I wanted a hot cup of chai, so we stopped at my usual lady's shop, said hi to the lady, her grand-daughter and a neighbour's kid called Monica, and had chai and biscuits (in keeping with its being a nature expedition, I bought...Tiger biscuits!) and while we were munching and sipping, I looked into the house opposite...and caught this lovely vignette.
I don't know if the photograph is clear enough...but it shows one woman ready to comb out and plait another's hair.
This habit of sitting for a relaxed few minutes while someone else combs out and plaits your hair seems to have all but disappeared in today's fast-paced world...I instantly thought back to the days when I had hair that I could sit on. (Really. I have a photograph to prove it.)
My mother would sit me down in front of her and the part I totally hated was that she would pour on the hair oil (coconut oil). I always detested the greasy mess it made of my hair...and I think my life-long preference for very short hair stems from this dislike.
But...it was very relaxing to have her gently comb out my hair (except for the odd "ouch" when the comb got caught in a tangle)...and there was one style of plaiting, called, in Tamizh, "kodalai pinnal", which was very much admired by my Bengali friends. (Alas, it would be done only when I'd had an "oil bath" and needed to get my hair dry.) There were also plaits with 5 strands rather than the usual 3, and the French plaits..and when I had two plaits, I had "Y" plaits where the two plaits would be joined together, and a "W" plait where that "Y" was looped back and tied to the top of one plait with a ribbon...and of course the regular two-folded plaits as my hair was too long, even plaited, to be let to hang down.
The difficulty, of course, was that it was my mother who would decide how much of oil would go into my hair, and what style of plait I would have....and I actually treasured the moment when she started letting me plait my own hair. To me, it was one of the signs of growing up...how little I knew of adulthood, to think that plaiting my own hair was entry into this state!
Loose hair was totally looked down upon. "parattai thalai" (unkempt hair) was the very epitome of bad grooming! It was a well-knnow fact that Bengali women and girls let their hair loose, and the words "parattai thalai" was often amended to "parattai thalaiyum, bangALa vEshamum" (unkempt hair, with the looks of a Bengali).
No loose plaits were allowed, either. The hair was tightly scraped back and tied into tight, severe plaits....and finished off with ribbons. T
The ribbons would get greasy, too, and had to be washed. I had to come for "thalai pinnal" ..plaiting the hair...with a large-toothed comb to detangle it, a fine-toothed comb to give the final neat appearance, and ribbons that matched my clothes.
What I loved about others' caring for my hair was, visits to Chennai to my grandmother's house, where the maid would oil my hair thoroughly every Friday, and wash it out beautifully with hot water and shikAkAi powder (soapnut powder).
Then my hair would be spread over a basket set over a mud vessel in which "sAmbrANi" (a kind of resin, I think) would be smoked...the hair would dry and get the delicate smell of the sAmbrANi
And after that, my hair would be silky and smooth and fragrant and would frame my face...and for those few hours (until the next morning's oiling and plaiting!) it was worth it to have long hair!