Sometimes small, seemingly insignificant things have huge impacts on the very survival of the human race. Take for example the three lettered word: oil – the type of effects this generates on global and domestic economies is so profound that in my reckoning the name should be changed to something much longer, more imposing and awesome. Much as I would like to suggest one, it will be in the fitness of things that my readers do so. Since oil and its cousins have lately been playing such a depressing role in our daily lives, I have decided to uncover the brighter side of what is referred to as ‘black gold’.

Oil known in the Subcontinent as ‘tel’ is as much part of oriental culture as weddings, spicy food or arguing with the green grocer on the price of a lemon. Oils extracted from different sources are extensively used in medicines, oral applications and preparation of food. Some ‘Tels’ are, to say the least, bizarre. Take for example ‘Saanday ka Tel’, which is extracted by deep frying a particular variety of lizard (known locally as ‘Saanda’) and then selling the residual oil to alleviate rheumatism. What happens to the fried lizard I do not know, but I have personally witnessed this horrible procedure and find no reason, why those that practice it should not be incarcerated for animal rights abuse.

The most popular oil in our part of the world is ‘Sarson ka Tel’ or mustard oil. Vegetables cooked, fried or pickled in this product, acquire a flavor and aftertaste that is out of this world. If you don’t believe me, just walk over and sample a few ‘Pakoras’ (fritters made from spiced chickpea flour) or fish, deep fried in this oil and get hooked for life.

The vernacular version of oil or ‘tel’ has become an important part of our vocabulary. The phrase ‘In tillon men tel nahin’ (there is no oil in these sesame seeds) denotes someone with the capacity for zero output. ‘Tel dena’ (giving oil) points to an act that destroys someone’s life. The phrase ‘Tel nikal aya’ (extracted oil) when negatively used means ‘working someone very hard’ on the flip side, the same expression can be used positively as ‘striking oil’ or making it rich.

The English language too, is proficient in its use of the word. For example the expression ‘working like a well-oiled machine’ is a reference to a system or business that operates smoothly and efficiently (something that is rare where I live). Even folklore and stories feature this word, proof of which is the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, where Marjeena the faithful slave girl discovers that the forty thieves are hiding in earthen jars and earns her salt by pouring boiling oil into them. The story has a happy ending (thanks to the ‘Tel’) with the master marrying the beautiful and intelligent slave girl.

My grandmother often narrated stories, where thieves rubbed oil on their bodies and burgled homes wearing nothing, but a loin cloth. Many a burglar thus escaped capture, when his pursuers failed to secure a hold on the slippery torso of the fleeing offender.

The palliative effects of Mustard Oil is well known and endorsed by me because of personal experience. My elder sibling claims that in spite of having crossed the senior citizen threshold, the density and color of my hair is because of regularly enforced application of this extract on my head by our late mother. I have also effectively treated wounds and cuts on my pets with a concoction made up of ground turmeric mixed with mustard oil.

I have written this week’s piece because I cannot imagine a world without oil – the tiny three letter word that we are apt to take for granted, but which has an unbelievably huge impact on the way we live, eat and work.