By Sameen Borker
Secondary schools, in my opinion, are insufficient for girls. I loathe to say that mine was insufficient for me, because it was absolutely the only place I have ever felt at home in my life. But I have come to realise that our school could have done with an extra class. Perhaps, then I would have grown up knowing what to do with my hair.
My Anglo-Indian school’s rules were not made to be broken and its expectations of spotless turnout were not to be soiled. The hair cut decorum was this — all boys had to sport short, military-style hair; if they didn’t and were pulled out the assembly, they would be sent to the school barber who chopped off their hair. For the girls, if the hair touched our shoulders, we had to tie them into two ponytails. If our hair fell below our shoulders, we had to plait them and tie ribbons into the plaits. As a little girl, I always had a boy-cut. Honestly, I didn’t really have a choice in the matter for the longest time. Periodically, my father ensured that my hair was neatly chopped off almost like his own and that was that. So, I was lukewarm to the double ponytail but detested the idea of plaiting my hair. So, every time my father took me for a haircut, I have been told that I didn’t protest. My sister, on the other hand, created a ruckus at the barber’s. She cried like the devil was upon her if anyone tried to chop off her cute-as-a-button mushroom cut. To be fair, she had good reason to cry, because my sister had smooth, thick, silky hair that fell like a curtain of water. I don’t think she knew it at the time. She just cried because that’s what children do. But me? Oh no, no. All I ever wanted was to keep my hair short.
As a teenager, for a brief moment, I had hair long enough and thick enough to braid into plaits and that I did. Then in 1998 came a Bollywood movie titled Kuch Kuch Hota Hai that swept everyone off their feet with its ostentatious displays of college life, friendship bands, doe-eyed boy-girl relationships, and lots of basketball played by the actors on screen amidst catchy song and dance, of course. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was single-handedly responsible for transforming the Indian youth’s expectations from college and their wardrobes and hairstyles. It should never have been so popular but was so deceptive that we allowed it to seduce us with its pop colour cinematography, Scottish locales, and ridiculously outlandish wardrobes. I was so taken by Kajol’s hairstyle (much the same way scores of young girls at the time were) that I had to get it done myself. In the movie, her character had short hair (just like I used to), she was athletic (just like I was), and she would hang out with boys (oh my God, this was me!). I convinced my mother to chop off my hair and there wasn’t even a debate in my house.
The gravity of what I had done was brought to my notice three days later in English Literature class while reading Dickens. Now here is why I say secondary schools are insufficient for little girls. If I had a class about grooming, I’d have known what to do with my long hair and how to manage what would become a series of bad hair cuts thereafter that did no justice to my face. My English teacher informed me that my new hair was awful while I read aloud a chapter of Oliver Twist. He is a man who I respect to this day and God, he was right. If I had to pick a moment when it had occurred to me that something on my head had to be considered carefully — a task that I was and continue to be thoroughly unprepared for — it was that day in English class. I suspect my aversion to Dickens stems from that day, too. I haven’t read anything beyond Oliver Twist.
Since then, I haven’t really experimented with my hair. Though I must add here that as I grew older, my genes caught up with me and nothing about my hair suggested it would withstand experimentation. It had a mind of its own, became and remains frizzy, and has thinned considerably over the years, falling flat more often than not. However, back then when it wasn’t such a disappointment, I wished I could grow it out like Kajol’s character in the aforesaid movie does. In many ways it would symbolise my transformation just like her character. Explicitly, here is what I imagined would happen — I’d grow my hair out, become less “athletic” (code for feminine and pretty), apply kohl and lipstick, wear a peachy sari and when I walked past an incredibly adorable guy, who would coincidentally also be my best friend, my sari would get stuck in the cuff of his shirt. We’d be intertwined in elegance and silver-screen spotlessness for a sliver of time.
I assure you nothing of this sort has happened and Bollywood has let me down. For one, my hair didn’t grow out long and straight. I met my best guy friend really late in life and we sure as hell didn’t play basketball together. He always upturned his shirt’s sleeves to his elbow. And finally, wearing a sari is a three-person job that involves ten days of preparation, offerings to the local tailor and laundry, and the guilt of exploitation of the working class in Benaras. It’s safe to say that nothing worked out as planned and my hair has provided enough misery since.
