I was a twelve year old girl, and had just started Class 8. It was that precarious age when I was not quite a teenager, and no longer part of the kiddie crowd. And appearances were just starting to matter.
"Amma, pull it tighter... tighter... tighter", I whined as my mother braided my long, thick, stubbornly curly hair into two plaits running down my back.
"Any tighter that this, and I'll be pulling your hair out by the handfulls", Amma chuckled.
Of course, her giggle made me even more irritated. Once she was done tying the braids up with ribbons, I slid eight hairpins into my head just to hold it all tighter. Somehow I had got the notion that it was important that not a single hair should be out of place.
Amma nicknamed me "The Pincushion" because my head was bristling with hairpins. But I was happy, because my hair was perfectly braided, my plaits were long and thick, and they brushed softly against my back with every step I took.
This was a ritual every morning at the breakfast table, right before the school bus arrived. I would give Amma a quick kiss and my sister and I would run down to the bus-stop.
The Softest Touch
One day, my grandmother arrived to spend a few weeks with us. We adored Paati ('Grandma' in Tamil). She pampered us to bits. She cooked divinely, told the most wonderful stories and she had the softest, gentlest touch. Every night, she would put my head in her lap, and caress my head tenderly with her cool, loving hand. Her touch was enough to send me on a peaceful trip to dreamland.
One morning, I was sitting at the breakfast table, gulping down my cornflakes and waiting impatiently for Amma to do my hair. Instead, I felt Paati's soft hands on my head. I turned back and found Paati holding a comb, eager to braid my hair.
Now, before judging me, remember I was a twelve-year-old, and like all children that age, I was a bit of a pompous ass. I knew right then that it was going to be a difficult morning for everyone. Paati slowly ran the comb through my hair, gently untangling the knots with her fingers, brushing the hair-ends meticulously to a shine. And she hadn't even started braiding my hair yet.
I tapped my foot impatiently, and Paati must have sensed my barely-subdued irritation. "What happened? Am I pulling your hair? Does it hurt?"
"No Paati. It's just that you're a bit slow and the bus will be coming any time now."
"Oh, okay... I'll go as fast as I can then." She parted my hair in two, and started braiding one section. It was exactly as I feared. Too loose.
"Tighter, Paati, tighter".
"Tiiiiiggggghhhhtttteeerrrr" I whined, just short of letting my irritation show in my voice.
"I'm trying, kanna".
"Maybe Amma should do it today, and when I come back from school, you can redo it for me."
Paati looked disappointed. But she still smiled and patted my head. "Sure thing. Let me get your Amma."
Amma came and she did not look pleased. She quickly did my hair, pulling a little tighter than usual, finished it with a sarcastic "Tight enough for you?" and left before I could kiss her goodbye.
I felt guilty. I knew I'd probably hurt Paati's feelings. I resolved to make it up to her in the evening after school. She loved oiling my hair, and even though I hated oil on my head, I'd do it for her.
Kabhi Khushi, Kabhi Gum
School is a difficult place for a kid at times. Knowingly or unknowingly, children can be very cruel to each other. It so happened that this one particular girl and her clique of show-offs were jealous of my long, thick hair. And that day, they decided to put their evil plan into action.
One of them walked behind me on the way back from morning assembly. At one point, she shoved me against a wall. I was scared of that group, they were bullies and their taunts hurt. So I didn't say anything, As I tried to resume walking, I found to my horror that one braid was stuck to the wall. Chewing gum.
I cried and cried when my teacher had to cut part of my plait off to free my hair. It was a sordid mixture of embarrassment, shame, helpless rage and unbelievable sadness. I knew I'd have to cut my hair short now.
When I came home that evening from my trip to the salon, everyone was even kinder to me than usual. My sister let me have the first choice of all snacks and food, Amma gave me an extra tight hug, Appa let me help him with the Daily Crossword and Paati made my favourite dish for dinner.
That night, I cried with my head on Paati's lap. She didn't say a word, just caressed my freshly cut, short hair. Bit by bit, I calmed down. Her soft, gentle touch worked its magic again.
Grandma Knows Best
The next few days, I was doused in misery. I was still hurting from the humilation of having my hair chopped in full view of my classmates, and I missed having my plaits brush reassuringly against my back when I walked.
Paati sat me down and spoke to me one day. "Kanna, you cannot stay down like this. Your hair will grow back, I'll make sure of it. But you are growing up too, my dear, and you will face many more ups and downs in life. You must learn how to put your sad times behind you and create happiness for yourself. Know this always, your family will always be with you. We will love you with short hair, long hair, even no hair if you choose to shave your head some day. But what you really need to do is love yourself."
Paati put me on a strict hair care regimen. Regular oiling, special herbal concoctions for washing and conditioning, and gentle brushing to detangle my hair and keep it soft and shiny. Paati would meticulously massage my scalp with her soft fingers, comb my hair patiently and stroke my head lovingly.
Every morning, it would be Paati, not Amma, who would brush my hair to a blinding shine before school. She took it upon herself to make sure the bullies didn't get a single chance to gloat about my hair.
Meanwhile, with Paati's sage advice, I learnt to stand up to the mean girls. I even took to defending other classmates who were being tormented by them. Very soon, I found out that when opposed, they had no legs to stand on and backed off quickly. With many others speaking out against them, the leader of the group was suspended and she changed schools. The other mean girls disbanded quietly.
In a very short time, my hair was starting to grow visibly longer. By the time Paati's visit came to an end, I was able to braid my hair again, albeit in two very short plaits.
By continuing with her regimen, it wasn't long before my tresses reached their previous length, and were even more thick and soft than before. Once again, I was comforted by the soothing sweep of my braids against my back.
Paati passed away some years ago, but her words and wisdom have stayed on with me. And the caress of my braid-ends against my skin remind me of her loving touch.
In my busy life today, I don't have the time to pamper my hair the way Paati used to, or the expertise to create her homemade shampoo. Thankfully, there are Hair Rescue Systems to take care of my hair for me.
And Paati took care of my growing-up for me. "What you really need to do is love yourself."
This post is part of the Beautiful Ends to Your Beautiful Braids! Contest on Indiblogger.in, in collaboration with Dove Split Ends Rescue System.
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You might also like my other entry : Beautiful Ends (55-Fiction)