Archive for ‘hair’

February 9, 2014

Two hair stories

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?

March 27, 2010

Practically Marzipan: In which I am revealed to be a fraud TamBrahm…

…rejecting a symbol of our culture almost as central, as relevant, as thayir sadam.
In my defence, I cannot help it. Also, I had a traumatic childhood.

[A version of this was published in today's New Indian Express]


One of the few real problems I have with my cultural heritage is my extended family’s love affair with jasmine. We love the stuff. Everyone wears it in their hair at every opportunity, and when a cousin is so insensitive as to cut her hair short the major protests that arise involve the difficulty of properly attaching mallipoo in the future. There are crushed, dead flowers on people’s pillows in the morning, and sometimes more fall out when hair is being brushed. I think I might like them if they weren’t so omnipresent. Even in Delhi, where most people walk around flowerless, three huge jasmine plants grow on the terrace and provide a constant, if not huge, supply to those who want them. Sometimes they are picked and then put in the fridge to keep fresh, and this is almost the worst of all because the smell permeates everything. It is, I suppose, possible to think of jasmine as a pleasant smell in most circumstances. When the items that smell of jasmine include your slice of left-over pizza and your bottled water, this is no longer the case.

As a result, my dislike of the smell of jasmine has grown intense. It’s a pity, because I do like looking at flowers in other people’s hair (while they’re fresh and alive, at least). And while I don’t mind picking up other people’s dead flowers, I find myself coughing and choking at anything that smells intensely of jasmine. A couple of years ago an unfortunate set of circumstances led to some jasmine perfume being spilled on a book I was reading. Unable to read the book for several days as I could barely breathe near it, I finally resorted to desperate measures and stuck the book in the microwave, hoping to toast the scent out. I can find no reasonable scientific explanation for the fact that it actually did alleviate the smell.

While one flower smell effectively cuts me off from a huge chunk of my heritage, two others provide strange links to it. Roses have a definite claim to being part of Our Culture, as evinced by the quantities of rose attar used by our ancestors. The smell is slightly spicy, deep and not particularly sweet. It is as complex as (and far more pleasant than) most perfumes. I’ve never encountered actual roses that smelled quite like that, and if I did I’d by them in an instance.

The other flower I refer to connects me to a chunk of my heritage that is rather more humble. It’s the smell of violets. I do not think I have ever seen a violet flower actually growing and alive, and all I really know of them is that they’re kind of purple and kind of shy. I have certainly never smelled one, as far as I know. But they can be sugared and put on cakes, too. I’m not sure how big their role is in the confectionery industry as a whole, and whether they are a common ingredient in many sweets. All I know is that when I was washing my hands with violet-scented soap a few years ago I breathed in and felt like I had come home – I was a five year old in a sweet shop again. I do not remember actually loving or even noticing this smell when I was a child, but now it means any number of things to me. Perhaps one day jasmine will do the same.


Oh look, I am only one of a generation of Degenerate Youth. Who knew?

June 29, 2009

Nothing but praise for you, my dear

Shristi publishers continue to bring out cutting edge works by young Indian writers. Other books from them that I’ve read include Tuhin Sinha’s That Thing Called LOVE, and Novoneel Chakraborty’s A Thing Beyond Forever (which I saw in a bookshop yesterday in a new edition and with a new cover. This proves that I was wrong in saying that the language of the book might be too dense for the average reader. My faith in readers is thus re-established). Yesterday I found myself buying four new books that have come out since I left the country, and last night I read Arpit Dugar’s Nothing For You My Dear: Still I Love You….!
Arpit Dugar is a very young writer indeed – he’s 22. Impressively, he chooses to write from the point of view of a character older than himself, 26 year old Avinash Jain. The parallels between Dugar and Avinash are obvious – they both (from the information about the author given on the book’s inner front cover) have attended the same educational institutions, and are both from Jain families. At one point, due to a minor blip in editing, perhaps, a character even addresses Avinash as “Arpit”. With so strong an identification, it is impressive that Dugar manages to view his protagonist in a detached and critical way. Here he is describing Avinash on the first page of the book, where he admits straight off that his character isn’t perfect:

Avinash was the kind of guy who actually got on your nerves in the very first meeting. His physical appearance was no less than that of a super-model, his way of dressing, his smartness and of course his intelligence attracted everyone around him.

The book is structurally complex, with its story within a story. Avinash Jain’s parents are forcing him to marry Neha Bhandari, and as a dutiful son he cannot deny them their wish. He therefore begs Neha to reject him instead, and when Neha (who has fallen in love with him through the photos she’s seen) demurs, tells her the story of his relationship with Lisha, the girl he hoped to marry. The bulk of the book consists of Avinash’s narration of the story of his life and love.

