My hair has always alternated between being my noose and being my sail. The first time I cut it on my own, it was after a long period of my childhood associated with tremendous mental and physical abuse had come to an end. It is a tragic cliché that my abuser was my stepfather. I had watched him vow to protect my mother and me, taking rounds of a sacred fire as is customary in Hindu religion’s marital rituals. I had yet to realize that soon he would make attempts to burn me with an equal vehemence. The evening that I finally confronted him, I managed to stab his shin with a Khukri – a curved Nepalese knife quite similar to a machete. He tried to assault me while I was suffering from a crippling fever and in the sheer hysteria I was drowning under – between pain I was already experiencing and the pain I expected him to put me through – I found the nearest, sharpest, shiniest piece of blade & jabbed it into the taut meat wrapped around his tibia.
He let out a malignant howl and limped out of the tiny kitchen. That evening it was decided I would leave for a boarding school by the next semester and the period between that day and the hour of my departure to the hilly town where I completed the remainder of my school education was unblemished by any attempts on his part to encounter me in any way possible.
I don’t remember his face very well except for in my nightmares when I can see his insufferably bucolic gaze hulking over my petite frame. Then, I remember his face right down to every precise coordinate of his misshaped nose; the fetor of tobacco emanating from his dust-smudged mouth. Mostly I remember how he had started – by tousling my hair, by telling me how it was like “Chinese silk” & how special it made me.
So, when I finally rid my days of his presence, I took a pair of kitchen scissors to my long, ebony strands and soon the floor looked like a massacre of ravens. It wasn’t an act of haste or anger – it was done very slowly, with calm and almost practiced strokes despite of the fact that it was my eponymous attempt at barbershop antics. The result wasn’t all that asymmetrical or uneven. I looked like a sullen pixie and I liked it. I sat in that sea of hair and carefully palmed the confetti of tresses as if I had just lost a pet and I was running my fingers through its dead, cold fur. Suddenly the reality of the act struck me – I had now undressed myself of what was constantly reiterated to be the essence of my existence. I had chosen to be bare in a way that no one could violate me.
Throughout my childhood, I was praised for the smoothness of my hair as if it were something I personally had a hand in deciding. I felt no particular pride in it and yet now that I had lost it, I suddenly felt like I wasn’t who I was supposed to be. I was now distinctly and beyond a shadow of doubt – “ugly”. Or so the grand Poo Bahs of beauty magazines would have me believe. I think in our hour of grief, we lose the idea of object permanence; we become infants who believe that what is not there right now, will never ever be again. We wither periodically, bodies rocking violently like a collection of Tourette ticks. Our days and nights move back and forth as if a pendulum of pangs. We assume that once separated from a part of ourselves we considered so central to our identity, we can never reclaim that lost territory or its peaceful vantage that once inverted our gaze towards our own perfect wilderness.
By the time I reached the boarding school, my sprite-cut had slowly bloomed into thick even if somewhat brusque tendrils & I remember entering the dorm with a harp shaped hairpin clasping my tender locks into their rightful place so I didn’t appear the proverbial pirate with a god-gifted eye patch made of my own fringes. That hairpin was the conversation starter that led me to meeting the Naz/Noush sisters who went on to become my room-mates for the rest of the year. Farinaz and Farinoush were Persian sisters with an age gap of 2 years separating them. Naz, the elder, stoic, mathematical genius and Noush, the younger, impish & very fashionable budding basketball champion. Besides their well enunciated and diverse personalities, the two girls also differed in the texture of their hair. Naz had crow-colored, chock-full ringlets sprouting from that near Einsteinesque head. Noush had honey tinged satin ribbons flowing out of hers. It was almost as if Naz’s impulsive waves were a sharp antithesis to her patient endurance whereas Noush’s velvet-feathered serenity contradicted her prank-happy grins.
