I have come to believe that we Indians are somewhat obsessed with hair. I cut my hair short a few years ago. Now, I always thought cutting my hair was an independent decision I was allowed to take, being an adult and all. But no. Apparently, I should have taken permission for this from distant relatives, certain idle neighbours, sundry temple priests with ponytails, two upright officers at the Bangalore airport, and the neighbourhood ironing-lady. It seems all of the people in the aforementioned list were immensely troubled by my act. I also had to explain to at least five other strangers that no, it was not because I wanted to be a boy—I’m no rocket surgeon, but I am pretty sure it takes a little more effort than that.
Then there was the lady on the Delhi Metro. “Aap South se ho?” she asked, looking me up and down, “Par South mein to ladeej are heaving long hairs!” She then clucked disapprovingly. I had clearly become a symbol of the cultural decay of the region.
A few people also asked if my husband had given me permission to cut my hair. “Yes, of course!” I replied, with a straight face, “That was right after I did aarati and prostrated myself in front of his size 10 lotus-feet. He also does the same every day before he shaves.” I wonder sometimes which century such people are stuck in.
The irony in all this is that there was a time I wanted to have long hair myself. But since my hair is naturally unruly, maintaining it used to be a nightmare. When I was in school, the weekend oil head-bath, in particular, used to be pure torture. These were the last years of the BS (Before-Shampoo) era, and all we had at our disposal was that dusty powder called shikakai. As far as I could tell, the purpose of shikakai was to (a) smell vile, (b) accumulate in clumps on the scalp, and, (c) blind unsuspecting children. It certainly did nothing to remove the oil from my thick hair. On hot Madras evenings, I would sit under the fan like a marinated chicken, while my grandmother blotted my hair strand by strand with strips of newspaper.
My memories of Diwali are also a bit clouded by the special oil baths we’d have that day. We’d wake up at 4am, blast a string of Standard Fireworks’ Red Fort crackers and then, before we could get to the new clothes, be made to sit for our oil baths. Now, it was critical to have the oil violently scrubbed out of you, lest you stain your shiny new clothes—these, alas, were already in peril from the haldi and kumkum.
I asked a couple of my friends about their oil-bath memories. A few of the women were lucky enough to have their hair dried over fragrant “sambrani” fumes. Others remembered that the oil had spices and made you smell like a pot of sambar. Some poor souls reported having the oil poured into their noses and ears. Nearly everyone agreed that it was an odd mix of pampering and torture. But, at the same time, they were now happy to inflict the ritual on their own children.
In fact, as we’ve grown older, we’re also happy to pay princely sums of money to be bathed exactly like children. I remember paying a four-figure amount to an ashram in Hyderabad for the privilege of being massaged by two women who looked like retired wrestlers. They poured oil over me, and kneaded and rolled me till I was pliant and oily like a lump of Kerala Porotta dough. For the steam bath, I was made to sit in a wooden contraption which looked like an upright guillotine—when they closed the door, only my head jutted out. I peered to see where the steam was coming from. I found, to my alarm, that it came from an old rubber pipe that was connected to a large pressure-cooker balanced on a kerosene stove.
I came out of the ordeal alive and have now shifted my allegiances to one of the numerous Kerala places that are dotted around Bangalore. There’s no doting grandmother to blot my hair, but, when they finish, they lovingly rub some sweet-smelling powder into my hairline and give me a herbal potion to drink. Best of all, they give me shampoo sachets instead of shikakai.