When I wrote this, about ten days ago, I was also following a number of twitter conversations around hair (sparked by Laurie Penny’s rather too universalising piece about the politics of short hair on women), and contemplating a haircut myself. And had just bought the first of these two books (as readers of this blog know, I acquired the Aiken collection through a criminal act more than twenty years ago). Hair seems to have been a theme of this month.
A slightly longer version of last weekend’s column.
I spent most of my childhood alternately wishing for straight hair and defiantly proclaiming the superiority of curls. As an adult I’ve become reconciled (and quite proud of) hair which when caught in a strong wind has been known to accost strangers in the street. I still grit my teeth when shocked hairdressers suggest straightening it (or refuse to cut it as short as I would like) but I’m aware that my hair-related troubles are much less strenuous than those of thousands of other women.
Because hair is an intensely political issue; whether it is long or short, allowed to turn grey, dyed (and what colours of dye are allowable is another issue entirely), left natural or artificially treated, even the sorts of hairstyles we choose; all of these have wider ramifications that we cannot entirely control, and work together to affect us in ways that are both far too common and intensely individual and personal. Black women in particular all too frequently come up against racist assumptions around what is and is not acceptable hair. Your hair can be something you take joy in; it is also often a catalyst for angst, worry, exhaustion.
Parineeta, the princess in Komilla Raote’s The Princess with the Longest Hair (illustrated by Vandana Bist) takes very little delight in the beauty of her hair. It is her parents who engage a hundred maids to oil, wash and make it beautiful. For another long-haired heroine of fairy-tale, Rapunzel, long hair proves the method of her rescue; for Parineeta this is not the case. When she sits at the window of the topmost room of the palace and lets her hair down, it is not escape but further entrapment that is inevitable—when her hair grows long enough to touch the ground the king and queen will choose a prince for a marriage Parineeta doesn’t want.
Joan Aiken’s collection of short stories, The Last Slice of Rainbow, contains another instance of a princess whose hair is more curse than blessing. “The Queen with Screaming Hair” introduces us to Christina, princess of Laurestinia, who in a fit of childish mischief snips off the whiskers of her fairy-godfather. Disappearing until he can grow them back (a process which will take nine times nine thousand hours) he curses Christina; until he returns her hair will scream and taunt her constantly. Attempts to cut it all off prove futile as it immediately grows back, and so Christina must live with a perpetual chorus of voices belittling her; voices that almost no one else can hear. Worse, her parents’ ship has hit an iceberg and to the ordeal of merely getting through the days is added that of running the country.
But Christina uses her hair for good. She donates her hair to the citizens of her country; it is used to make mats and hammocks for those who have to live in the marshes, and to save her people from rampaging bulls and icebergs bigger than the country itself. Parineeta, when she finally escapes the palace, also uses her hair well. It provides a blanket for a nursing mother and her freezing child, nets for fishermen, and a woven roof for a cowshed.
Both stories have the advantage of fine illustrators—Bist and Margaret Walty (illustrator of my edition of Aiken’s short stories) both produce delicate, detailed art that seems to give us every strand of hair. And then Bist and Raote do something that shouldn’t be unexpected but somehow has so much visual impact—they show us Parineeta, bald, walking out of the story and into her future.
“Without the burden of her heavy hair, Parineeta felt as light as the rays of the morning sun that were turning the sky blue. She hurried towards the mountains.”
Growing up in India, most images of bald women one sees are sanyasins. And Parineeta gives up everything (even her body, it seems, as she disappears into the distance) to her kingdom; the last few pages of the story suggest that her absence has become a kind of constant presence, that she’s in the trees and the river (as in the illustration above). I’m sure you could make an argument that teaching young girls to renounce things is not the greatest idea, but there’s something powerful and spiritual about this picture.
Aiken also ends her story by rewarding Christina with a voyage of discovery (and a potential partner to share it with) but Parineeta, lightened of her worldly duties and walking lighthearted into oblivion, is perfect.
Perhaps it’s a little worrying that two of my favourite Indian children’s books in the last few years have ended in the protagonist’s noble death?