Being Ghaati

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.

Comments (14)

  1. Ashrita December 11, 2013 at 4:46 am

    I can so relate to this 🙂

  2. Priti December 11, 2013 at 7:34 am

    What a beautiful write-up! I can relate to this even though I struggled to let me have long hair. My mom never really let my hair grow too long. I had thick and wavy hair which were always cut as soon as they became too cumbersome to take care of, to be braided into a long plait every single morning and evening. After I got married I finally decided to let my hair grow 🙂 and really enjoyed long long hair of my dreams until…until I read about kids who have lost all their hair in cancer treatments or other illnesses and an organisation that needs real hair donations to make wigs for those little ones. I had known the sorrow of not having long hair while growing up but could not imagine the sorrow of not having any hair! I cut my hair short again and sent the ponytail wrapped up carefully with love, prayers and best wishes for the little recipient. I guess I am destined to have short hair all my life someway or the other 🙂 but now I won’t feel sorry about it because it will make someone really really happy, it’s worth it.

    About the term ghaati. I had never heard of it growing up in north so never understood the embarrassment attached to it. I am often told I look punjabi, parsi, ‘christian’, and more recently ‘mexican-american’ (!!!) and often find it very amusing. Probably, if someone calls me ghaati some day I would smile and say ‘you are quite close’. Looking neutral is no fun you know, it’s like ‘na ghar ka na ghaat ka’ 🙂

  3. kedar December 11, 2013 at 7:42 am

    Absolutely fantastic…
    As a father of 7 year old ghati…trying to balance the rapunzelesque wish to grow her hair long and a concerned dad wanting her to crop it up…I think I have found the right answer.
    Thanks and continue the great work.

  4. evolvingtastes December 11, 2013 at 11:07 am

    Loved that little anecdote about Bhakti Barve, who incidentally, was also a ghaati and beautiful.

    My hairdresser who does hair for both men and women once told me that cutting men’s hair was much easier, not because of the length, but because it is *never* an emotional experience.

  5. Anjali December 11, 2013 at 7:14 pm

    Saee this is lovely. How we fall for peer pressure. Until one takes pride in their own roots, Ghaati continues to be abusive. It takes a lot of self confidence to accept ones origins. Priti is so right, uniformity is what I would hate. ET : WOW even your hair dresser is evolved 🙂

  6. Vinaya December 11, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    what a beautiful post Saee !

  7. Sayantani December 12, 2013 at 6:27 am

    I can so relate to it. Though till my collage I kept it very very long but once I stepped out of the comfort zone of my home and the small town I belonged to I could not keep up with the pressure of being called Behenji…I too wanted to belong, wanted to look modern and cut it off. the lady in the parlour told me she will sell the hair that I cut off.

  8. Divya December 15, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    So close to my own story..all my life hated long hair because it was too silky..too flowy. So much so that hairpins and hairbands hurt. Strangers stopped by and asked me which shampoo I use and most hairdressers refused to cut my hair. At a stupid age of 24 I went and curled my hair while the entire world was going for straightening their hair. 6 years on my hair is ruined, now i use various chemicals and tools to remove frizz and curls to make it slightly silky and smooth. My daughter is blessed with silky hair and everyone wonders at the hair’s texture. No one believes it my genes,

  9. manjita December 16, 2013 at 5:51 am

    nice post saee…i can relate it to it in many ways…….those folded plaits came in a way to the said modern look and transformed meinto… side flix with a blunt cut….too add aai made a swich…the perfect ghati wod ‘gangawan’ out of it…and i used it many a times ….

  10. Swetha Adappa January 3, 2014 at 3:08 am

    Such an earthy write up this one 🙂 kudos to your narrative Saee !

  11. priyanka January 8, 2014 at 9:56 pm

    Such a lovely post. Brought tears to my eyes.

  12. Preeti January 9, 2014 at 9:55 am

    So much to relate to. I had my locks chopped off just before boarding the flight to UK…hid the shortened veni by covering it with the dupatta. My aji used my hair as gangavan later I heard. Lovely post Saee.

  13. Shanti February 21, 2014 at 9:32 am

    I can totally relate to this. To this day I recall the horror on my father’s face when I chopped off my so-long-i-could-sit-on-it hair and the tears in my eyes. I still feel low when i get a haircut as though a part of me is being snipped away.

  14. Mrunalini June 20, 2015 at 11:04 pm

    Beautifully written!!! Cheers to being a true blue ghati always

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