My paternal grandmother had a head full of thick, almost all-black hair, so much hair that she could barely ever leave it loose. Her hairline extended to her temples and to the nape of her neck, and her hair grew to her waist. Whenever I try remembering her now, almost seven years after her passing, I remember her big unruly bun weighing down her head a little. I had almost forgotten how, a few years before she moved cities for the final time, from a small northeastern Indian town to a big bustling eastern city, my mother and aunt spread newspapers all over the floor of my grandparents’ living room. My grandmother sat on a stool while my aunt and my mother cut her hair down to her shoulders. Clumps of hair fell on the newspapers, eclipsing all the old headlines. They used four pairs of scissors and when even that wouldn’t suffice, the women used a razor. My mother still talks about the unnatural amount of hair my grandmother had.
Both my grandmothers came into what is now India when governments decided to draw and redraw borders. They were women who raised homes, children, and families in a country, then packed it all up in boxes before setting foot on the new land they were expected to call home. The unpacking took years: the boxes first, then the husbands, then the children, then life. It took so long that there was hardly any time to unpack their own selves, their own lives. There were meals that had to be cooked, beds that had to be made, and households that had to be run. Self-care, as we know it in the West, was never a part of the vocabulary of the women in my family. Taking time off for oneself was not only considered vain, but also taken to be a sign of an irresponsible homemaker — the assumption being that a woman’s time was only put to good use when she spent it caring for everyone but herself.
Taking time off for oneself was not only considered vain, but also a sign of an irresponsible homemaker.
As children of immigrants, we grow up being taught to be productive every minute, to be of use all the time. I truly believe that the bit of time my grandmothers spent tying their hair and…