For a few months after my head shave, I called myself “Baldilocks”—partly in jest, partly in defense, and partly in defiance. It is unusual for a Bengali matron to shave off her hair and literally go bald. South Indian women do it regularly for religious reasons. In Bengal, on the other hand, it is considered inauspicious. This is mostly due to the practice of widows having their heads tonsured and being sent off to live pious, invisible, and penurious lives with other widows in the holy city of Vrindavan (Uttar Pradesh), unofficially known as the city of widows. There, they cannot cast their jealous and inauspicious eyes on other women, the ones still blest with living husbands.
The women from my mother’s generation would have held their hands to their cheeks in shock and dismay. They would have cursed me for acting like a widow when I was fortunate to have a husband, alive and well! They would have whispered darkly about me, the irresponsible married woman who wore the symbol of widowhood so blithely! Most of those elders are dead and gone, including my own mother. The few still alive are too far away to know.
I wasn’t entirely let off though. There are Bengali women in Chennai—younger, but traditional. They still wear a stripe of vermillion, a bright advertisement of their marital status, in the part of their hair. They practice all the necessary pious rituals and fast on certain days for their husbands’ good health and longevity. They participate in the annual Durga puja festival with gusto. They do not enter the puja or prayer room when they menstruate. But some of them are secret rebels. And it was they who expressed open-mouthed admiration at my boldness. Others giggled with their faces averted. Some pursed their lips and spoke in whispers.
One asked me if “something had happened.” By that she meant if someone close to me had died and if I, being a feminist, had followed the custom of Hindu Bengali men of shaving off my hair. She didn’t seem convinced when I replied in the negative. Another wanted to know if I was trying out an extreme hair treatment for hair loss. Apparently, she had heard somewhere that tonsuring encouraged hair growth. I replied that my next hairstyle would be a mohawk and the tonsure was a mere preparation for that. She didn’t know what a mohawk was, so my joke fell flat.
I secretly toy with the idea of a mohawk and tattoos too. Or maybe it’s just that woman who lives inside my head who wants to do all those things, including driving a truck and riding a bike: a Harley-Davidson—maybe in my next life! Maybe I’ll fulfil her dreams—part of them, at least, in this one. Listening to her talk makes me feel good. At least she doesn’t mock me anymore.
I doubt I would have had the gumption to go for a full tonsure in the first place, had I remained in Bengal where a woman’s tresses denote her beauty and femininity. Don’t I know!
I’ve had my days in the sun, you see, having inherited my mother’s locks, though not her looks. During my teens, I had let my hair grow long until it swept past my waist. It reached my tailbone when I hit my twenties. My hair fell in heavy waves, shining like threads of onyx. Many girls at college envied me. I used to be thin and angular in those days, an unwomanly physique. Naturally I felt flattered by their envy. The hair made me feel feminine and desirable. So, I put up with the bother.
Thick long hair was a bother, all said and done. I always caught a cold when I shampooed it, especially during the Monsoon season, and also in December when Bengal grew chilly. Few people, actually only the rich and fashionable, possessed hair driers in the eighties. It was a contraption we associated only with hair salons and beauty parlours. Towel drying the hair and sitting under the sun was what we did. The back of my head, however, where the hair grew thickest, remained damp even until dusk, in spite of my having washed it before nine a.m. Once, I caught such a severe cold that my throat became septic and I had to take antibiotics for a week.
I had no sense of style. I parted my hair in the center of my head simply because it was easier to manage. I wore my hair mostly in two tight braids, or one if I had to wear a sari or dress more formally. My hair was slippery and the braids often came undone. It was worse when I tried to knot it into a bun. On the rare occasion when I let it flow loose, the satiny weight against my back felt good. I felt my gait change. I didn’t lope or slouch, but held my chin straight and my shoulders relaxed. Yet, this piece of feminine indulgence on my part, this long and lustrous hair, was the very thing my older siblings most disapproved of. They preferred to see me as a scrawny girl who could be told what to do. I should have remained what they took me for, a small bullied kid, instead of getting my period and growing my hair.
It was summer and after the swimming, the books from the library, and the Thursday evening movie at the club, there wasn’t much to do in the small town where we lived. We played contract bridge with my dad on most evenings and he liked my hand play. That was a brownie point for me, even though my siblings laughed at my lack of political knowledge.
Truth be told, I hated the arguments my sister and brother got into every day. They called it debating on intellectual issues. To me, they sounded like a pair of bellowing bulls. The neighbours thought we were the noisiest and most querulous family around. My brother had a tendency of turning everything personal. And almost always, what started out as a political argument, ended up in an alley–cat fight, which even became violently physical at times. I got the short end of it from both sides if I tried to calm them down. My parents preferred to be silent spectators.
