When I think about it, some of the things that are so ubiquitous now, would have made my childhood and my youth much easier to get through.
The first thing I can think of is conditioner. As a child I was blessed (in my mind I was cursed) with very long and shiny reddish-brown hair. It might have seemed beautiful and enviable to others. Indeed I received many admiring stares and compliments from strange women on the street and the strangest questions. Some asked me how I had managed to grow it so long and some wanted to know how I took care of it. Occasionally someone would ask if it was real. As the saying goes, it was so long that I could sit on it. It even earned me a role as Bharat Mata in a drama presented by the children of our colony. I was content to stand in the background unmoving and holding the national flag, as long as I was not asked to speak any lines. I wore my mother’s only silk saree – at the age of eleven – and my hair was left loose. That was the image of Bharat Mata that everyone has always had. Later my mother was asked to remove the evil eye cast on my hair by the comments of the audience.
But my hair was a great source of distress to me because neither my mother nor I had any idea of how to care for it. My mother should bear the greater guilt because I did not have any say in what was done to my hair. She would oil it every week and indeed every day and initially would wash it herself with a handful of shikakai powder. It would take at least two handfuls and two washes to get even half the oil out. My hair would then lie wet and still oily in a mass of knots and tangles that my mother would grab and tug and pull, in her effort to comb it and plait it. Each such session left me sobbing and whimpering in pain. Any loud crying would fetch me a few slaps so I knew better than to make any loud protest. By the time I was ten I think, my mother abandoned me to my hair, and I was lucky I never looked into the mirror to know how dreadful I might have looked hairwise. I managed the best I could before I learnt how to comb out the tangles without too much pain. But my plait was always a little crooked and not as well-done as my friends’ I think. I would have dearly loved to get my hair cut in a fashionable style, but it was unthinkable for a Tamil Iyer girl in those days. Even a little snipping of the ends would have been noticed and dire punishment meted out.
In my teens I managed to cajole my father into buying me a bottle of shampoo which made it easier to wash my hair but made it also dry and blowaway, It was even harder to comb but I much preferred this windblown look to my earlier gunky one. Shampoo was taboo in our old-fashioned families and so it was even more precious to me and I jealously guarded my bottle of Halo Egg Shampoo. There were few brands to choose from.
The first time I heard of conditioner was in the late nineties when my cousin came home from the US to get married and brought me a bottle of conditioner among other things. It was still unheard of in India. Now we have as many brands and varieties of shampoos and conditioners, some of them leave-in, some rinse-out, as one can find in any other country.
Today, as I look at the various bottles in my bathroom, I wish I could go back in time and fill my childhood with all of them. I would have been a much more glamorous teenager with gorgeous hair.