Last week, I was sitting in my friend’s beautiful kitchen while she was frying fish. There were four of us — talking, laughing and enjoying a drink. She walked up to me suddenly, put my hair behind my ears and told me, “Deepy, You have such an adorable face, why don’t you just tie your curly hair?” She loves me a lot and she just became the newest member of the brigade propagating this ‘tie your unruly curly hair’ philosophy.
I am the only one in my family who has curly hair. Well, it’s genetic as my father had it. Growing up as a girl with curly hair in small town India (Orissa to be precise) was not a smooth ride. To top it all, being dusky was another major ‘perceived disadvantage.’ So, wherever one went during the adolescent years, scores of self-righteous aunts, uncles looked at your hair and asked, ‘Why don’t you have straight hair?’ Or ‘Why don’t just tie it tightly (so that it won’t look like curly hair)?”
As I grew up in pre-liberalized India, there was no talk of straightening my hair. But, then I was given numerous other names like ‘Sai Baba’, ‘Pagali (crazy) and “African”. These name-calling were certainly not a pleasant experience for a young child but never once did I think of having regrets about not having straight hair like my sisters. In fact, I always felt better-off when I used to see my sisters sitting in front of the mirror and laboriously applying lemon juice and egg whites on their straight hair. Mine was ‘zero maintenance hair.’
As a young adult, being in relationships, the hair issue followed me zealously. Otherwise bright, socially aware men had a problem with curly hair and constantly mentioned about tying my hair in a neat ponytail. Well, this was nothing new to me so it didn’t really affect me. I continued with what I was comfortable doing.
But it was unnerving to encounter strangers commenting on my hair. When I went to file a police complaint in New Delhi after losing my wallet and I-card, I was persistently quizzed by the official in the police station, ‘Aap toh honge Kerala/Goa se baal jo aap ki aise ghoongaralu hai?”(You must be from Kerala/Goa because you have curly hair.” Till today, I have no idea of the connection between filing a police complaint and curly hair. While travelling in the train from Delhi-Bhubaneswar, generous co-passengers never failed to ask me that question (in between feeding home-cooked vegetable pulao and poori-alu) “beta, aap ka baal aise kyon hai?” (Why do you have hair like this?). Look out of the window, in sheer deseperation.
And then something changed in the mid 1990s. India embraced the path of economic liberalization and with the satellite television, people started noticing fashion and style trends from the West. Perming became a cool word in urban Indians’ hair & style lexicon. And then in 1997, Arundhati Roy won the Man Booker prize for her debut novel God of Small Things. Suddenly she became the poster girl (a huge amount of prize money added to the glam). For the upwardly mobile urban Indians, curly hair became a symbol of being cool, stylish, successful and creative too. Suddenly, everybody wanted to become a writer.
I remember, after a month of Arundhati’s win, I had gone to a salon in Vasant Vihar for a hair-cut. Three rich and stylish women accosted me and asked, “Are your curls natural?” When I said “Yes”, they squealed with delight, “OMG, We love it. It’s like Arundhati’s hair. You are so lucky.” I rolled my eyes in disbelief and actually basked in that compliment. Temporary happiness.
Ironically, years later in 2005, when I was travelling in a train from Jodhpur-Ahmedabad, two young engineering students came up to me and asked me for an autograph. They thought I was Arundhati Roy. I thanked God for their poor eye-sight and told them that their mistake had actually made me happy.
The curly sunshine moments have followed me even after this incident. When I interviewed one of India’s great ad gurus and noted theatre personalities, in between our long engrossing conversations, he told me “The moment you entered into the room, I knew it would be nice talking to you.” I asked him “What made you think so?” He answered, “Your curly hair. In India, it’s not easy to be a woman with curly hair. I know, you have to fight so many battles against mindsets and stereotypes.”
Well, now I love my mop of curly hair. I can’t really remember when did I last go for a hair-cut because the standard comment of hair stylists is : “Can’t do anything to your curly hair.” I have done google search on cool curly hair styles and taken print outs to give ideas to the hair stylists. But all my diligent efforts have only made me poorer by few thousand bucks without any noteworthy result. So, I am saving the money for a pair of cool mean distressed jeans.
Has life changed for this curly-haired woman? Well, sometimes people ask me, ‘Are you an artist/designer?’ And the obvious reason for asking this question is my curly hair and huge silver rings on my fingers. Well, considering the times we are living in India now, by any stretch of imagination, a journalist can’t be an artist. Sometimes, when in a playful mood, I say, “I am a cook (not a chef).” Go, figure out, my love. If that makes me an artist.
Of course, India has loads of people who will be forever on Darwin’s first stage of evolution till their death. So, in the midst of conversations on people who have influenced us, when I say, “It’s Maya Angelou for me.” Some laugh and say, “Oh, it got to be Maya Angelou for you coz you have crazy curly hair like her. You know that African connection.”
Well, when you have poet-singer-actor-human rights activist Maya Angelou as your role-model, you always remember ‘I know why the caged bird sings.’