“Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”

I’m so very delighted that my essay on femininity, fashion and exile, “Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”, from the anthology Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories (HarperCollins India/Hardie Grant Australia), has been republished in The Ladies Finger. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

The Venus Flytrap: Touché ‘Tache

When Salvador Dali appeared on the 1950’s American TV game show “What’s My Line”, in which a blindfolded panel deduced the professions of mystery guests based on a series of yes/no questions, he was correctly identified by a suggestion one panelist made to another: “ask if he could use his moustache to paint?”

Historically, moustaches symbolized both masculinity and various types of power in many cultures – from the warrior deity Parthasarathy (the only depiction of a Vishnu with whiskers), to Western intellectual elites from Nietzsche to Einstein, the examples are numerous. During the 20th century, they were sported by artists who represented a sort of hypervirility, including Freddy Mercury, Jimi Hendrix and Tom Selleck. The world’s most famous living lady with a beard, the striking circus artist and professor Jennifer Miller, wears hers proudly, saying, “It goes all the way back to Samson and his big mane of power. That’s why men don’t want women to have too much of it in too many places. So, here I am, a gal with a beard, prancing around the streets of New York.”

But does facial fuzz really have the kind of currency it used to? As one website put it, “moustaches are now the style equivalent of wearing a polyester leisure suit on your upper lip”.

It’s not that people don’t have moustaches anymore, or that those who possess them no longer take them seriously, as a walk down any Indian street will tell you – it’s that they’re no longer sexy in the popular imagination. Sure, a Johnny Depp goatee or some George Clooney scruff still warrants a second glance, but full-fledged whiskers are mostly the stuff of caricature.

In the past, emphasizing gender extremes, from rib-crushingly cinched waists in women to the bulging codpieces of Crete and medieval England, was fashionable. Today, trends veer toward something more androgynous – and bless androgyny for what how it frees us, but I wouldn’t mind being blessed, or rather brushed, with some serious bristles now and then! Has the fundamental sleaziness of the hairy face, with all it implies, lost its semi-subversive appeal? Look to typical old pop culture stereotypes: the baddie is bearded, the hero babyfaced. And who doesn’t secretly want the bad guy, with his swagger and his moustache twirl?

I don’t think I’ve ever actually wanted to have a moustache or beard, in spite of the many male accoutrements I have envied, so unlike Jennifer Miller, my contribution to a face fur revival is much smaller. I’ve invented an emoticon that hopefully conveys a sense of the yesteryear hotness of the whiskered man (or woman). I leave it to your imagination: :-{P.

The truth is, though, that my personal favourite story about facial hair relates to its absence. A Caucasian man, the type who probably thought it was enlightened of him to consider the question, once asked me how evil white people are portrayed in Indian comic books, given that villains are always shown to be dark-skinned. I thought it would be funny, because my sense of humour frequently sabotages my biological imperative and I liked him very much, to tell him that maybe they just had beards (like him). He showed up a day later, cleanly shaved. I could see his freshly smooth cheeks turn pink when I asked him why.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: In Defense of Developing World Diva Hair

I have oppressed woman hair. No, not “oppressed hair”, as Alice Walker famously put it; the ceiling on my brain cannot be blamed on the chemicalisation or colonisation of my locks. I mean I have the hair of an oppressed woman, heavy duty developing world diva hair. Think Draupadi. Think Dravidian Rapunzel. I have hair that practically demands sitting on a swing and gazing wistfully at a world of dangerous things like riding side-saddle, or smiling beatifically in Amar Chitra Katha comics while undergoing trials by fire for the love of incredibly undeserving men. (Such activities are much better scapegoats for the ceiling on my brain).

But why should I apologise? Not everything needs to be forced through a feminist or subaltern perspective, you know. Remember that line, my similarly-styled sisters: it sounds a lot better as a defense than, “Don’t hate me ‘cuz I’m beautiful, hate me ‘cuz your boyfriend thinks so”. And if you must know, I have oppressed woman hair as reclamation, damnit! It’s subversive to be traditional in a world of peroxide and pageboys! These tresses are radical aesthetics, deliberate declarations! They are avant-garde, anarchist, insurrectional… and just incidentally, quite pretty.

I know hair is political. But I think above and beyond that it is deeply, deeply personal. I wear mine messy, letting it be as schizophrenically curly or straight as it pleases. When I am healthy it shines black. When I am not it dries brown. I used to trim it myself, until I stopped wanting to trim it at all. It’s a gorgeous disaster – which happens to be my favourite kind. But I promise you I comb it. Most days, anyway.

I discovered I had this ridiculous hair ten years ago, about the same time I started wearing a fake nose stud, before my parents – modern folks who continue to be deeply disappointed by the bindi-wearing, diamond-nostriled, handloom-sareed miscreant I turned out to be – let me pierce it for real. I’ll never forget that day. I loosened my hair to retie it in a classroom and someone said she wished she had my “beautiful long hair”. That’s when I noticed it myself. I was thirteen and nothing about me had ever been beautiful in my life.

So you see why I can’t let it go.

There are things which come with the acceptance that one is, herself, a complicated country, a feral thing. My developing world diva hair is one of those things, for me. I’ve seen how, subconsciously, it has been part of my semiology. I have tied it up to desex myself. I have worn twin braids to appear innocuous. I have worn it like a wild thing and been that wild thing. I am not the only kind of woman I know, mine is not the only femininity. But this is the only kind of woman I know how to be.

A woman friend of mine recently went bald, and a couple of days later, fell off the bed and injured her newly shiny cranium. On the upside, it was easier to check for bumps.

“You do realise,” I told my bed-bouncing friend, “That your autopsy report will have the words, ‘jungle sex'”?

“What a great way to go,” she grinned (emoticon-ally, that is. World Citizen is just a euphemism for people whose entire social lives are conducted via technology). I couldn’t disagree – that’s exactly what a badass bald babe wants on her Wikipedia memorial page, anyway. I guess a simpering traditionalist like me, in the event that all other attempts at infamy fail, could just hang myself by the hair.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.