The Indian Rapunzel

Taking forward the Shakti series, here’s another dilemma women face in Indian society. Mundane as it might sound but this one is about the expected length of a woman’s hair that society has defined as beautiful.

She looked at her long luxurious tresses as she ran her fingers through them gently. Her crowning glory, which was a large part of her identity. Through school, college, and right into her marriage, her long hair that her mother had lovingly nurtured was what Shakti was known for. She had the darkest black, shiny, thick, and poker-straight flowing mane that cascaded down her shoulders all the way down to her knees. She took all the compliments that she received for her beautiful hair for granted with bored disdain. At times she craved for people to look beyond her hair. There was more to her beauty than just her hair. She had sharp facial features with an intelligence to match it all.

In school, her teachers would look at her never-ending bouncy pigtails tied with ribbons in admiration and pamper her by being generous with the grades, as though the length of her hair were the parameters set to gauge her intelligence. In college, young guys followed her around just to leer at her long hair that she would leave loose, swaying in tandem with her graceful gait. And when she got married, her in-laws and husband showed her off to their relatives and friends, in return lapping up all the compliments they paid them for her hair. The loose hair was now styled into a thick plait with a stroke of rich vermillion in her parting as per her in-laws’ wishes. Apparently, leaving the hair loose was not considered appropriate for a married woman. As per popular social notion, it was implied that women who left their hair loose had a loose character!

While most women would do anything to be in her place and have hair like hers, it was quite the opposite for Shakti. Back in childhood, her mother would indulge her with an intensive hair care routine. She was treated to heavenly oil massages, washing her hair with natural shikakai nuts and combing it for her till she reached her adolescence. Somewhere along the way as she grew up, she switched over to commercial cosmetics purchased over the counter. The attractively packaged, divine-smelling shampoos, conditioners, and serums were temporary fancies. Soon she started detesting Sundays at the prospect of doing the weekend ritual of oiling and washing her hair all by herself. It was quite a chore considering the length and volume of her hair. It took her almost a good four to five hours to do the entire rigmarole and she would be exhausted by the end of it. She longed to cut her hair short and envied girls with smart-looking short haircuts. How liberating it must feel to let the short hair fly in the breeze without any worries of messy tangles! While here she was constantly holding on to her plait for the fear that it might get stuck in the bike wheel when she went on a ride with her husband or in the doorknob as she moved by. As with most Indian households, she was discouraged every time she thought of cutting her hair, especially by her mother. When she threw a tantrum her mother would tell her that she could do what she pleased after she got married.

But well, after marriage it was her dear husband who took over her mother. She expressed her wish to cut her hair after some months into her marriage. Her mother-in-law was taken aback and did not conceal her displeasure at the idea. She suggested that Shakti could probably trim it by an inch when she became a mother since caring for long hair with a baby would be difficult. Shakti wasn’t convinced. Besides the laborious care it required, it was change that she longed for. With the length and texture of hair that she had, all she could do with it was either tie it or bundle it up in a boring bun. She wished to give herself a makeover, change her wardrobe to crack out of the mould that people had set her into. She made yet another feeble attempt to talk it out with her husband. ‘C’mon, do you have any idea how pretty you look? Your hair is your best asset,’ he remarked, ‘And anyway, women look good with long hair. The ones with short hair look masculine!’ Shakti knew better than to argue.

What is this thing about Indian men? Their fascination for women with long hair is unreasonable to the point of obsession. So well, a woman with long hair is appealing to an extent. But aren’t there other important qualities in a woman that define her? Besides, who decides what a person does with their own assets, hair, or other? Isn’t she entitled to decision-making as basic as that?

After an entire day of mulling and browsing through fashion magazines, she made up her mind. The next morning she headed to the best hair cutting salon in the city. Her family only knew that she was out shopping at a mall. She had a long discussion with the master stylist at the salon. While most women at the salon reacted to her request with disbelief, the master stylist was the only one who understood her need to do so. ‘OMG, are you really planning to chop off those beautiful locks? Give them to me instead!’ shrieked a woman who sat next to her. The woman pointed at her own sparse and frizzy hair. The master stylist was a middle-aged stylish guy with golden highlights in his hair.  He gave Shakti an understanding smile. ‘Don’t worry girl, they don’t know how boring it is to have such long and flat hair,’ he said.

He suggested that they follow the shape of her face and layer her hair to give more texture and volume to her hair. She watched with no regrets as her long tresses fell around her as he maneuvered the scissors across her hair like a man possessed. It was as though they were chains she was being freed from. For a moment she felt like Rapunzel! After a few intense moments of snipping, teasing, and blowing her hair she nervously waited to see the end result. When she got off the chair her head felt light and it occurred to her that she had been carrying so much weight on her for years. She gazed at her reflection in the mirror impressed with what she saw. A shock of volumed layers fell around her nape, gently framing her face and highlighting her sharp features. The stylist had also given her some burgundy streaks at the crown which shone when they caught the lights. A few wispy bangs fringed playfully on her forehead. It took years off her face. The overall effect was phenomenal! The stylist stepped back and watched her from a distance with a lopsided smile admiring his own handiwork. Shakti thanked him profusely and made her way back home.

There was a spring in her steps as she got out of the cab. It seemed as though there was a new life thriving on her head! Rather than feeling anxious about how her family would react, she was actually jubilant and over the top of the world! When she walked into the house her mother-in-law did not seem to recognize her. Her jaw dropped open when it sank in. ‘Oh no!’ she exclaimed. Shakti smiled and asked her how she looked. Her question was met with a frown, followed by a sulk session that lasted for the rest of the day. When her husband walked into the house that evening he froze when he saw her. ‘Surprise!’ she chirped cheerfully, shaking her hair dramatically. He couldn’t believe what he saw. He threw a fit initially. ‘How could you do this?’ he demanded, “‘You know how much I loved your hair!’ Shakti remained calm and unaffected. What she asked him next threw him off his senses. ‘Did you love my hair more than me?’ she asked, raising an eyebrow. He was speechless. What was with this woman? Not a tinge of regret or guilt in her. She seemed so confident and self-assured, much to his surprise. The woman he had married had transformed. Her joy was infectious. How had he missed her gorgeous smile all these days? And, he hated to admit that he kind of liked it – a lot more than her hair.