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My Grandmothers’ Braids

Simple hair rituals are an important expression of self-care for the women in my family

Illustration: HERIKITA

MyMy 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 taking short naps in the afternoon were the only times they took out to tend to themselves, to take care of their bodies. Of course, they didn’t acknowledge it as self-care, but now, in retrospect, it was probably the most authentic form of self-love these women could practice within their social and familial contexts. As Audre Lorde most famously said, acts that aid self-preservation are inherently political because they help preserve the strength with which we, as women, fight our everyday battles: in workplaces, in kitchens, across borders, and across countries.

WWhen I was about 3 or 4 my mother would sometimes leave me at her sister’s house. My aunt’s mother-in-law, a stern-looking old lady, would often babysit me. While I can’t quite remember what she was like, I remember her combing ritual very clearly. She would sit cross-legged on her bed and start combing her hair upwards — first the right side, then the left, then the center. One hand worked the comb while the other held all the hair, tighter with each sweep of the comb. Just when I thought she had gathered all her hair in, she would repeat the process. Right, left, center. The comb ran through her hair over and over again, held tight within her wrinkled fingers. As I stared at her, she would sometimes smile. Perhaps out of a happiness that comes when, after a whole life of rationing out time, you finally have enough of it to sit back and feel the tingle of a comb as it dances on your scalp. In one swift, nimble twist, she’d tie it all in a high bun and proceed to take her nap. Bathed in the second-hand comfort of her little routine, I’d fall asleep too.

She would walk towards her room, energized by the brief moment of love she had chosen to reward herself with, overjoyed with the gift of time she gave herself.

Every evening before the sun went down, my maternal grandmother would take a quick shower and sit by our window, basking in a pool of dusk. Her fingers would quickly undo her long plait as her eyes would follow the passing traffic on the street outside. A face bogged down by the toils of the day would suddenly bloom against the setting sun and city traffic. Her fingers moved quickly, almost involuntarily, as she wove her hair back into a neat plait tied together with a tassel in the end. She would walk toward her room, energized by the brief moment of love she had chosen to reward herself with, overjoyed with the gift of time she gave herself.

Sometimes when my mother is sitting on our couch, and I go sit between her legs on the floor, she heats some coconut oil in a little bowl. I don’t see it because I don’t face her but I know when she touches the hot oil and lightly spreads it all over her palms. She lightly rubs these palms on the top of my head, gradually moving towards the ends of my hair. She dips her fingertips into the little bowl and traces the parting of my hair with them as little drops of oil trickle all the way down my back. While she talks to me of this and that, she weaves my hair into a plait, sometimes a French braid, as exquisite and detailed as the stories she fills our fleeting moments together with.

I’d like to believe this is how women win wars, that this is how we learn to live and love. We do this because woman after woman lets their wisdom drip off their fingertips and enter our skins and beings. It is because we see women who give themselves time that we learn to give ourselves time: time to heal, time to nourish, time to sleep so that we can wake up, in the words of Rosa Luxemburg, happy for battle.

Proud immigrant watching a lot of films, drinking a lot of tea and getting the job done.

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