One fine day, however, I was seized with an urge to braid her hair. I sat her down on the bathroom counter top, partitioned her hair into two zones and proceeded to weave two plaits. She good-naturedly complied and held her head still while I tried to get the motions right.
Quietly, a feeling crept up on me. There was something surreal about the act, something about making three distinct strands on either side of her head, weaving each one by turn into a single plait. I was transported to another place, another time. I was on the floor in front of my mother, her hands working deftly on my hair to produce two long (and I mean long - they came down to my knees) plaits on either side of the back of my head. Every single day of my school life, she had braided my hair using the same motions I did with my own daughter.
My daughter's plaits turned out great, and for the first time since I became a mother, it occurred to me that hair - and all the things we do to it - is such an integral part of life in India, especially in the life of a child, especially during the time my brother and I were growing up. There are daily rituals, weekly rituals, rituals that take place perhaps once or twice in a lifetime.
The daily rituals first. There was the oiling of hair. Every. Single. Morning. Coconut oil applied scalp to hair-ends and massaged in until not a strand was left uncovered, the constant movement of finger tips in your hair producing the kind of stupor that renders you putty in your mom's hands. Following the oiling, my brother got about five minutes of combing. Cow licks would be coaxed down towards the head with repeated patting, partitions drawn ramrod straight and cleared of hair trying to cross over the line.
I got about fifteen minutes. First came the combing. My head would be pulled back so my mom, sitting behind me, could see the hairline on my forehead and run the comb all the way through my hair to the tips. After about fifty strokes would come the braiding. My mom had a special trick - she would weave my plaits out of five separate strands, producing a stronger braid that did not loosen even a little bit during school. My hair was long enough that the plaits had to be folded up and secured at the top with ribbons according to the school dress code.
Weekly rituals took the form of the 'head bath' every Sunday. More oil, this time castor oil (no, not the kind you put in cars, thankfully, but equally sticky and heavy). We had to let it soak in for at least an hour before it would be washed away with seegekaayi, a brown-colored powder, and conditioned with a slimy concoction made of powdered leaves (chigaré pudi) mixed with water that left our hair shiny and silky. It really did, but it also managed to get in our eyes.
So Sunday afternoons were spent with blood-shot eyes and with hair banished of all traces of oil but smelling of leaves and nuts.
Summer holidays brought rituals of their own, although thankfully it was not every summer. One that I know nearly every South Indian Hindu family savors is the moggina jadé (literally braiding hair with flowers) tradition.
On the day I had mine made up, many summers ago in my ajji's (my maternal grandmother) house in Mysore, I remember her veranda being a beehive of activity. She had already been to the market that afternoon to get the freshest flowers she could lay her hands on - jasmine buds, jasmine blooms, jaaji flowers and the white insides of a banana plant. A couple of days before she'd already readied the colored threads, sticks of various lengths and thicknesses, hair pins, and the jewellery that she would use to decorate my hair.
My grandmother's very capable fingers gently but firmly threaded the jasmine buds onto one semi-circular sheath of the banana shoot which she had cut to match the length of my hair. Slowly but surely the flowers filled the entire surface of the banana shoot. With the help of two girls who were learning art and craft from her, my grandmother strung the rest of the flowers into braids of their own with the help of some thread. When it was all done, the flowers formed a neat, colorful pattern. Then she weaved the colored threads around the now flower-covered banana shoot to add an interesting layer of color.
By then my mother had already braided my hair into a single plait falling down my back. They sat me down on a stool and went to work. With a whole lot of pins and black ribbons, they managed to get all of their art work onto my hair and this was the result.
We hot-footed it to a studio in the city before the flowers wilted. If you looked at that picture and noticed how the shoulders are hunched, you join a long line of very observant people. But in my defense, let me say that all the stuff on my hair was heavy. Very. My shoulders just sagged under the weight. So there.
These days, the moggine jadés are available ready made in flower shops in the markets, but watching it take shape right in front of my eyes was quite something else.
I asked my mom a couple of days ago why we did that - why we went through this elaborate process and took a photo at the end of it. She said it was a great way to keep the children occupied during the summer holidays and what better avenue for grandmothers to practice their craft than on their own grandchildren! Summer was also the time my grandmother worked on a lot of craft made of cotton and colorful foil paper. She conjured up beautiful garlands and other decorative items out of them and she would use them during the many festivals of the year. She employed us grand kids as gluers of all manner of shiny things on to the cotton.
The one other ritual most Hindu families follow is the shaving of the head. This has more of a religious flavor than cultural. According to custom, the child who has just turned two (i.e., during the third year) is taken to the temple of the family deity (this is one temple that the family tries to visit at least once a year, no matter how far it is from their hometowns) and the hair is shaved off as an offering to god and as a token of gratitude for the birth of a child. In most families, this custom is followed only for the boys, but some families get it done for the girls as well.
And so, finally, we come to this photo. Because the hair is not cut at all before it is shaved off at the temple, by the time the boys turn three it is very likely they'll have grown curly, shiny locks that would put any girl's to shame. Once the hair is shaved off and it grows back, regular haircuts become the norm. So mothers and the other women folk in the family see a golden window of opportunity - the one chance to properly dress up their darling boys as girls and acquire photographic evidence of their madness and the boys' utter helplessness.
I agree. Very, very cute! I'll be sure to tell him you said so.
Related Post: Grandmother Stories.
Updated (Oct 13, 09) to add a link to my post about traditional baby baths in India.