A ‘soapman’ feels vindicated today

R Gopalakrishnan | Updated on June 06, 2020

In the time of Covid, soap has made the difference between life and death. So what if one has studied computers to sell soap?

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has a mummified Philadelphia man, who was buried around 1800 and whose body turned into soap. It seems that alkaline water seeped into his casket and combined with his body fat, thus making him into soap. He is called ‘Soapman’.

Like many colleagues, I am a living soap-man, having worked for both Hindustan Lever and Tata (who used to own TOMCO). I graduated with degrees in Physics and Electronics from an IIT 53 years ago. I joined the computer department of Hindustan Lever, though after five years, I departed from computers and became a soap-man.

Over many years, questions got hurled at me: How can you study at IIT and end up with soap? What satisfaction do you get by spending a working day, talking to grocers? How could your mind be applied to, how to market freshness or beauty soaps?

It did not happen just to me. Homi Sethna studied chemical engineering along with Vasant Rajadhyaksha in America. Homi distinguished himself at atomic energy, while Vasant did so at Unilever. As recounted to me by Vasant, Homi forever ribbed him about working in a soap company. After their retirement, Homi became Chairman of TOMCO and Vasant joined the Planning Commission. Homi would informally consult Vasant about how to make profits in TOMCO. Finally, Tata sold TOMCO to Unilever. Homi and Vasant must have had a quiet drink to mark the tun of events!

I managed to respond to my persistent questioners and spent 31 happy years in Unilever. But I was in search of an intellectually seductive answer: for example, improving hygiene. After all, the founder, William Hesketh Lever, had said that “we seek to clean the teeming millions all over the world.” My blandishment was received with politeness, maybe some indulgence.

To retain majority Unilever shareholding, the company had argued that sophisticated technology is involved in manipulating triglycerides and fatty acids for soap-making. The company was proud of its capability to upgrade oils, not used for soap-making anywhere else in the world. This had a positive impact on the foreign exchange balance of the nation. On one occasion, the company chairman was asked, no doubt in jest, by a senior government officer, “Are you still making soap?” to which the chairman responded in equally good humour, “Yes, so long as you require a bath.” Finally, Unilever was permitted to retain majority shareholding in HUL.

With Covid, washing hands for 20 seconds with soap is now seen as sacred. The honour in soap-making is finally made visible by an invisible virus. But why the virus scared of soap? Contrary to popular impression, coronavirus is not a living being. It is genetic material that is folded up and placed inside an envelope of oily material. The genetic material enables infection and attack, while the oily envelope protects the genetic material.

Pin shaped molecules

Soap is constituted of pin shaped molecules. One end of the pin is water-loving, and the other end is water-hating. The water-hating end seeks out oily material, and the water-loving end seeks out water. When soap is mixed with water making a soap solution, the water-loving heads bunch up together and point outwards. The water-hating tails stay tucked inwards.

What happens when we wash our hands with soap? From a virus viewpoint, our hands are not soft and smooth, our hands have mountainous ridges and valleys, which permit the viruses to settle in the crevices. Pin shaped soap molecules on the hands causes the water-hating end of the pin to seek out the oily material, which is plentifully available in the virus and which protects the destructive virus. This water-hating end of the soap molecule acts like a crowbar and pries apart the virus like a Roman gladiator. The virus gets demolished. It is an act of extreme violence.

Therefore, soap protects, it allows human life to grow. It began in ancient times, perhaps when rain washed oily material and ash from sacrifices into a nearby river. A froth was formed on the river and the froth had the remarkable ability to wash the body and clothes of human beings. That is how life flourished on the planet.

Explained in this manner, is not soap a sophisticated product that saves human lives in an affordable way? Coronavirus has given me a reason to believe even more passionately that I have led an honourable and humane professional life as a soapman, no less than a steelman or a carman.

Through The Billion Press. The writer is an author, corporate advisor and a distinguished Professor of IIT Kharagpur. He was a Director of Tata Sons and a Vice Chairman of Hindustan Unilever

Published on June 06, 2020

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