Fall of 1996.
I had a row with Uma in my apartment and took a scissor to my long tresses and cut my hair. They went from waist length to shoulder length in a fit of rage. The last time I had a haircut was probably 10 years prior. Silence fell in the apartment as I collected more than 15” of hair, put it in a trash bag and I went on with my evening as though nothing had happened.
Actually, no one *dared* ask me what happened (and I don’t even remember anymore.)
I was in Bombay for the summer, with my family after two years of being in the US, now doing the research for my Masters’ Thesis. Tired from walking all day, I treated myself to a cab ride home. It was about 6.30 p.m. I asked the cabbie to go via Marine Drive, the iconic promenade that is a balm for all homesick ‘Bombay-ites’.
I was heading back to my parent’s place after a long day of rummaging through publicly available information at the Municipal Corporation, trying to fill the gaps in my research. The evening air was filled with the anticipation of the monsoons - they had not arrived.
The pre-monsoon ocean air whipped furiously through the palms that dotted iconic pavement. I rolled the window down just a bit so that I could smell the salty air, feel the season roll in, was hoping to be lucky enough to be hit with a spray of the ocean waves as the cabbie whizzed along the promenade. Sitting in the cabbie alone, I was taking in all my familiar old places not knowing when I would see it again.
Unexpectedly, I spotted a familiar form walking along Marine Drive, hunched over, hands behind his back like an old ‘pantoji’ (a Marathi word for a learned man or thinker) deep in thought as was his typical gait. I could spot that gait anywhere. He used to live nearby and this promenade was one of his old haunts. He and I had grown from being friends into being more. It had been more than a few years since I last saw him in a café in the same part of town. It was pouring rain outside that evening when, for all reasons that did not make sense then, I had to ‘break up’ with him. I had begged him to quit smoking and he said he would.
I was parched for old friendships, and understandably elated to see a familiar form in the crowds. Instinctively, I asked the cabbie to pull over. Afterall, he and I had been friends once.
“Hello, how have you been?” I asked, I saw his wedding ring. Yes, I had heard, a common friend made sure I did. So much had happened since the last time we spoke.
My short hair sprayed across my face powerless against the ocean winds. I tried to hold it back with one arm, shaking my head to push it away from my face, trying to smile. The first words that spilled from his lips: “Oh, you’ve changed. So, now that you are in America, you *even* cut your hair short?!” He was still holding the last of his evening cigarette, and raised it to his lips to fill the awkwardness – defiantly perhaps, suggesting it was my turn to speak. I mumbled something about it being easier to manage and tried to make small talk.
Seeing his gaze move so frequently over my head I had to find a way to say goodbye, once again. I could hear the bitterness: more than in that cigarette, in its smoke, or on his breath. I could hear disappointment in his raspy voice. It did not matter that in those years he had become nearly bald, had continued to smoke and was married shortly after ‘the break up’. It marred the short and bittersweet moments of our very brief meeting.
Nothing mattered. Except that I had changed. And that I would never see him again.
It was not until that moment, in the midst of that awkward conversation, that I realized how attached other people got - to ‘my’ hair.
My love-hate relationship with my hair has lasted nearly five decades. I think most Indian women suffer from this malady. Hair is coveted along with a range of external physical traits. I don’t know what people see in it, why there is a desire to suggest that a person should tame their mane, control it with oils, pomades, gels, sprays or straightening. These desires: to tame it, control it, critique it, suggest the same fears that ancient Greeks had for Medusa’s strengths.
I started dyeing my hair when I was in my mid 20’s. I’ve had every length of hair imaginable, every style except perms, it was colored often. Each time a photographer was called in for a photoshoot for an updated matrimonial photo to send to the eligible men in America, the photographer asked me to keep my long, single braid up front, where people could see it. One of the eligible recipients, a chap from Oregon, rejected me by mailing me my photo back.
Hair, and long locks of deep onyx hair is a cultural obsession for people from India and every excuse to pamper and adorn it – is considered valid. The only adornment I have loved is putting flowers in my hair – it one of those cultural things that you can’t shake off. Jasmines, golden magnolias, gardenias, and ginger lilies are my favorites. They are softly fragrant, bloom at night and seasonal. They are unexpected in more ways than one.
I’ve always thought that my hair (or anyone’s’ for that matter), when left alone - can be a reflection of who they are. Thinking back to the time when I tortured my hair, I agree, yes – I was succumbing to the pressures of being someone that ‘other people liked to look at’. But ask me if I care anymore.
As I age, the after effects of foolish young adulthood are catching up, of abusing it with chemicals and styles that no sane person should. Over time, my scalp has become tender and my hair growth has slowed down. I’ve tried short hair very often, to keep it manageable and only had momentary bouts of affinity for any style. Over the stress of last year, I lost so much hair that I had bald spots and I knew it was not alopecia. The thinning scalp became difficult to bear. I finally went to a hair salon one morning and asked the girl to trim away what little was left, the 100 some strands. She gave me a blow-dry, and it momentarily looked fuller. She showed me that if I wanted to ‘fill it in’, I could do ‘back-combing’: a technique I had seen prescribed to women much older than me. I cried quietly in the car. Uma cancelled his work day that afternoon sensing that I needed to be OK more than seeking anyone else’s approval.
In this past year, a large part of my recovery treatments to combat stress and anemia has involved heavily changing my diet. It has caused my hair to come in on quite its own, independent terms.
It has also taught me to quit wanting to be accepted for someone elses' vision of who I should be, instead, be who I am happy with - in whatever appearance I come with. My hair can be unruly, bold, and unpredictable. Most days it looks like a mop atop my scalp. But it does its own thing, with a devil-may-care attitude. I am letting it show off its curls and its greys - for taming it is quite pointless. My hair has a mind of its own. And I have a good mind to finally let it.