I am currently listening to an audiobook – Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri. I won’t go into the actual content – I’d highly recommend reading/listening to it yourself. I would say it is *essential* reading. So, put it on your TBR list. Anyway, there’s a lot in the book about the importance of hair as it pertains to traditions and families that really made me miss home. Like, REALLY miss them!
I grew up in a culture where haircare was a full family affair. Every Sunday, we’d sit around the living room, warm up some coconut oil and take care of our hair – massaging each other’s scalps with some good old Parachute while dishing up some hot gossip and a lot of banter. We were city folk and so coconut oil in plastic bottles was our go-to oil. Later on, we graduated to coconut oil harvested by my uncle in his farm in Kerala. Every six months, we’d get massive bottles of cold-pressed pure coconut oil and honey from any one of my 18 uncles and aunties from my dad’s side who would visit us in Bangalore.
In adulthood, I have learnt that these champi scenes are usually limited to the lady folk of the house and the little kids. But in our family, we all joined in.
While our dad made up some song about tel malish (oil massage) and sang it to us in his off-key voice, the rest of us donned a homemade face mask – usually made from besan mixed with turmeric and rose water. If there was left over oil, we would moisturise each other’s back with it. If it was the summer, my mum would save some papaya or melon so we could have a “fruit pack”. We would luxuriate the whole morning, then go for a hot bucket bath (sometimes with water soaked in neem or eucalyptus leaves). We’d then have an afternoon nap and reconvene in the evenings to have some chai or kaapi, freshly made snacks, and a cheesy movie in a local language.
It’s funny to think that there was once a time when time wasn’t money. Back then, an afternoon spent indulging in that sense of community and self-care was not seen as a waste of time. Then tragedy struck. Like with all such coming-of-age stories, I was suddenly a teenager in the 00s – a time when we were all too cool for such “trivial cultural pursuits”.
As the world opened up to me in the shows I watched, in the books I read, in the company I kept, and time I spent on the world wide web, I shut off everything that wasn’t mainstream in those spaces. I started to steer clear of the roles society wanted me to fulfil as an Indian woman. To my teenage self, this meant moving away from all things “feminine” and “Indian”, and buying into this idea that since there was limited time, I should be spending it on things that didn’t matter. And so, my haircare became a solo endeavour = whatever took the least amount of time and effort.
Then, 2007 happened. I was living in France with a community of young women from all over the world. We worked Monday-Saturdays, but Sunday was our day. I suddenly found myself watching my black and brown friends doing their hair rituals by themselves in our communal living room. I was lonely and really craving family. And so, I offered to help. Soon, it became our new ritual to wear our oldest, most tattered clothes (we wouldn’t let our Sunday best be ruined by oil). There was no coconut oil but we had access to baby oil which worked just as well. I helped take out braids and comb out natural hair. They helped massage my dry and neglected scalp. We made packet Tom Yum soups, wore kitenges, blasted Bollywood music, and became each other’s therapists.
It lasted for as long as I lived in France, until
capitalism real life beckoned.
Then I fled to Tanzania where the same thing happened again – I boldly offered to help just so I’d be adopted into their hair families. It is a feeling and experience unlike any other. Including that one time when they convinced me it was a good idea for me to let them braid my hair. They took 6 hours to braid my “too silky” hair into tiny braids, and it took my whole family (including the kids) 6 hours to get the braids out.
This communal hair story is now a thing reserved just for special occasions – like when I am ill and needed my mommy, or when I visit home after a long stint abroad, or when the whole family comes together from all over the world and gathers in the same room. Partners who become part of my family are also not exempt from this hair story. But only if you can change into the right clothes for it 😀
THIS is our love language. This, and food.
Listening to Emma made me really nostalgic for those good times when you could let the worries of the world slide by and bask in the company of people you love. Now that I have niblings, I long to re-create this sense of family that my mum and elder sister create for me every time I go back home.
Normalise spending hours taking care of each other. That’s all I have to say about that!