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How an Indian immigrant holds on to her memories of home through Jabakusum oil

Author Madhushree Ghosh explains how oiling her hair has become an inextricable part of her Bengali identity

Vogue Online

JUNE 16, 2022
Photo by Gary S Greer

As the daughter of refugees from East Bengal, my world has been my parents’ memories. When I left for the United States to attend graduate school, I held on steadfastly to reminders of home—food, festivals and ceremonies, or things of beauty that indicated we were bhadralok: well-educated people, typically Bengalis, regarded as members of a cultured class.

One of those items was hair oil. As a child, my hair was regularly drenched in Jabakusum oil that smelt of my ma. The perfumed oil, which both ma and baba had grown up applying as well, came in a dark glass bottle wrapped in a red and white label with the illustration of a hibiscus flower emblazoned on it. My entire childhood could fit into that glass bottle filled with red oil, secured with an ill-fitting metal cap. I couldn’t acquire a bottle like that in America when I arrived in 1993. With the over-powering shade of White supremacy colouring the global wellness industry, many versions of Jabakusum oil have since emerged in plastic bottles, with unfamiliar ayurvedic additions like jojoba and essential oils.

Literary Representation

Dana Newman Literary Agency
1800 Avenue of the Stars, 12th Floor
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County 90067, USA

Publisher, "Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory and Family"

University of Iowa Press
119 W. Park Road, 100 Kuhl House, Iowa City IA 52242-1000
Ph: 800-621-2736