Long hair for make-benefit glorious Indian culture 23

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.

[This is the unedited version of my column that appeared in Deccan Chronicle and Asian Age on Oct 13, 2013]

23 thoughts on “Long hair for make-benefit glorious Indian culture

  1. Reply N.R.SAMPATH Oct 17,2013 4:56 pm

    Dear Suchi,
    Rib-tickling humour.Unable to control my laughter.Good to laugh before I retire to bed.Enjoyed every word of your article.Detailed comments tomorrow.Best wishes.

  2. Reply Kannan Oct 18,2013 12:16 am

    Dear Suchi

    Whenever I read your articles , it reminds me of my childhood and as you rightly put it the torture of having an oil bath which was a fortnightly ritual and despite best efforts the oil remained on the head and u smelled .

    Very nicely written

    Keep it going

  3. Reply Mythili Rangarajan Oct 18,2013 12:30 am

    Dear Suchi
    That was humour unlimited:)You made my day! Keep rocking with all such fun & frolic still in your armour!

  4. Reply k v chellappa Oct 18,2013 2:08 am

    Nice. Brought memories of young days, something the current generation miss!

  5. Reply K R A Narasiah Oct 18,2013 3:20 am

    It was the other way round in my case. I grew my hair long as a man and as a sailor. In fact I used to put a rubber band to make it like a Archka’s hair do. Do you know that the last time I visited a barber shop was in 1963! That was because I was still in Navy and I had to maintain a dress code. Not after I left Navy though!
    I proved my independent view by growing my hair long as did Suchi by cutting her hair short!
    In 1984 I was called (without my applying) for an interview for the filling up of teh vacancy of teh General Manger of a Public Shipyard. I asked the then Dy Chairman an IAS officer (who later became the Cabinet Secy) for any suggestion before I attend the I’View.
    He said I could cut my hair short.
    My reply was “is the job worth that?”
    He laughed and I did not cut. In the I’View board which was chaired by Air Ch Marshall Lall, (then NITIE Director) he was most unhappy to see me like a beetle, and asked “From your dossier I see that you have not doen any management course. . .’
    I replied that my knowledge was visceral and not cerebral!
    He invited me for a lunch
    I did not get the job.

    Hair has its own Pride. After all Samson’s strength was in it!

  6. Reply M.R.Ramesh Oct 18,2013 6:47 am

    Being SIB we enjoyed every bit of the humour with nostalgia.Congratulations.
    Mangai and Ramesh

  7. Reply Geetha Shankar Oct 18,2013 6:59 am

    Dear Suchi,
    Truly HILARIOUS!!!!!!!!Last 3 to 4 years I have been having short hair and have found it so convenient that I really wish I had thought of it earlier. Not that I had keshavardhini koondal earlier but maintaining the pigtail was cumbersome enough & so boring. I decided to chop it when I decided to STOP colouring so that I would look a step better with the change in colour. When I stopped colouring all my colleagues said that “You are bold Geetha to do this’. Then when I cut as you rightly said people still wonder if I am sane!! At your age if you are facing you can imagine at mine!!!
    Great writing Suchi, I enjoyed every word esp the marinated chicken part.

  8. Reply Lok Ranjan Oct 24,2013 2:26 pm

    Being a guy, that too from north India did not prevent me from visualizing your long-hair days! Hilarious and hitting where it should. 🙂

  9. Reply vasudha sundararaman Nov 11,2013 7:37 am

    Dear Suchi, I have been reading all your pieces in the last one year or so. Your father whom i greatly regard has been forwarding me the links. I really enjoy reading these. this one about hair has all my sympathies because we have a basic human right to have our hair the way we want.

  10. Reply Lavanya Feb 15,2014 5:09 pm

    I LOVE your blog! You are hilarious!

    Ps: I was one of those sambrani smelling fortunates though suffered from shikakai-blindness every Sunday and Diwali.

  11. Reply Pallipuram May 26,2014 8:55 am

    i came across your blog only now,i tell my wife to cut her hair to manageable length, boy cut so she will be free of sinus,but she worries about the society…

  12. Reply Uma Shashikant Oct 13,2014 6:14 pm

    Beautiful writing. Nostalgically returned to childhood memories. I cheated on the shikhakai several times by simply rubbing the bathing soap bar on the hair to get rid of the oil. Yes, amma found out each time.

  13. Reply Shakuntala Oct 15,2014 10:16 am

    Funny take on the social ‘problems’ that are caused by hair and the shikakai washes! As in most of the South Indian families, I had long hair growing up. Hair was oiled and braided through the week and washed on Sundays. Washing was a long, painful, as you said torturous ritual with the warm oil, then the horrendous shikakai and drying in the sun, trying to remove the knots and dusting the shikakai. Sunday’s and festival days would just vanish after the hair treatment and leave me foul. I chopped my hair when I turned 18 (in a weak moment, my parents said that I can do what I want after I turn 18 and I used that to cut my hair at shoulder length!). My family, parlour lady, maids, neighbours, distant relatives, family doctor, kirana store guy, tailor etc went into mourning forever. I have always kept my hair short, tonsured a couple of times in adulthood. The beforesaid people eventually come to terms with my hair-state. Husband likes my hair the way it is, many people asked him if he ‘allows’ me to have short hair – as if!!! Wonder why no one asks me if I ‘allow’ his haircuts?!!

  14. Reply Narayani.S Dec 21,2015 3:27 pm

    I am a newcomer to your blog. I read your humour laced feminist stabs in feminism in India website, then went to your facebook page and from there I found this website. As a tamil woman I was able to relate to so many stories that you have written about. Kudos to the humour, the style of writing and the attitude!
    Love it!

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