Their mother visited them twice every month & every visit was a culinary revelation with well packed plates of chelow kebabs, shishlikh, zereskh polo, tah-chin, vinegar drenched olives garnishing august salads. Mrs Ghorbani was a wine complexioned woman in her early 40s and aside from the two girls she had a son who was our consistent eye candy through the hostel years. She always wore beautiful cashmere jackets and paisley printed scarves that covered her forehead. Naz said her mother was not so much as pious as she was obedient. I fail to recollect how we segregated the individual meanings for those terms so as to establish clear parameters for contrasts.
The Ghorbani family had fled their native country during the Khomeini era and had been vagabonds ever since. The girls were toddlers when they were first displaced and had lived in almost as many countries as the candles on each of their birthday cakes. Often when Mrs Ghorbani visited she would sit with us on the wide swing by the chapel garden and talk to us about music or dance or something equally pleasant and in my rebellious teenage opinion, somewhat mundane. In all my bursting curiosity and childish candor I blurted my undying interest in why she always kept her head covered. She suddenly looked pale; a swan anticipating an archer. Quickly though, she calmed down and handed me an almond muttering something about how as women got older they lost their hair and she kept it covered to protect it.
Later during the night, after her mother’s departure, Naz told me that when her mother lived in Iran, she was once arrested by the secret police for some of her copper-tinted curls showing from under the chador and she had received 10 lashes as the designated punishment for this assumed offense. I stayed up till late wondering about how a slithering leather whip in motion looked a lot like a witch’s braid shaking its angry sting at an offender. I wondered if Mrs Ghorbani’s welts had borne the same shade as her uniquely hued hair.
Till then I had never seen someone brutalized before my own eyes but I had once tried homemade remedying of my househelp’s daughter’s injuries. Pavitra was around my age when the incident occured. One summer afternoon, she came running to our home looking for her mother; her unkempt frock in tatters, snot caked around her nose and her lips & a deep stench rising from her body. Some boys had chased her down the road, she said. They had tried to drag her into the skeletal ruin of a long abandoned house, she said. They had pushed her face into the mud and used electric wires to whip her malnourished back. They had poured kerosene on her hair, she said. They wanted to turn me into a cherry bomb, she said. She was a lower caste than the culprits so she was no longer a person in their eyes, merely a pawn; a pandered object. Ironically, she belonged to a village of ‘untouchables” whose shadows weren’t even allowed to fall onto the temple courtyard and yet the very men who would cut off her father’s tongue for speaking to them, didn’t feel a lot of impurity impinge on them when they tried to violate her. She had bit one on the hand and had run like she was a puma on steroids.
She had come straight to our house looking for her mother. As she spoke my mind digressed to the time I had seen my grandfather cook fish on an open coal oven and I thought she resembled the char of that burning softness. My grandmother was sleeping and so I took her to the bathroom and helped her clean herself. Then I made a paste of sandalwood and turmeric for her back. What I remember most was how tufts of her sand-stained, matted plaits floated into the drain. I think I smelled kerosene on my fingernails for days onwards. I woke up at midnight with images of matted hair filling up my throat.
Every time the thunderbolt of my own depression struck me with a calculated violence, I would feel magnetized by the aura of sharp, razor-edged glint of things surrounding me. Over a period of time, I taught myself to eschew the ones that left me with grotesque mementoes dug into my arms and instead choose ones I could willingly gift a fraction of my falling self. I would cut my hair instead of my hands or my knees or my stomach. I learned to let go in these baby steps. Unlike the first time, this time I knew I was losing something with the knowledge that this part of me was far more likely to return with more lushness and less mistrust as compared to what I would lose without consent; that which would be taken from me unwillingly; its legs failing, its face- the demeanor of a wildifire swallowing everything in its path.
No longer did beauty sleep in the comfort of this guileless veil. I couldn’t hide behind the opaque, obsidian enclosure of what had grown from me. At the same time, when it grew back after I had threshed it, I was revived by its incendiary fervor to emerge again. I was thankful for the option of being able to pour it to the front of my face and make my own private room for reflection under its elaborate serape.
