An extract from Losing Amma, Finding Home: A Memoir About Love, Loss And Life’s Detours by Uma Girish
This was a conversation I’d been dreading, but it was time. Amma’s scalp was now bald in places; what was left of her hair clung to her head in ugly black knots.
“Amma,” I started, tentative and tense. “Your hair…what do you think of…shall we get it done at Green Trends?”
“I don’t want to go to Green Trends,” my mild-mannered mother responded with a determination that was completely out of character.
Green Trends was a salon right around the corner from Amma’s house, a convenient location for an unpleasant job. Especially because Beauty & Grace—Amma’s regular salon—was unwilling to handle the task of tonsure.
“Can I get it done…here?” Amma’s voice was soft, unsure.
“I can find out. Let me call them.”
I picked up the phone, pondering how to phrase my strange request, then decided against it. “Actually, I’ll just walk over and ask if they’ll send someone home.”
My conversation with the manager at Green Trends did not get off to the best start. This was an unusual request, one they didn’t often receive. After the initial hemming and hawing, she agreed to send a barber home, albeit at an exorbitant price. I didn’t care. I was willing to do anything to protect Amma from the humiliation of a public tonsure. The heartbreaking scene played out in my head: a green-uniformed hairdresser wielding her clippers and snip-snip-snipping away while customers getting fancy perms and pedicures gawked shamelessly.
The day before the tonsure, my aunt called. Bag all your hair and save it, she told Amma. You can send the hair to Tirupati. All devotees who visited this holy shrine in southern India—male and female—made a special offering of their hair, a gift to the presiding deity.
Amma welcomed the suggestion as if it were divine intervention itself. I could tell it eased some of her anxiety surrounding the tonsure.
It’s not that Amma had the best-looking head of hair in town, but it was her hair. Waist-length hair she’d nourished and nurtured with coconut and hibiscus oils, and adorned with sweet-smelling strings of jasmine. On auspicious festival days, she’d washed her hair before she embarked on an elaborate puja at her altar, convinced that the gods, impressed by her purity and piety, would double their blessings.
Gently, I unraveled the childhood memories tangled with Amma’s hair: I saw the mother of my childhood emerge from the bathroom, her wet and fragrant hair wrapped in a soft white cotton mundu or towel. She’d finger-comb it first, run the wide-toothed side of the comb from top to bottom, air dry, and braid it. I loved to watch this ritual, lying on the couch. The flowers she tucked into her hair breathed the scents that perfumed our home.
I was not ready for this, the tonsure.
Hair is a woman’s crowning glory. To Indian women, especially those that grew up in the 1940’s and 1950’s, hair often had the power to make or break a marriage deal. Many a marriage alliance had been sealed on the length, texture and beauty of a bride-to-be’s hair.
There was a flip side to it, a significant truth of tradition I was conscious of. An Indian woman’s head was only shaved when she became a widow. Growing up in conservative times, Amma, as a young girl, had witnessed the fate of other girls in their teens or early twenties whose husbands died of either snakebite or a fatal illness. It was real to her, the heartrending ceremony where these young girls were stripped of their bridal finery, clothed in widow’s white, and their heads tonsured. Thankfully, education and the changing status of women have ensured the cruel custom is not as rampant; yet, for an Indian woman loss of hair comes with a clutch of negative connotations. I was aware that the superstition was a huge hurdle for Amma.
Knowing my mother as well as I did, it was easy to guess the one thought that would prey on her mind: what if Appa’s health took a turn for the worse after her tonsure?
To a woman steeped in traditional values—as Amma was—the imminent head-shaving was a portent, one that foreboded a distinctly unpleasant outcome.
Amma chose to have the tonsure in the privacy of her bedroom, so I moved the beds around to create enough room. Next, I spread old newspaper sheets all over the tiled floor and set a chair in the middle. The power was off; the fans silent; the air inside the room, still and heavy. As I fanned her with a newspaper, the irony struck me: we were waiting for the hairdresser to arrive.
Appa had been temporarily shifted to the living room because she didn’t want him to witness this act of indignity.
Minutes later, we were set: the three players—Amma, the barber, and I.
I tensed as I saw her body tremble, eyes shut tight, lips moving in silent prayer. It broke my heart, watching her work so hard at being brave. Tears stung my eyes, but I swallowed them, loath to cry. I needed to be the strong, supportive daughter.
The young man squirted a cloud of white foam and slathered it over her scalp with clinical detachment. Then, carefully using a blade he started to shave her hair off. Hair that had been lovingly groomed over sixty-eight years now fell to the floor in thick knotted clumps, a messy, foam-smothered heap. Parts of naked scalp began to emerge…faster and faster, the hair fell…and moments later, it was all gone.
Amma looked like a newborn. On the floor was dead hair.