One morning, my brother and sister, having exhausted their quota of political fights/arguments/debates, turned on me. It was high time I cut my hair, they declared. According to them, my long hair made me look like a rustic ninny.
“An empty-headed fool who is dying to get married!” That was my brother’s verdict. His voice was like a laser beam inside my head, killing my thoughts.
I saw my sister nodding. My mother popped her head in to see what was happening, and just as quickly disappeared. My father was at work. Before I could say a word, my sister went off in search of my mother’s tailoring shears. My brother, feeling encouraged, began a fresh bout of verbal onslaught.
I remember it like it happened yesterday, when, in reality, more than three decades have passed since. They made me stand before the old Belgium glass mirror in my parents’ bedroom. They stood behind me.
“You look stupid, like some village girl!” my brother taunted again.
“This hair style doesn’t suit you,” said my sister, adding, “You look unsmart. A bimbo.”
I protested that I liked my hair the way it was, but they kept shouting me down. My sister pushed me closer to the mirror. My brother grew louder, pacing aggressively, blocking my exit. Every time I cried out, telling them to stop, my brother yelled back. He roared like a member of the Roman crowd watching a prisoner being felled in the arena. Or like a powerful Brahmin bearing down on a Dalit who had dared to grow a moustache!
I turned towards my sister, but the strange glint in her eyes shocked me into silence. There was her smile too. Half apologetic, half triumphant. Something froze inside me. I struggled to loosen my tongue and finally called out to my mother. She stopped at the door, but all she did was mumble a weak protest at her two favorite children. She went right back to the kitchen and didn’t enter the bedroom again.
I look back today and wonder why I didn’t knock the shears from my sister’s hands? Why didn’t I throw it at my brother? What had prevented me from turning violent? Why did I feel so helpless? I am not a timid person by nature. In fact, in many cases I have proved myself to be braver, by far, than any member of my family. But that day, like the other times when my siblings bullied me, I was powerless. I could do nothing to stop their jibes, their mockery, their constant talking down, their relentless ordering about. How could my epic haircut day be any different? Everything they did, had always done, seemed rightful and normal, even though every cell in my body protested. I was like a creature living in suspended animation, aware of everything, but physically incapacitated.
The two long braids fell to the floor, followed by random locks snipped off by a seemingly runaway pair of shears. Before I knew it, I was sporting an uneven bob that just about reached my ear lobes. The two most powerful members of our family had turned a boring summer morning into one of triumphant entertainment. That evening, as I dealt out the cards for our Bridge session, I saw my siblings smirk above my head.
“Doesn’t she look like a class seven kid?” said my sister.
My brother laughed like it was the best joke he’d ever heard. Neither of my parents commented.
The following day, I went to the neighbouring town in search of a Chinese salon to restyle my hair. Because the hair was so short and so badly chopped, the lady ended up giving me what, in those days, was called a “boy’s cut.” The most fashionable hairstyle at that time was known as the “shag,” which was basically a series of layers in quick succession. (I had better add here that “gay” meant happy or glad or jolly, and “queer” meant odd, in those days.)
I could have grown my hair back. But I didn’t. Never to that length at least. Something had broken, fallen off with my locks. Until I got married, about eight years later, I wore my hair in the exact style the Chinese lady at my first salon had given me. I grew it to a little below shoulder length a couple of years after my marriage, but I cut it off to shoulder length when my children were born. I tried to grow it once again when I hit my forties, but that didn’t seem to work. I was too busy to bother with hair styles. A short bob was easy to manage. With two school–going children, and one of them already a teenager, a house to run, and a job, where was the time to care for one’s hair? The hair remained thick, though shot through with white. And then, my husband took a transfer to Chennai, where the sea gets into everything. It’s also the place where women give up their hair to various deities, specifically the one who lives on a hill. The one called Lord Venkateswara Balaji in the temple town of Tirupati. Lord Balaji’s temple is the richest in the world after the Vatican.
In Chennai, it is common to see traditional women, with sparkling diamonds in their ears and noses, and clean–shaven heads or choppy hair of varying lengths, and colors ranging from jet black to white, walking about with élan. Nobody bats an eyelid.
My hair had begun to turn white from a very early age. I inherited that trait as well from my mother. It was fine when I was young. A grey hair or two was sexy. But once you hit your forties, when parts of your body have begun to droop, and you are not ready to give up yet, you do tend to think of hair coloring brands as your greatest allies. A woman’s best friend may be diamonds, but the shoulders she leans on when her prime begins to resemble a perishable fruit are bottles of hair dye, as some have told me.
I, being no better than most women around the world, succumbed and put my faith into their promises. One thing led to another, and soon I was sporting exotic and very un-Indian colors, like rich plums and burgundies, golden browns and shimmery coppers. The time gap between one coloring session and the next grew shorter and shorter, until I was touching up my hair almost every ten days. My salon bills were becoming unmanageable. I tried doing it at home, using the same brands, but ended up with patchily coloured hair, with bits of white in the fashionable coif glinting evilly.