During my first stint of volunteering, a young Liberian and I sat under the ragged canvas of a refugee camp and roasted peanuts as the rain’s heartbeat pulsated against the widespread thicket. Her hair was shorn and the baldness was a second even if darker moon in the thinning light of the first one. I didn’t know of her name except that she called herself Eba and had pink nails. To me she was Pink Eba. She wanted to be a beautician, she told me. She offered to make cornrows for me and I told her of my habitual hair sniping proclivity. I wondered why did she not grow her own hair. She said she couldn’t after the soldiers poured acid over her head. She said that once she made it to Netherlands, she would save money and buy a wig of dreadlocks. The word always sounded peculiar – dread and locks. The lock of dread, the dread of locks. I gave her my mailing address and asked her to send me a picture of herself when she made it through. I never got that envelope.
I still wait for it with my own absent-minded eagerness.
Through the forest, as the roads diverged and converged, their truncated arteries growing under the willow’s weep, their forked tongues pointing out to different surrogate shanty towns clanking their canister of chores, I saw women sit next to the asthmatic hearth and dress each other’s hair. In this bleak, acrid stain of a landscape, they gripped some vague hope in the loose fists cinched around each other’s tresses.
I, of course, came back and stood speculating in front of an ornate, ivy-filigreed mirror – an heirloom from my grandmother who oiled my hair on winter mornings; a domestic concoction of sapindus extracts, coconut oil and shikakai. Her gentle rinse was a ritual for cleansing that extended beyond the grime and grit that had collected in my schoolgirl’s ponytail.
A while ago I watched the very erudite inspection of hair and the its political heritage by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in conversation with a very white guy who seemed baffled with the love for hair and efforts afforded to its maintenance. Her precise humor, her exquisite laugh peppering the length of that dialogue. She spoke of hair in conjunction with race, love and exile – physical and/or spiritual. In Hindu mythology, Draupadi – who was betted at a game of draught that led to the epic battle of Mahabharta – decides to keep her mane unwashed till she can bathe it with the blood of the man who stripped her in a full assembly of kings and courtiers. This was an attempt to insult her husbands (she was married to the 5 Pandava brothers who were vanquished by their cousins in lust for the kingdom they had inherited). She keeps her vow. Even if it means the extinction of an entire bloodline of kings. Her blessing was that every day she would be reincarnated. I take heart in this.
At every stage that I let go of my hair, I also let go of the inherent fear that the things I was born with or into, those traits or tendencies that I seemingly didn’t have a choice to predict or disown, were irreplaceable; that the paradigm of this loveliness bestowed upon me always had to be physically determined and socially approved. Similarly, every time it grew back, I was bred bolder in my belief that with time all that seems forfeited or sacrificed is reincarnated and learns to occupy its own riotous expanse.
Science says that any given time, any two strands of hair can be in two entirely different growth phases. This endowed me with a sense of relief; it was ok to not always be congruent, aligned and organized on the same dimension. It was ok to tumble along a spectrum. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t ready or complete – or incapable of developing further.
So I go back to being a young, trembling creature kneeled in the sable sea of my own aftermath and the tiniest cry wells up in the very pith of my ribcage. Then I look up and I see someone new, someone who wasn’t going to let anyone harm her anymore, someone who had been dragged through broken glass and somehow managed to dance through this fate. Someone who was slowly transforming into a phoenix. Someone who would be reborn every time she changed the shape, the summary of her hair. It wasn’t cosmetic. It wasn’t clinical. It was akin a seed that raises its small knuckles against the hardness of husk, makes one persuasive dent after another till it has broken into the sun that it deserves.
Recently when a sudden threat of breast cancer sneakily crawled up on me, my closest friend placed a loving arm around my shoulders and asked – “Are you worried about losing your hair?”
I said no. My hair would never lose me.
Scherezade Siobhan is on Twitter and Facebook, @zaharaesque.