Let me tell you something about the grooming routine of a woman — it’s like being an immigrant in a white supremacist country — you have to work twice as hard to look half as good. I wasn’t taught in school how to naturally curl or perm my hair. I was taught sewing, mind you. I can do a mean embroidered handkerchief with the initials of the guy whose cuff links weren’t around for my sari to get stuck in. So, at least I have something to cry into. But no, nothing about maintaining an oil and shampoo routine, which conditioner to use in a tropical climate, quick and easy fixes for hairstyles, the foods to eat for hair shine, how to be the single human equivalent of four hands — two to hold a flat brush and two to hold the hair dryer while I flatten my hair on my own — or even reasons and remedies for severe hair fall. These lessons are much more essential than sewing, in my humble opinion.
For innumerable years, women have been swapping notes and handing down tips about hair and make-up as a guilty afterthought. Because of this, the fashion industry now stands at 100 billion dollars and is sustained by a patchwork of souls of unsuspecting women. I should have been taught that coconut oil trumps all other types of oil or that every 6 months I need a trim. I should have had a 10-mark question on the benefits of maintaining a haircare routine. Two extra marks for a remedy I added to the syllabus that didn’t already exist. No one but well-meaning (and fictional) grandmothers prepare generations of women for the avalanche of keratin and melanin hurdles that come with everyday living.
What gnaws on my soul the most is the particular type of woman who has luscious, thick, gorgeous manes that she colours, highlights, and ties up in French styles. (Everything is better when it’s French.) Her hair falls ever so softly on her shoulders and even her braids show alternating brown and golden colours in patterns that deserve to be Instagrammed. When this woman arrives at a social do, her hair smells of lilies, roses, or frangipani, and stays put all evening even when she tosses it to one side while talking to people, touching it as lightly as possible. And I imagine, somewhere in the crowd, her best guy friend is looking at her in a slow-motion frame with a twinkle in his eyes, and he realises he is in love with her. On the other hand, there is me with my thin and unruly hair set uncomfortably, refusing to sit still, and my best guy friend is, well, I don’t know where he is. To add insult to injury, my episode of severe hair fall has created in me a deep-seated insecurity. My hair had become so coarse to touch that I watched a YouTube video five times to learn the French bun so I could tie it away and make up for what I lacked in the mane department with personality.
When I look at the pictures of yesteryears’ women, I see varied hairstyles that were so iconic of their personalities and their times. Today, a majority of women look like their heads came out of the same Ford assembly line. Everyone has poker straight hair in varying degrees of dryness, coloured in varying states of shabbiness. I want to colour my hair, trust me, I do. I want flecks of burgundy and brick red in my natural curls. I want to be the woman who can afford to inflict such damage on my hair and walk away coolly knowing that my genes have my back. But I am not that woman. I am the one who Googles how to get there. I’m the one who protects her hair from pollution by covering it on her way to work and back. I am the one who maintains a coconut oil and shampoo routine. I eat my multivitamins on time (or at least I try). I wash my hair with cold water. I eat the curry leaves in the serving of my meal because best guy friend’s mother introduced me to its benefits. I fly in conditioner from abroad. I blow dry my hair only on special occasions and oil it right after. I try. The Lord knows I do.
The pain of all the body hair waxing I have undergone still doesn’t balance out the agony I’ve felt trying to stop the hair on my head from falling out. There are fewer aches greater than seeing a comb full of loose hair. It’s comparable to the torment of seeing your restaurant order go to someone else. No woman wants to be bald, and the one who does shaves her head without apology. My hair is supposed to be a part of my personality, one that I have been constantly supplementing by reading Urdu poetry, learning ancient languages, defining TCP/IP over dinner, and knowing how the local soda shop makes it own soda. But there is only so much a personality can do, as I have been informed by Bollywood movies made by the warped imagination of the patriarchy. So, if anyone’s listening, I would like an order of a shining mane and please, don’t send it to the wrong table.
Sameen Borker is always late to the party because she was reading a book. When she is not smashing the patriarchy, asserting the supremacy of French fries, and writing about the human condition, she is wondering if her Prince Charming is stuck in Mumbai traffic because it is taking forever. She is previously published on Scroll and HuffPost India. Tweet to her @amarllyis.