“Hang it all,” I said at last. “I can do a Persis Khambatta!”
“Yes, ma, go for it. Be cool,” said my daughter, even though she had no idea who Khambatta was!
So, I did. A short and round Persis. Hardly a movie star, but cool nevertheless. Really cool. Only those who have shaved their heads know how cool the sea breeze feels on one’s naked head by the shore.
At first, the young man at the salon was hesitant. He had never seen a non-Tamil woman, or more specifically, one who seemed to be a “North Indian,”—and here I must add that, in Tamil Nadu, anyone from the north of the Vindya mountain range, even if they came from the eastern side of India, was a North Indian—asking to have her head shaved.
“Paiya,” I said using the Tamil word for son, “Don’t the ladies in your family give their hair to Balaji?”
His youthful face lit up. “Yes, yes, recently my mother went to Tirupati and sacrificed her hair.”
I smiled. He smiled too, and charged me only Rs. 200 for the tonsure, even though that salon was a rather pricey one. All in the name of God. My daughter took pictures of the hair pooled under me and my plastic hairdresser’s cloak. I posed after my head was done.
Three weeks later, the first crop pushed up their silver tops through my scalp. My husband said my head reminded him of the kadamba phool (Neolamarckia Cadamba or Burflower-Tree). This in turn reminded me of the romantic Bengali movie of the same name. My husband, who himself is bald, found me exotic, which made me feel sexy, but he had to go and spoil it by boasting that now he had more hair than I. The children, and even friends, gave me friendly head pats, rubbing their palms over and over again on my fuzzy head. My daughter said that it reminded her of dog fur. Since we are both dog lovers, I quite liked that analogy. A friend’s dad said I looked like a monk. Pub waiters looked at me oddly, a shadow of shock on their faces when I sailed in to slug my poison of the night.
A few years have passed since I first bared my head. Now, Baldilocks has grown locks. Waves of salt and pepper on a woman at the wrong end of fifty. I feel rather distinguished actually. One of my daughter’s friends said that I looked like someone with two PhDs under her belt!
I walk with a touch of swagger. I pull up grown men for real or imagined errors and get away with it. Women so far, have not ventured to call me aunty, not when faced with my fire–hydrant–red lipstick. I keep changing hairstyles. Sometimes, I wear it shoulder length. Sometimes, a graduated bob. Sometimes, a pixie cut.
Sometimes, I dream of an alternate reality when nobody cut off my braids. The hair cascaded down my back in black waves. Second year BA students, at the university where I was a post graduate student, did not mistake me for a fresher and rag me. My colleagues at work did not have indulgent smiles on their faces when I broached an idea. I carried myself with dignity. And I saw it reflected in the eyes of others. And then I think, why couldn’t I just let it grow back? Why did I have to continue with that “boy’s cut” style? A hoarse little voice from the back of my head tells me that my brother and sister took something more from me that morning.
I remember the feeling. Like being stripped and put outside for the world to see: a thin girl with wide feet and a narrow, pinched face, unfit to be a woman. I try not to think of that image. I try to push that girl away, but I often end up rocking her in my arms—my mental arms—though no words of comfort flow, only tears that are best let loose in the bathroom. That me no longer exists.
I have not kept in touch with my siblings. So, I ask myself, why must I keep reliving the past? I have a wonderful family now, one I nurtured carefully. Life is good. Then, why haven’t I been able to censor this particular episode? Why couldn’t I cut it completely out from the reels of memory coiled up inside my head?
Maya Angelou’s words come to mind: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
The feelings. They remain. The only way to deal with them is to make oneself stronger.
A month ago, I met the young man who had shaved my head. We were about to board the same flight for Chennai from Hyderabad, where I now live. He has done well for himself since and styles the wigs of movie stars on sets these days. He dreams of having his own salon soon.
“Ma’am, I have never forgotten you,” he said to me as we stood in line for boarding. “I would love to style your hair.”
I was flattered. We exchanged numbers before parting. I didn’t take him too seriously though. Afterall, he was working for movie stars now. Nevertheless, I did call him. I was hesitant, but my newly adult daughter needed a proper hair style. To my surprise, he readily, almost eagerly, agreed. He gave me the directions to his friend’s salon, closer to our part of Chennai.
He did my hair after he did hers. A short hairstyle that he copied from a photograph in his phone of a starlet I couldn’t recognize. My daughter took a selfie with him. She was thrilled with her perfect graduated bob.
“You look pretty smart, ma,” she told me afterwards.
I looked at myself in the mirror.
The cut has a fancy name; I can’t remember it, though. To me, it looks similar to the “boy’s cut” I had received all those years ago, except this time I have side locks, as well. And these days, I also own several pairs of boots.