Flowers in My Hair

- Priscilla Jolly

“Were the scissors impulsive or inevitable?”

Sherman Alexie

“From that day on, my grandmother

Wore her hair short like a scream,

But it was long like a river in her sleep.”

Alberto Rios

Once you start looking for them, signs abound, and it’s quite easy to find connections and evidence all around you. This is probably why conspiracy theories are able to yoke the seemingly different together in an unprecedented fashion. Since I had been thinking about hair for quite a while, one of the first things I noticed when I boarded a flight was the flight attendant’s hair—sleek, black, extending just beyond her ears, accompanied by bangs falling in a wave on her forehead. When she moved, her hair refused to move with her. Despite my bleariness in catching a frightfully early morning flight, I followed her movements to ascertain whether I was indeed seeing what I was seeing. Every strand on her head stayed in its place when she moved, and I watched in fascination. Was hair even capable of such behaviour? I wondered because my hair is what the flight attendant’s hair was not. My hair is not the sort to inspire Baudelaire to write about ecstasy at the sight of it, nor is it sated with dew, unlike Robert Herrick’s Julia. It is not laden with perfume, nor does it cascade like a black river. My hair is my hair—wild, wilful wires—always tangled. On a hot day, it becomes a sweaty hothouse radiating heat or a jungle that’s choking with trees. Light does not dance in it; my hair is not the sort about which poems have been written.

Speckled with interludes where I’d attempt to lengthen my hair, my life otherwise featured short hair. No matter how much I tried, my hair was not the kind of hair I read about, the kind I saw all around me—long, manageable and pleasant. The only other person I knew who sported short hair while growing up was not even real. George a.k.a Georgiana from Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five. I did not actively wish to be like George, but I liked the fact that she kept her hair short. While I read George’s adventures, in seventh grade I thought about the possibilities of lengthening my hair. I decided to let my hair grow out of its boyish cut, and grow it did—just that the growth was more focused on horizontal expansion, rather than vertical. My classmates compared me to Sai Baba, the god man whose hair formed a stiff, wiry helmet around his head.

I carried on and even decided that I would abide by the school regulations by tying my hair up into two small pigtails. If you haven’t guessed already, my hair never really lent itself to soft, amiable brushing; it required force. I subdued my hair in the morning and forced it into two barrettes. I was paranoid; I was sure that everyone was paying attention to the state of my pigtails.

This was the first time I’d attempted to tie my hair and venture outside in the aftermath of the experiment. Like any another paranoiac, my senses were on alert for any signs of trouble; the self-consciousness that comes along with accomplishing a ‘first’ did not really improve the state of affairs—on that day, I was convinced that the world revolved around my pigtails. I made it through the morning in a state of consuming dread that makes its presence known as a weight in your stomach. Perhaps what came to pass was from the pressure of holding my hair together, but by the time the day had wound itself to the lunch break, one of my barrettes broke. Dread blossomed into full-fledged mortification. How the world hated me! I was sure of it! What pushed me to tears was the fact that there was nothing complex about this; the girls in my class did it every day with ease, and I couldn’t even manage my hair for half a day. Worst was the feeling of stupidity, the inevitable ‘I don’t know what I was thinking’ moment. Noticing how gutted I looked, a classmate of mine handed a spare barrette, and I went home in mismatched barrettes and what probably were uneven ponytails, since I had to tie my hair again without a mirror. The horror! I was so far gone in my solitary mortification that it did not occur to me that I could ask help from one of the girls in my class.

I did not want long hair anymore; I’d given up on it. Why couldn’t my hair be like ‘regular’ hair—the hair that you could comb without your arms getting tired from detangling it? I got rid of my barrettes and cut my hair. For the rest of my school years, I kept my hair in a perpetual limbo between too short and not too short. Neither short nor long. The school I attended required girls to tie or braid their hair with blue ribbons that matched our uniforms. Whenever one of the nuns or teachers cornered me in the corridor to tell me that I’d have to tie my hair, I responded by getting a haircut. Of course, people talked about how they couldn’t tell if I was a boy or a girl, and I didn’t mind—at least not till I overheard one of my classmates.

My class, at that point of time, was trying out a new seating policy in which boys and girls did not occupy two neat halves of the classroom (which is very common in Kerala). My classmate was sitting behind me and he was speaking to a group of boys. He was talking about me; I don’t know if he said what he said to let me hear what he thought of me or whether it was a genuine oversight on his part. Since I did not bear this embodiment of the feminine—long hair—unlike other girls in my class, the word he used to describe me was napumsaka, implying that I was neither male nor female.