You or I might tell such a story in a couple of lines. But Dugar’s narrator has clearly been bottling things up and needs to talk about it. As a result we are presented with a number of tiny details that make the whole thing real and add poignance to our understanding of the tale. Details such as this, when Avinash describes his hostel bedroom:

Then there were my gadgets, a personal desktop computer with almost all the gadgets loaded. There were two keyboards, I remember, one was of the normal style and the other was the folding one. There were two mouses even, one was Microsoft’s wireless optical mouse and the other one was the touch pad one. All the eight USB ports of my board remain occupied. Two of them were used by the wireless mouse connector and the folding keyboard. The third was used by the TATA Indicom internet card. The fourth was for the web camera. The fifth port was for the printer, which most of the time remained out of cartridge. The sixth port was an external hard drive, 500 gigabytes. And the seventh and eighth were left open for any extra peripherals to be used. Generally pen drives took hold on them.

A number of people have commented on the “student” flavour of recent novels, many of which seem to be set at least partly in an educational institution, possibly because the bulk of the readership are students or people who were very recently students. So you have Chetan Bhagat and Tushar Raheja writing about IIT life, Ravi Subramanian and Harshdeep Jolly tackling the IIMs, and Soma Das doing her bit for JNU. But the above is about as authentic a picture of student life as I have ever seen. While the references to Tata and Microsoft may seem like product placement, they actually function as a commentary on the importance of brands in daily life, as well as giving the reader a strong sense of context. Dugar is clearly aware of this, as he begins the book with a list of brands, so that we know all about Avinash almost before we know who he is. It’s a satirical take on consumer culture that is done in a startlingly subtle way for a young author and a first novel. In fact, the care with which this book has been written and edited gives the lie to Avinash’s claim that he’s not good with grammar and vocabulary, “I find grammar is some bullshit for crammers”. He has, among other gifts, a positive genius for metaphor.

I felt excitement spreading in my chest like a pleasant cactus.

One of the things that fascinated me about the book is how Dugar negotiates the gender issue. Many of Avinash’s close friends (Lenika, Akanksha, Ria, Tia) are female, for example, so he clearly values what the women around him bring to his life. He is also aware that men and women are fundamentally different, something that feminists have tried to make us forget. Thus his pronouncements on women are hesitant, as if he knows he may be giving offense and is afraid to claim authority. And yet he clearly speaks from experience Some examples:

I don’t know why girls only tell half the story. Don’t mind Neha but most of them love playing mind games and it is truly said that even the one who made them cannot judge what’s going on in their minds. And I believe that is the thing which we guys are so crazy about. Girls are so innocent and beautiful in their own ways.

I had heard from my friends that girls call boys sweetie, honey, cheeku-pie, hubby-dubby when they are in love with them.

The girls are in true sense the gamblers. They actually know the techniques to control us.

When you see a beautiful girl you actually fprget everything. Even Einstein in his theory of relativity mentioned that “Time is relative. When you are with a beautiful girl, the whole day will pass like a few seconds. On the other hand, when you are with a fat ugly lady, you will find a few seconds like years passing out”.

She came late to the college on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Maybe because we are allowed to wear casuals on those days and don’t mind but girls take hell lot of time in getting ready, choosing the best outfits and wearing the make-up.

Some of my friend once told me that staring is half the victory in love.

Understanding that women are fundamentally purer and more innocent than men, Avinash shows a wonderfully tender protective streak. He takes chivalry seriously.

I knew it had created a bad impression of my attitude but I never like attending booze sessions. It depresses me, so I avoid it. I am not against it, but I don’t support it in presence of girls and women even. It is something against my ethics.

And after all, what girl can resist being cared for?

The book is not without its flaws, however, and both of the things which spoilt it for me were factual errors. The first was a mere question of haircare. Lisha, at the point when Avinash meets her, has hair that is “cut in steps”, something that Avinash could probably not have recognised were it not straight. Additionally, he later describes her hair as straight. Yet at that first meeting, she also has “a curl carelessly on her forehead”. It seems extremely unlikely, though with curlers and straighteners freely available on the market anything is possible. And anyway, as has been discussed before on this blog, authors are frequently ignorant of the differences between straight and curly hair.

The second problem is one of timing. Towards the end of the book, Avinash waits for Lisha at the Ansal Plaza. Lisha telephones (half an hour late) from Sarojini Nagar, to say she’ll be fifteen minutes. Now, we’re told that Lisha is always late, but no reader could seriously believe that either of them think the journey even possible in fifteen minutes. What about the South Extension bottleneck? Unless we assume that Lisha also has no sense of direction as well as no sense of time, it is hardly feasible.

