One of the hardest things I’ve ever done is watch my mother’s head being shaved.
After her third chemotherapy session, Amma lost a zip lock bag full of hair. It seemed to come off her scalp as she finger-combed it. Strangely, Amma’s hair didn’t fall off in clumps as I was led to believe from movies watched and books read. She didn’t wake up to a pillowcase littered with hair. In fact, her hair became one awful, knotted, tangled mess. If you’ve seen what
a Hindu sadhu’s (the godly men in saffron robes) matted locks looks like,
you have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about. It got to a stage
where Amma couldn’t wash her hair or even run a comb through it. Soon bald
spots started to appear on her scalp as parts of hair simply disintegrated.
“Just take the whole thing off. Get her to a beauty salon and they’ll do
it,” her oncologist suggested in a measured voice. My usually mild-mannered
and amenable mother baulked at the very idea. Go to a salon and have other
women watch the spectacle!? No way. So I did the next best thing I could: I
had a barber come home.
It wasn’t as if Amma had the best-looking head of hair but it
was her hair; hair that she’d grown, brushed and nurtured with warm,
fragrant coconut oil and decorated with strands of sweet-smelling jasmine.
It was hair that came down to her waist, hair she was proud of. On
auspicious days she never failed to wash it before she performed her puja so
the gods would be sure to bless her. Many childhood memories of mine are
images of her wet hair wrapped in a soft, cotton towel, like a bun on the
back of her head, as she moved about the house doing her chores. I remember
watching her brush her hair carefully, braid it and tuck those precious
flowers which perfumed our house.
And now it was all going to come off.
Ask a woman in any part of the world and she’ll tell you how much she values
her hair. Ask an Indian woman and she’ll tell you it is her crowning glory.
Many a marriage alliance has been sealed on the length, texture and
decorative aspects of a woman’s hair. The hair Amma had lovingly nurtured
all her adult life was about to be shaved off her head. I didn’t even want
to think about how Amma was going to deal with it. In the olden days, the
only time an Indian woman’s head was shaved was when her husband died and
she was left behind, the unfortunate widow. Fortunately, this barbaric
practice was abolished along with many other eminently forgettable customs.
But the memories and connotations associated with it have lived on. Amma
had, as a young girl, watched this happen to other women in her neighborhood
and her family and was superstitious about it. After all, Appa had been in
very frail health for almost fifteen years following a road accident and had
miraculously survived many trips to the hospital. To a woman who had grown
up with traditional values, the imminent head-shaving was some kind of a
I felt her acute sense of discomfort as I watched her lips move in silent
prayer, her eyes shut tight. Watching her being so brave nearly broke my
heart. I swallowed the tears that threatened to choke me. I had to stay
strong for her.
I spread old newspaper sheets all over an expanse of tiled floor and set a
chair in the middle of it for mom to sit in. It was just Amma, me and the
barber now. She didn’t even want Appa in the room, no witness to this act of
The barber covered her head in white foam. And then, using a blade, he
literally started to scrape her hair off. As she chanted, the hair fell in
thick knotted clumps. Groomed with love and care over sixty-eight years, it
now lay in an ugly, messy, foam-smothered heap. Parts of her naked scalp
began to emerge. Faster and faster it fell…and within minutes, it was all
The entire operation lasted fifteen minutes but it was the longest fifteen
minutes of amma’s life as she sat in that chair, her body shaking with
nervousness. When all the hair had come off, I wasted no time in gathering
it off the newspaper sheets and bagging it. I picked out a silk scarf,
covered her scalp and knotted it at the nape of her neck.
And then my aunt had an idea which, to Amma, was like a thirsty man
discovering an oasis. She suggested that we collect all the hair that came
off and bag it. This bag could then be sent to Tirupati a holy shrine in
southern India visited by female devotees from all corners of the country to
offer their hair.
From that day on, Amma never let anyone see her without that scarf on her
head. Not even her daughters. Losing her hair was like losing an intimate
part of herself. It was probably more. She never recovered from the
indignity it imposed on her although she smiled through it all and didn’t
let this stop her from going out or meeting people.
When she died, they had taken that scarf off. By the time my flight got to
Chennai from Chicago half the world had seen the two-inch white stubble that
sprouted from her scalp. Of one thing I am sure. She would have died before
letting anyone see her like that.
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