It’s Not Just Hair

Udaipur City Palace

“Papa, hurry up, we’ll be late!” I coaxed him along catching his eye in the mirror trying to rush him to his 80th birthday celebration.

“Coming, coming.” Came an exasperated answer from my pant-less father battling his soft downy hair at the crown of his head. He had always looked impeccable, an old-world elegance he maintained with pride.

A hint of cold enveloped the early dusk that December night in 2012. Papa would celebrate his milestone surrounded by his wife of 60 years, four doting daughters and their families in Udaipur, Rajasthan. It had been his wish to visit this city, which he’d never seen despite his vast travels across India and abroad.

“Put some water on it, or do you want some hair gel?” I asked, grabbing his pants off the chair and handing them to him. He had taken to walking about in his boxers of late, unabashed at any embarrassment he may cause his grown daughters.

“No, I tried water and pomade already, the barber cut my hair too short on the top, these young barbers don’t have the skill anymore.” Taking the pants from my arms he precariously did the flamingo, old skinny legs pushing their way into his comfy pants.

Defiantly his otherwise beautiful hair refused to comply.

Perhaps celebrating the milestone as well waving their silvery flags.

“It’s fine Papa, plus you’ll wear your hat since it’s cold.” I watched him tuck his shirt in and reach for his belt. Pleased that he had a full head of hair.

Papa and I shared our hairstyles; we both wore it short, or rather I wore mine like his. Always had, except for a few years in my late teens after I stopped sharing his barber and had equated being more feminine to having longer hair.

I can still remember my routine haircuts at around 8 years old.

father and daughter
Circa 1984…

“Suman, the barber has come.” Mummy called.

“Coming” I reluctantly turned the top corner of the page, closed my book, pushed myself off the shelf where I’d been reading the latest Tintin.

“Hello, Idris.” Papa greeted his barber, coming out into the verandah with me to supervise my haircut and make small talk.

Idris was not only Papa’s barber but also his tenant. I’d sometimes visit him for trims if Papa took me to his office. But most times, he obliged us and came home when all of us cousins got our haircuts. It was just more efficient.

“Namaste sir. Hello beta. Come sit up here.” Idris greeted the two of us, calling me by the common title given to all children in India, while pointing to the high chair mummy had had set up.

Idris had white hair and a dark moustache, I found that contrast very striking, not sure how that was possible. I observed him layout his tools as I shrugged on the shiny plastic cape around my small body and he secured it around my neck.

“Keep your back straight beta.” Idris reminded me to unfold my body from the unconscious curling in anticipation of the wetness from his spray bottle soaking all the way through to my scalp and forming a cold trickle down my neck.

“Boy cut sir?” Idris asked Papa his preference for the length of my hair. I watched my little cousins watch us, lining up for their cuts after mine.

“Yes, she’s my son, cut it short.” Papa responded half jokingly; pride swelling my chest being given that special place in his world.

A world completely distorted 2 years after his 80th birthday. A brain stem infarct imploded us all into an alternative realm.

My life’s supervisor needed supervision for life.

Younger days…

“Pa, remember all the times we got our haircuts from Idris?” I reminisced with Papa one Sunday morning as I brought him his chai, and waited for the nurse to prop him up in bed.

“Today is Sunday Pa, you’ll get your shave and shampoo. I think your hair needs to be trimmed. Would you like that?” I asked stroking away soft hair from his forehead and adjusted the napkin under his chin to catch any dribble as I spooned chai into his open mouth.

He nodded yes. Blinking at me with a smile. A smile that reached his eyes that morning.

At sunrise on a clear monsoon Sunday, the 772nd morning after his stroke, Papa shrugged off his tired body. As part of the Hindu ritual, all the men in our family cut their hair to mark his passing.

Albeit Idris did not cut my hair this time, but it was shorter than usual.

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