How can you ever begin to describe what it feels like to have overheard something that you sincerely wish you hadn’t? First comes the shock—you’re stunned to discover that this is the association that people make when they see you. You’ve been subject to depersonalization; the overheard word looms over your ideas about your personhood. The coordinates by which you have fashioned your self have suddenly changed. Next comes a certain paralysis as you wage an internal battle—do you show that you have indeed heard what was said or do you pretend that you did not hear and lapse in to silence? I chose the latter. And afterwards, you feel sadness and if you feel up to it later, anger.  There I was, the vocabulary of my personhood forcibly altered by an utterance that was thrown my way, not knowing what to make of it. As someone who has taught teenagers a subject they did not wish to learn, I’m quite familiar with the streak of meanness that children sometimes exhibit. The day in my classroom also showed me that, inadvertently or not, children are quite adept in finding those spots to hit right where it’ll hurt and possibly scar. It was as though this word, that had been in my vocabulary, had acquired a new life; it had become one of those words I didn’t really associate with people until I heard my classmate, making me intensely aware of what it is that a word could do or undo as the speaker nonchalantly flings the word out, leaving the one who hears it to painfully discover the history and the weight of the word.

I suppose I cannot really blame my classmate; if you search for pictures of ‘Kerala women’ you’ll find pictures of women dressed in saris, with their long hair loosely tied, sporting a sprig of basil or some jasmine in it. Households in Kerala often have women developing special practices to care for hair. Recipes are swapped; methods are exchanged. My mother, even today, brews special oil infused with herbs for her hair. Once in a while, over the weekends, my hair would be washed with a thick, viscous, dark green goop made of hibiscus leaves and blooms in lieu of shampoo. Hair oil commercials doing rounds on television call back to these times. You’d see commercials in which children smile at the sight of a woman with hair so long that it’s almost impractical and frown at the woman who keeps her hair short. You’d see women who are apparently depressed and lack confidence because their hair has been falling out. You’d see mothers talking about how one should not take risks when it comes to hair. You’d see women extolling long hair as something that expresses the various emotions of the feminine. To be considered a womanly woman, it is absolutely necessary to have long hair; otherwise you simply did not feature in the public imagination.

Some of my friends at school were girls who came from households where it was possible to have elaborate conversations about hair care. Where mothers would complain about the chlorinated municipal water because it caused hair fall. Where mothers would sit with their daughters detangling hair for hours.  My friends were girls who braided their hair, tied it with ribbons, wore flowers in their hair and had the hair to do so. One of my friends, who was also my neighbour back then, would bring chembakam and jasmine when they started blooming. The flowers were carefully arranged in a lunch box and sprinkled lightly with water so that they did not wilt. Sometimes, when I went over to her house to wait for the rickshaw that took us to school, I’d find her mother engaged in work, her fingers deftly flying, weaving the jasmine and the thread into to a strand of blooms meant to be worn in your hair. After we got to the school, the lunch box with the dewy flowers would be opened. Before the school assembly, my friend distributed flowers to everyone who wanted to wear flowers in their hair. In all fairness, she always gave me one even though giving me a flower was a waste. I’d keep the white chembakam intact till lunch break, for the pleasure of its fragrance. After the break, when the flower would started wilting, its rusty brown bleeding into the white petals, I’d take the petals apart, shred them and scatter them in the school yard.

I got through school never wearing flowers in my hair. After school, I managed to keep my hair long enough for an interlude of six years, the time I spent at the university. This was the longest I managed to keep my hair at an ‘acceptable’ length. I was ready to let go of my hair when I was shortlisted for a program that would allow me to leave India after my masters. The day I received the confirmation email announcing my selection, I cut off my hair. The first thing I told my friends was that I felt like a weight had been lifted off my head. The effect was miraculous, and I do not use the word lightly. I could feel the breeze around my head. I could run my hand through my hair without encountering tangles. If I was lucky, I thought, I might experience the sensation evoked by the Portuguese word ‘cafune’. My hair was no longer the hair shown in the ‘before-shampooing’ part in shampoo commercials; it was no longer hopelessly tangled with the comb stuck in the middle.

