Author Bharati Mukherjee writes of her experience growing up practicing traditional Hindu Bengali hair rituals.
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.
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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.
The girl children on our block, including my cousins and my two sisters, had healthier relationships with their hair than I had with mine. My sisters inherited my father’s thick, curly hair. Curly hair was admired. I had wavy hair, but the longer it grew, the less wavy it was. All of us parted our hair on one side or the other of our heads, preferably alternating sides to ensure the hair part remained narrow. The first time we expected to part our hair in the center would be on our wedding day during the sindur-application rite, when the bridegroom rubs lavish quantities of vermilion powder on the center part of his bride. The vermilion red in a Hindu Bengali woman’s hair part is the sign that she is married and that her husband is still living. The red represents life force. A married woman must wear sindur every day of her married life. The sindur containers on the dressing tables of my mother and aunts were intricate artifacts made of silver or polished buffalo horn. Though I have never worn sindur, I have collected these containers as homage to the anonymous craftsmen who elevated the functional to the beautiful. The vermilion used by my mother’s generation was later discovered by scientists to be cinnabar, containing mercury sulfide. Contemporary women have replaced the toxic original with a harmless vermilion-red powder. Hindu traditions survive by being adaptable.
Unmarried girls and wives take guiltless pride in their long, lustrous hair. But Hindu Bengali tradition requires widows to keep their heads permanently shaved as one of many gestures of penance. My grandmother was the only widow in the household of my Calcutta childhood. I remember the neighborhood itinerant barber, who tended to male customers under a shady tree on the sidewalk, coming to our home to razor-scrape my grandmother’s head every week. My fine-boned grandmother actually looked elegant even when, between the barber’s trips, her scalp sprouted silvery stubble.
My mother’s attempts to improve the quality of hair I had been born with paled in comparison to those of the more competitive mothers of unmarried girls in our neighborhood. Every weekday afternoon after we’d returned from school by bus or rickshaw and hurried through snacks at home, we congregated in the large front yard of the girl who lived next door to me to play until dusk. My sisters and I braided our hair with pretty satin or taffeta ribbons and looped the two braids like hoop earrings, using the ends of the ribbons to anchor them behind each ear. I loved my collection of ribbons, which I stored in cans that had originally contained imported chocolates. My worry was that during energetic games of hide-and-seek, the ribbons would slip off my skinny braids, which would be humiliating enough, and be lost, which would have been tragic. The girls who were obsessed with hair protection wrapped their braids tightly with ugly, black cotton tapes to protect them from sun damage and dust during playtime. At bedtime, they probably rewrapped their braids with clean cotton ribbons so that heads tossing against pillowcases wouldn’t result in split ends. My oldest girl cousin was the only one in our family to wrap her braids during the day. On the nights she suffered from what she called “growing pains” in her calves, she repurposed the black ribbons to neutralize the pain by winding them tightly around her legs.
The first wedding of a Mukherjee relative I witnessed, that of a paternal uncle, took place when I must have been five or six. Marriages were “arranged” by family elders on the basis of economic and social compatibility, the groom’s career potential, the bride’s physical comeliness and fair complexion, and the spousal candidates’ families’ medical histories (which had to be free of heritable and communicable diseases). The groom was a tall (at least by our standards), handsome young man with a full head of fastidiously groomed, wavy hair. Hindu weddings are elaborate, some ceremonies having to be performed in the bride’s home, and a lesser number in the groom’s. I remember with astonishing vividness my uncle, dressed in the Bengali bridegroom’s fine dhoti, silk kurta, and tall wedding head gear, ushering his bride in through the front door of our flat as the conch-blowing, ululating women in our family swarmed around her to welcome her. I also remember each adult woman relative sticking honey-dipped fingers into the bride’s ears and mouth so that she would hear and utter only sweet words. The literal and the symbolic merge in Hindu rituals, and though I didn’t recognize it then, I was learning a lesson useful for my future as a writer. During the wedding rites performed on the day after her arrival in our home, I recall witnessing this new aunt cooking and feeding her bridegroom rice and curried fish, giving him the whole fish’s prized head and torso, and keeping (as tradition demanded) the bony tail for herself. Did she wash the bridegroom’s feet and dry them with her hair before that ritual meal? I witnessed this ritual act of wifely obeisance, didn’t I? I can no longer be sure. A dear New York–based friend of mine, a naturalized US citizen, confided to me that she knew her first marriage was over when, on an impulse, she went to a salon and asked for her long hair to be chopped off. She wears her hair short and is happily remarried.
In the winter of 1948, after India had been a sovereign nation for nearly a year and a half, my father, mother, and we three sisters sailed for Europe, my youngest sister wearing a scarf over her recently shaved head. My father would work for a few years with pharmaceutical companies in Switzerland and England. We returned to Calcutta, but not to the extended-family household with its oppressive allegiance to ancient traditions. We began life as a nuclear family, and I found myself no longer fretting about my fine hair.
I now live in two cities: New York and San Francisco. When I first moved to San Francisco, I felt lucky to have been befriended by a California-born neighbor, who knew the answers to all the settling-in questions that I hadn’t yet thought to ask: for example, where to find the freshest fish, the most inspired florist, the masseuse with magic fingers, the caring yoga instructor. The only question that stumped her was where I should go to get a decent, reasonable haircut. It seemed that my hair needs were too simple — a cut, shampoo, and blow-dry every three or four months — for her to send me to the stylists and colorists she patronized. My hair has remained dark, as was my father’s hair when he passed away at age seventy-five.
I know my hair is thinning. When I run into old friends visiting the United States from Calcutta, some will exclaim, with the shocking frankness that only Indian friends you have grown up with can, “Bharati, you’re getting bald! Good grief, what happened!” There is a medical explanation: recently I’ve been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and the medications I have been put on list “loss of hair” as a likely side effect. Maybe I should go back to using amla hair oil, which is said to control rheumatoid arthritis. Maybe I should get a wig. I mentioned the wig idea to Amy Tan over an Italian dinner in Sausalito the night before she was to leave for New York to launch The Valley of Amazement, her most recent novel. We’ve known each other for over twenty years, and she has always come up with suggestions for coping, no matter the nature of the distress. She mailed me a human-hair wig within weeks of that dinner. The hair is lustrous, shoulder length. I take the wig out of the box it came in and caress the silky, supple strands. Apparently, the wig will have to be cut and styled to suit me. Amy has promised to help me find the right stylists. For every problem, there’s a solution. I am ready for the next phase of this hair tale: exciting wig adventures with the help of a good friend.