In a small stop-over town like Panipat, where I live, cold-blooded murder might be a more normal sight than my hair – in all its lavender glory.
When a friend’s father asked me what possessed me to change my hair every few months, I jokingly told him it was my way of exercising control over my life – which is rather uncontrollable in the larger scheme of things.
But where someone might have sensed shade being thrown, I experienced the opposite. A light had been shone. It’s an undisputed truth that the flames of rebellion are fanned by being thwarted.
My relationship with my hair when I was a kid was non-existent, considering I didn’t have any. All our photo albums house many iterations of a barely three-year-old Rishika with a buzz cut/bald head sporting her father’s hand towels, fashioning herself a chic bob, not unlike a certain editor-in-chief we all love to hate.
Finally, when my hair did deign to make an appearance, it was less Pretty Little Liars and more Ugly Betty. The dutiful child that I was, I would religiously comb my curls out everyday, making me look no less than a bear’s spawn. From being the no-haired kid, I went to being the Queen of Frizz.
Having silky-black hair herself – like any true-blue Nepali – my mother had no idea how to handle my lion’s mane. Every day before going to school, she would put me in a braid, or if she was feeling really crafty, two braids. I would look at the other girls’ crazy-cute French plaits and twist-outs with the pure, unadulterated envy that only a 10-year-old could have.
For many women, their relationship with their hair is a deeply personal one, and a subject that’s inextricably intertwined with identity, self-image, self-care, politics, culture and social pressures. I was no different.
Stuck between the silky-haired Punjabi girls of my birthplace Panipat and the pin-straight, chocolate-tressed Doras back home in Nepal, my identity crisis planted roots. But I had decided this was not my hill to die on.
By 12, after months of arm and neck cramps, I had finally managed to teach myself how to French-braid my own hair. Waking up early to work on my hair before school became my patriotic duty. And then arrived in my life the biggest game-changer of them all: the straightener.
After months of begging and slight manoeuvring using tears, I finally convinced my mother to buy me a hair straightener. I would fry my hair into oblivion at the height of the stick-straight hair trend in the late aughts.
The funny thing is, I never had anything against curly hair. I would often admire it on others, but was sold on the fact that I had the “bad” kind of curly hair. Frizzy, poofy and undefined, it just couldn’t look good – I was sure of this.
Towards the end of school, after being flat-out denied permission to dye my hair, I was a pilgrim on a quest, itching to live my own version of the Jaane Tu Ya Janne Na-eque college life.
But since God loves to rain on my parade, all my relationships went down the drain. I was drowning in a river of denial, too proud to ask someone to pull me out. In rode the hair-dyeing gods, my knights in shining armour, to rescue the damsel-in-distress aka me.
As a friend slathered bleach onto my hair, I sat in the cheap plastic chair in my college dorm. With the welcoming, intoxicating mix of ammonia and gossip blanketing my insides like the bleach did my hair, it was the first time in my life I felt in complete control.
Spurred by that sense of control, I started experimenting with my hair. A lot. From canary yellow to bubblegum pink, name any shade under the sun and I had it.
God forbid I stop there. I would cut my hair into a bob, a pixie or, as my recent deep-dive into the Brad Mondo world of YouTube would give me – curly bangs.
Were the bangs a fresh start? Maybe. A quarter-life crisis? Possibly.
In my vastly uncontrollable life, my hair has become my chosen weapon to fight the uncertainties – especially since the pandemic upended our lives. I still, very much, feel at the whim of an emotionally and mentally turbulent year. I don’t know what lies ahead. I do know, however, that I can cut off inches of hair and go several shades lighter.
Every time I look in the mirror or run my fingers through my hair from root to tip, I’m reminded of that feeling of catharsis. It’s a change I can see. It’s something I did for myself.
Rishika Singh is a post-graduate student of New Media at Asian College of Journalism.