in India for several centuries to treat a variety of diseases and infections. It was an aperient and deemed highly beneficial to persons predisposed to apoplexy. The fresh juice from the leaves was said to be cathartic, cooling, and useful in fevers, spleen, and liver disease, enlarged lymphatic glands, and as an external applicant in certain eye diseases.

Garcia de Orta, a Portuguese physician, accompanied Admiral Martin Alfonso de Souza to Goa in 1534. According to Garcia de Orta, the juice of Aloe vera at that time was used for medicinal purposes in South India. He gives the prescription for the use of the fresh plant – “aloe leaves sliced, 3 oz., salt, heat to boiling, strain, add 1 oz. of sugar; to be taken cold early in the morning”. This concoction was widely used as an aperient and emmenagogue.

It is unclear how, when, and where the recipe of Aloe vera jam was developed. Many medieval manuals of Ayurveda talks about using Aloe vera to treat several maladies, but only a few mention the said jam.

The recipe for Aloe vera jam could be found in “Soopashastra”, the first Marathi cookbook written by Ramchandra Sakharam Gupte, and published in 1875 by Shridhar Ravji Gondhalekar in Pune.

Gupte instructs his readers to wash Aloe vera pulp carefully and put it on a clean cloth. One part pulp is then added to three parts sugar syrup, and the mixture is boiled on moderate heat till the jam thickens. According to Gupte, this jam was used to treat Syphilis.

Sadly, the prevalence of venereal diseases was not limited to Pune city. The Cantonment areas were severely affected too. Even though the British Government had been trying to control the situation since the early 1820s, the efforts gained momentum only during the last decades of the 19th century.

According to “The Bombay Gazette”, there were 2,556 admissions in 1867 from venereal diseases which gave a ratio of 212 per thousand European men. STIs amounted to 15% of “the entire sickness”. The number kept on increasing for the next three decades.

Several measures were adopted to keep venereal diseases among European men in check. Sex workers were forbidden in the Poona and Kirkee Cantonment areas. Female workers were employed to “keep an eye on the sex workers”, and trace the women “who were carrying the disease”. A “lock hospital” was established, where patients were not allowed to go out, and visitors were strictly prohibited.

The British doctors in India in the 19th century did not hesitate from using traditional native medicines and modes of treatment. Accordingly, they did not shy away from using Aloe vera to treat venereal diseases amongst the European population in India.

Dr MD Joynt, Brigade-Surgeon, Poona, Prof GM Woodrow, College of Science, Poona, and Dr William Dymock, Surgeon-Major, Bombay, came together to formulate a mode of treatment for venereal diseases. Their treatment included fresh juice of Aloe vera and the famed Aloe vera jam.

GM Woodrow, Professor at College of Science, Poona, mentions in “A Dictionary of the Economic Products of India” that in Poona roots of Abrus precatorius (rosary pea) were used to treat Gonorrhea. A quantity equal to a drachm (a unit of weight formerly used by apothecaries, equivalent to 60 grains or one-eighth of an ounce) in weight was pounded and the juice was mixed with sugar-candy. This was sold on the streets of Pune. This was also included in the treatment formulated in the Cantonment hospitals.

As a medicine, the inspissated juice from the forms of the species of Aloe vera found in India was regarded as but little inferior to the imported Socotrine aloes. The Socotrine Aloes (Aloe Perryi) is very similar to the Barbados aloes but has a purplish hue on the stem and lower parts of the leaf. Aloe fruticosa (Ghritkumari in Hindi) has a woody stem and narrow recurved toothy leaves.

All three species were planted in Poona and Kirkee Cantonment areas to get a regular supply of fresh pulp and juice.

Aloe vera jam suddenly disappeared from Marathi newspapers at the onset of the 21st century. But it stayed in popular literature for a long time. Authors like Shantabai Nashikkar, Anandibai Shirke, YG Joshi, NH Apte mentioned the dish in their short stories and novels. A man eating the jam was understood by the readers to indulge in debauchery. They sympathized with his wife.

Euphemisms abound in food terminology. We should all be grateful when it comes to culinary name-calling.

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Friday, December 03, 2021