I was blessed with great hair. It was in the genes. It was jet black, thick, long, wavy, healthy and a matter of pride. My mother never cut it. Not even a trim.
Aai, my maternal gran, started tying my hair when I was just about 4 months old—I couldn’t even sit up then, but she would tie my hair up in a thin satin ribbon while I was asleep so it wouldn’t look untidy and come over my eyes. When I started primary school, I had my hair in pigtails. By the time I was about 10, I could sit on my hair. I loved how it felt—silky, heavy. I was touching puberty, and it made me feel feminine. It taught me how to hold my head. On Sundays, after the ritual hot oil and shikakai-reetha wash, when I was allowed to let it loose until it dried, I would toss my head about and feel the smooth hair flirt with my back. I would enjoy the smell of the clean, fragrant hair. I would see Dimple Kapadia run in slow motion and wonder if my hair looked as fabulous as hers. Amma wouldn’t hear about shampooing my hair in beer or egg masks. My hair didn’t need it.
Visiting aunts and grand aunts would want to plait my hair. I remember I had accompanied my Ajji (paternal grandma) on the sets of a Marathi soap she was acting in. Bhakti Barve, a celebrated artist of her time, absolutely insisted on undoing my perfectly plaited hair just so she could do it up again. She was shocked that a child my age in modern times like the 80s would have a length of hair that was considered almost medieval. She spent a good half an hour or so playing with my hair, and when she was finally done, she bought my brother and me ice popsicles to enjoy in the summer heat.
But this was one side of the story. In school, it was a different issue altogether. By grade 5, my hair had to be doubled up and tied in ribbons so it wouldn’t come in the way. Satin ribbons were expensive and meant only for special occasions; so, thick nylon ribbons were used. Amma always applied a smidgen of Parachute coconut oil to my hair so it would sit unruffled and not look untidy. But what was proper for her was “ghaati” to my classmates. (Ghaati literaly means someone who resides on a plateau region; a ghaat. Over a period of time, however, this term has been used with derogatory connotations to refer to Maharashtrians.) I had a few friends in school, but outside of that circle, I was bullied for wearing my hair in such an unfashionable way. It didn’t matter that I spoke and wrote better English than my tormentors. It didn’t matter that I was more grown up than them and probably knew who Van Gogh was way before they could spell it—I was still ghaati. Because of my hair. I should have stood my ground and carried on with life. But I was 10; I wanted to belong.
So, somewhere in my subconscious, I started hating my hair. I would look at magazines and people on the street with short bobs and wish for hair like that. I started rebelling hair care rituals. Gradually, it became quite a task for Amma to wake me up those 15 minutes earlier every morning so she could braid my hair before school. I kept begging her to let me cut it. One day, she gave in. She took me to the salon and sat me in the chair. The woman running the salon refused outright. “Such good hair! Why do you want to cut it? I won’t cut it!” Somehow, she got convinced, and in one snip of her shears, my head was suddenly kilograms lighter. I got myself a blunt just at the shoulder level. I hated it the moment it happened. I was crying inside but because I had begged for it, I smiled at Amma. She shook her head in disapproval but smiled nonetheless—that woman can adapt to situations quite quickly. The salon auntie tied the cut hair into a neat ponytail, evened out the ends and secured it with a rubber band. “Take it home and hang it in your room—it will remind you how lovely your hair was!” I kept it for a few days and discarded it almost in anger, later. But the haircut didn’t change the school situation much. I was still ghaati. I probably still am. I still don’t fit in. I gave up trying years ago. Today, after childbirth and various illnesses, my hair is frizzy and needs a lot of attention. But I wear it the way I like it. I still think about the smell of the warm shikakai, and repent.
As a mother of a little girl who is equally blessed with healthy curls, I am often asked why I don’t leave her hair open, why I don’t want to cut her hair, she’ll look so much nicer with short hair, etc. I tell them I will keep it long until she is independent enough to take these decisions. But the real truth is, I want her to know that it’s ok to be ghaati. It’s beautiful to be ghaati.