Despite having short hair, I wanted to wear flowers in my hair, not roses or jasmines, but bougainvilleas. After reading a biography of Frida Kahlo, while browsing through her portraits on the internet, a photograph caught my fancy. Frida is leaning against a blue background. She has a pink shawl draped around herself. On top of her head, a crown of bougainvilleas. I wanted to wear outrageous flower crowns on my short hair, perhaps even wear hibiscuses pulsating with life—the flower, according to the old sayings in Kerala, that is worn by the insane. Revelling in the anonymity of social media, later I’d write: “I want to look as alive and as vigorous as the bougainvilleas do, pouring out their frenzy of flowers that seem tireless.” Perhaps, it was a desire to affront and outrage. I haven’t worn flowers in my hair yet. Instead, I catch myself looking at those who by some grace or other have been given ‘good’ hair. The girl on the local train who gives her hair a simple twist and transforms it into an elegant bun. Or the sitar playing German man who appeared in the university for a semester, walking around with golden hair streaming behind him, and who was fondly called goldilocks by me and a friend.

Do I wish I had normal hair? Occasionally. Junot Diaz speaks of vampires in one of his interviews. Vampires are believed to have no reflections. Diaz says that while growing up he felt like a monster because he did not see himself reflected at all. Naturally, when you don’t see any reflections of yourself in the books that you read or the films that you watch, your mind cannot help but wonder if you are aberration, an anomaly in the scheme of things. Diaz maintains that his writing is inspired by a desire to create mirrors and reflections. When people ask me why I am keeping my hair short, often, I find myself saying that it is because I had ‘bad’ hair when my hair was longer. Why must hair be bad? Can’t hair be just hair? Unbeknownst to me, my hair that had been described in a series of nots, all those plosive ‘t’s — not slender, not soft, not manageable, not desirable—had become bad hair.

Sometimes, this lack of hair results in me being divested of my gender. I cannot, for the life of me, comprehend what elusive quality resides in the length of hair. Like my classmate, people wonder which box I fall into. At a parent teacher meet in a school I used to work at, a parent assumed that in a room with two women (one being me), the woman with the long hair must be the bearer of an obviously feminine Indian name. In a restaurant, a waiter is suspicious because I have walked into the family section (where parties with women are seated) with a friend who is a man. While shopping for groceries in an open air market, I find that I’m easily moved out of the way and pushed aside by men, in a way they wouldn’t handle a woman who fits into the conventional moulds of appearance. A college, where I interviewed, turned me down, saying that I was ‘too modern.’ And what, pray tell constitutes this excess of modernity that I seem to have?

My hair is not an invitation to speculate about my gender or my womanliness. For things to change, as Diaz puts it, we need more mirrors. A few years back a Malayalam movie featured a character with short hair in a prominent role. It was a change from the usual bevy of heroines. After the release of the film, when I came home for one those family reunions, my grandmother who watches more Malayalam films than me, called me by the film’s name instead of my name because I reminded her of the character from the film with my hair and my glasses. And lo, a thin veneer of respectability appeared! The length of my hair was no longer as controversial as it had been.

Like Shakespeare’s mistress, I too used to have wires growing on my head, just that the wires on my head were not anything like the ones Shakespeare had imagined. I decided I did not want those wires anymore and I trimmed them down into a shrub. Though it is advised that one must be wary around sharp instruments, oddly enough, I’ve found that I relax the best when a pair of scissors snips behind my ears, while I sit through my haircut at the salon. I love getting haircuts; I love to strike up conversations with the stylist. That’s how Ms. Lily became my friend, over conversations that evolved over the course of a haircut. For this reason, Ms. Lily’s salon is one of the first places I stop by when I revisit the city I’d moved away from. I settle in her chair, waiting for the snipping sound. Ms. Lily talks about how alone she is. I notice that the two girls who used to hover around whenever I got my haircut were no longer there. Ms. Lily tells me that her helpers have left. She says that they are ungrateful. Cunning. “Only facial, manicure, pedicure I taught them. No cutting and waxing.” I sit in the chair, listen to her mild rant as I watch hair disappearing from my head. After she has finished cutting my hair, Ms. Lily fetches her old fashioned, worn address book in which everything is handwritten. She tells me that two of her sisters run salons in the city I’ve moved to. She doesn’t like my new city much because of the humid weather. She flips through her address book, finds the phone numbers of her sisters and makes me copy them down on a small piece of paper. She says “in case you need a haircut.” I feel like I’ve been adopted into some family, some unknown network. In that moment, I decide that I want it all—the tentative relationships that navigate the hazy territory between acquaintances and friends, impromptu conversations ranging from cooking stuffed pork buns to language classes. I want all of it, the snippets of conversation, the unforeseen turns of conversation, all accompanied by the snips of a pair of scissors. I decide that each month, with unbridled joy, I shall continue visiting the salon for a haircut. After all, who knows, I might even gather the courage to wear bougainvilleas in my hair as time passes by.

Priscilla is from Mumbai. She loves to read and really enjoys a good cup of tea. She likes teaching young children. For the last two years she has worked as an English teacher and a French teacher.