Despite Jesus’ best laid plans, war loomed large over our home every time Sunday mass came along. In one corner was my mother, jaw set and brush firmly in hand. In the other, me, back arched and ready to deflect any movement she made towards my curly head. My father watched resignedly as we fired aces a la Federer and Nadal. He’d be spending the rest of the evening trying to broker peace.
You see, my mother grew up as a ‘100 strokes a day’ kind of girl. She kept my hair short in an unfashionable style that fellow curlies are well acquainted with – the ‘boy cut’. My mother had worn her hair in a similar style for years. It was easier to manage this way, she argued.
She wasn’t wrong. But it just didn’t feel right.
Time spent outside home didn’t help either. Fair women with straight locks in shampoo ads made me wonder why my own hair never fell that way. When I decided to grow my hair out, teachers at school insisted I wear it severely pulled back. At church, the backs of women’s heads like mine echoed stories of torture and submission.
We didn’t have mainstream Bollywood heroines like Kangana Ranaut and Taapsee Pannu yet. Humidity made my friends glow, and my hair expand like Mufasa. Professional blow drys were expensive, and my parents didn’t believe in the concept of allowances.
Obsession peaked during college, and I found myself conducting consumer surveys on packaged cheese for money to ‘rebond’ my anxiety away. After four hours in the salon, I remember coming straight home and washing it, despite instructions not to. I half believed that it couldn’t be true, my hair couldn’t be tamed, this was just another blow dry that would wash out. Imagine then, my utter amazement when it didn’t.
Back then, it didn’t feel as wrong to hate a part of myself as much as I did. Also my mother liked my subdued hair and while I would have never admitted it then, her approval meant the world to me.
Things couldn’t be more different today. I wear my hair curly almost all the time, a testament to maturity and laziness in equal parts. I also spend a lot of time on a closed Facebook group of over 41,000 Indian women, Indian Curl Pride, where fellow curlies swap advice about ingredients, plopping, and a ‘praying hands’ motion that has nothing to do with God.
Nothing gets me more excited though, than mothers seeking help for their daughters. Heads of little curlies pop up more frequently than ever before on the timeline, with mums seeking tips on shampoo, haircuts and how to comb hair without making their girls cry.
One convert’s story resonated particularly with me. In a lengthy post, she wrote ‘…when my daughter was born with silky straight hair, and I was like aaah finally. But it was not long when genetics started to play and she got the curls as well! But this time it was not only for curls, I was determined to make my girl content, happy and proud of whatever she had!’
Last year, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. A friend suggested I buy her a wig as it was one of the things you last thought about while shuffling between billing, pharmacy counters and nurse stations. Options online were slim, and despite myself, I ended up with a wig sprouting straight hair. My mother made no comment when I showed her it. We put it away and carried on with treatment. We were fortunate enough to be prescribed a line of therapy that caused no hair loss.
Last week, we celebrated one year since my mother’s mastectomy and I thought about that wig. I also thought back to my last trips home, and how my mother didn’t seem to mind my hair as much anymore. There was still the odd question – ‘but shouldn’t you comb it every day?’ – but fewer barbs about frizz and the use of the word ‘junglee‘.
Had the fear of losing her own hair brought about this change? Or had learning to style my hair as nature designed it laid the matter to rest? Whatever be the case, peace had come to stay.
My father couldn’t be happier. His Sunday evenings are finally free to spend as he likes.
Alisha Coelho is a writer for hire, content strategist and a lifelong ambassador for red lipstick.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty