The Romance and Ritual of Hindu Bengali Hair

Author Bharati Mukherjee writes of her experience growing up practicing traditional Hindu Bengali hair rituals.

| April 2016

  • Author Bharati Mukherjee tells of her life growing up in a traditional Hindu Bengali family and the relationship it created with her hair.
    Photo courtesy aglphotography/Fotolia
  • "Me, My Hair, And I," edited by Elizabeth Benedict features essays by women from a diverse set of backgrounds. It explores the many truths about our hair, and the lives that are connected to it.
    Cover courtesy Algonquin Books

Ask a woman about her hair, and she just might tell you the story of her life. So much of a woman's identity is tied up in her hair: large scale issues of family, race, religion, culture, motherhood, politics, professionalism, etc. And on a smaller scale, there is hardly anything more omnipresent in our individual lives — we grapple with our hair everyday. The one thing that's for sure is that hair matters a lot. Me, My Hair, and I (Algonquin Books, 2015) edited by Elizabeth Benedict is a beautiful collection of essays from a truly dynamic cast of contributors. Romance and Ritual by Bharati Mukherjee is one of those essays, and an interesting look at the relationship of women to their hair in the Bengali culture.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

Romance and Ritual

As a child growing up in Calcutta in a traditional Hindu Bengali extended-family household, in which all adult women (except my widowed grandmother) and all girl cousins had long, strong, glossy black hair, I developed an unhappy relationship with my own fine, wispy hair. My iron-willed grandmother, who had been born in the nineteenth century, insisted on the family’s following the unbending rules of social comportment laid down in the ancient text The Manusmriti, circa 1500 BCE, popularly referred to as the Laws of Manu and ascribed to Manu, the First Man. Manu the Lawgiver dictated incontrovertible dos and don’ts on all aspects of Hindu domestic life, including the type and quantity of body hair and head hair desirable in women. Decent men were to avoid women with hairy bodies, women with reddish hair, and women with bald or balding scalps. To ensure the growth of thick hair, girl children in our community have their heads shaved around age four or five in the belief that the second, permanent growth will be stronger and fuller. I too had my head shaved as a young child, but my follicles did not produce thicker, blacker hair.

My mother expended a great deal of energy every morning, massaging hair oil into my scalp to increase blood circulation and revive fatigued follicles. This was a prebath ritual. She would sit on a chair, with me squirming on a low stool in front of her, and she would part my locks, strand by strand, in order to work pink hibiscus-scented oil into the follicles. Sometimes she switched to green amla fruit oil, not only because eating the tart amla fruit, with its sweet aftertaste, was known to control rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis, increase intelligence, and improve eyesight, but because the oil processed from it fostered hair growth. In addition, she was always on the lookout for the harder-to-find hair oil pressed from a berry called koonch in Bangla, because it was guaranteed to grow new hair. Every two weeks, a half hour before she shampooed my hair, she would slather homemade yogurt on my head to guard against dandruff.

I, an ingrate daughter, resented every aspect of her hair-enhancement rituals, especially having to sacrifice precious leisure time when I would rather have read novels. But now the very memory of my mother’s nurturing fingers kneading the oiled-slippery skin on my head, her favorite fine-tooth comb sliding and smoothing tangles, the gentle press of her knees as they supported my slack-muscled bookworm’s back, brings on surges of guilt and pleasure. As an adult, I have treated myself to head massages in upscale hotel spas in China, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. But as a child, given my scanty, secondhand knowledge of Manu the Lawgiver’s definitions of ideal hair, I was convinced that my thin hair was a symptom of moral flaws.

The oldest girl cousin in our large household, a know-it-all teenager, had a practical explanation for why Hindu Bengali women were required to have thick, waist-length hair. She was eight or ten years older than I was; I can’t be sure. Even though my generation was the first in our family to have been born in a hospital rather than delivered by a midwife at home, we did not have birth certificates. No one in our comfortably middle-class neighborhood did. The dates of individual births and deaths were associated with natural events, such as earthquakes and fatal floods, or with historical and political events, for example, a massive-scale, British Raj–engineered famine in the early 1940s and hangings of nationalist freedom fighters. This cousin informed us younger ones that an essential rite in Hindu Bengali weddings — the wedding ceremony lasts several days — involves the brides washing the feet of her bridegroom and drying his feet with her hair. She herself had coal-black hair, long enough and tough enough to towel-dry the largest, wettest pair of spousal feet. She also confided that if a woman had reddish or brownish hair instead of black, it was inescapable proof that some ancestor of that woman had — horror of horrors! — mated with a firangi, a white-skinned foreigner, in the pre–British Raj past when European pirates regularly raided our bountiful coastal towns. Hindu society was divided into distinct castes: maintenance of caste “purity” and vigilant avoidance of caste “pollution” were required of each individual. My family belonged to the Brahmin caste and could marry only within that caste. Neither my cousin nor I had a way of foretelling that at age twenty-three, while a graduate student in the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, I would marry a blue-eyed American fellow student and become the first in my family to commit caste “pollution.” Perhaps my opinionated cousin was correct: my husband and I have two sons, and both have brown hair.

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