But it is possible that these minor criticisms arise out of bitterness and jealously from a critic who has never had a book published, yet is almost 24. All in all, a fine effort.

May 10, 2009

The serious consequences of misleading your child readers

Yesterday’s column spoke of problematic bits in children’s books that are edited out of later editions. These included casual racism, not-so-casual racism, characters smoking (the horror!) and the like. I was against said editing out.

However, the value-learnt-in-childhood-reading that has caused me the most harm growing up? Was that brushing one’s hair was a good idea. One’s curly hair.

My hair is not as curly now as it was in the days of my youth. Then I had Proper curls, now it’s an unenthusiastic wave. Most of the time, though, my hair was a disaster because I and everyone else in my life believed that the best way to keep it in order was to brush it.

(proof that some slight curliness remains)

Children’s writers (especially girls’ writers) seemed to pay a great deal of attention to little girls and their haircare. Gwendoline Lacey from Blyton’s Malory Towers was vain because she brushed her hair a hundred times a night. Kathleen (I think?) from Blyton’s Whyteleafe series had no friends because she was unattractive and didn’t brush her hair a hundred times a night. The Chalet School and Barbara involved (I have ranted about this elsewhere) Matron ordering Barbara to “slip on your dressing-­gown, sit down at the mirror and give it a good hard brush­ing. A curly crop like yours needs that twice a day if you’re to escape tangles and pullings. … start at the crown of your head and draw the bristles down with a firm, steady stroke. Go all round your head and if you do it rightly, your scalp should be tingling by the time you’ve finished.” (They were big on tingling scalps at the Chalet school. One imagines the students wandering around like so many little clouds of static).

And so (via Fusenews) Underage Reading asks the question that all of us with curls have been asking for years. Did these authors know no people with curls who could point out to them the error of their ways? Did none of them have curls themselves? Did they and all the curlyheaded people in their circles just go around sporting badly maintained shrubberies? It is all very mysterious.

Be warned therefore, writers for children. Your victims readers could spend the rest of their lives as one long, nightmarish bad hair day. And it would be all your fault.

February 15, 2008

When I am an old woman I shall be purple

According to my blog stats, someone, somewhere has made their way here by searching for “Aishwarya has grey hair?”. I was startled when I found this out this morning because Aishwarya does indeed have grey hair. At least, I did yesterday, though it was only one hair. And I pulled it out immediately. I’m rather surprised by this reaction, because I’ve been rather looking forward to the grey-haired part of my life.

Those of you who know me know I’m very (perhaps overly) concerned with the condition of my hair. I like it to be curly. I like it to smell nice. I like it to be clean and bouncy and soft and smooth and pretty. Which is why I’m terrified of hair dye. I have black hair, which means that for pretty much any colour to show up, evil chemicals would have to participate in the process. My one experience with highlights, four years ago, was unfortunate – parts of my hair felt like straw, split ends sprouted all over the place, and I was very sad. So I’m waiting till I have enough grey hair that I can use startling colours and be interesting.

My mother insists that grey hair is far more attractive on men than on women. The first time she did this, I went off into a long spiel about how our culture does not allow women to age, sees aging in women as deterioration, I quoted extensively from The Beauty Myth, and all in all sounded very intelligent (if very ranty). When I was done, she said something along the lines of “yes, but all this is why I find grey hair more attractive on men. It doesn’t change the fact that I do”. Which, well, yes. I like grey haired men too, but can’t remember the last time I found an older woman attractive on anything more than an objective level.

It’s true; we do as a culture seem to punish women for aging. Most people dye their hair to hide the signs of aging (consider advertisements – the focus is less on the range of colours than on grey coverage) and so it isn’t supposed to be obvious that your hair has been artificially coloured. I’ve seen people sneer at men (it’s usually men who do this, for some reason) whose hair is improbably black (and thus obviously dyed), or people who use henna in their hair long after it’s turned white, so that instead of hiding the grey, the effect is a sort of bright orange. (When ads do focus on colour, they feature young women in their 20s – the ads with less outrageous colours usually have celebrities in their 30s and 40s – you can look like you’ve dyed your hair as long as it’s obvious you don’t need to. I remember Garnier Nutrisse had Kareena Kapoor advertise its range of reds, and even that ad mentioned grey coverage). In this fantastic interview of Shabana Azmi (it contains the line “You are 57, and glowing like a magic lamp”!) Shabana claims that her friends don’t like to be seen with her because their dyed hair will become obvious.

For myself, though, I’m going to make it obvious. I’m going to be the fifty year old woman with the bright purple (and shiny and healthy and pretty, so take that, beauty industry) hair. But first I need to train myself not to yank out every grey hair I see.

It is probably a good thing that I don’t plan to have children. They’d be mortified.