The Travails of a Dyeing Grandmother
It all started before a family gathering for a cousin’s wedding reception. My sister had the brilliant idea – as she often does – of getting our hair done in some fashionable style at the Chinese Hair Dressing Salon. So off we went, and with her influence, got an appointment immediately.
‘Oh, Madam, your hair is beautiful but it has faded a little and there are a great many strands of grey – I could colour it before styling. It will look wonderful.’ Nothing like a bit of flattery to make one agree to something foolish. I was somewhat worried about the cost but with my sister’s encouragement, agreed to this treatment. Little did I know what I was in for.
The girl got out a couple of bottles of hair colouring made by the great Sardar Singh and proceeded to do various things to my head. It was shampooed, dyed, washed again and then dried with a noisy hot drier. My poor hair was teased and combed into a fantastic beehive, which was all the fashion then. We certainly made a sensational entrance at the reception and were the talk of the town (or rather, of our family). Soon after the buffet dinner I had to catch a train to get back home. It was a tedious night journey. I decided to be extravagant and bought first class tickets. We were lucky enough to get an old-fashioned compartment all to ourselves with wide berths done in dark green rexine and beautiful rosewood fittings and a bathroom of our own. My two small children had fun playing in this beautiful compartment, but it being late, they soon went to sleep. But mindful of my smart (I thought) hairdo, I sat all night long in the train with a light scarf over my fabulous beehive. The train reached our destination at 5 AM. My husband met us at the station platform – somewhat disgruntled because he had to get up really early to reach there in time as we lived quite far from the station. There was no glad greeting but soon, as we were driving home, he thawed. I simpered and flirted and nodded my head but he said nothing about it. We reached home – breakfast was eaten – still he said nothing. I could bear it no longer. ‘Darling, you haven’t noticed my hairdo.’ ‘Oh god, you do look peculiar. I thought it was the rough train journey that had done it. Really, you look much better without the bird’s nest on your head!’ In a small voice, I said, ‘It’s actually called a beehive.’
It took me a week to take out the snarls and I lost a good deal of my crowning glory and soon, very soon, my hair grew and the roots started showing a faded brown and very white. Our town did not run to such new fangled things as ladies’ hair dressing salons. I made a hurried trip to Bangalore and the Chinese hairdresser.
‘What can I do for you, Mam?’
‘I’d like to take off the hair dye.’
‘Mam, it’s permanent. You just have to get it touched up. It looks beautiful.’ Flattery again! ‘Make an appointment and we’ll do it for you next week.’
‘I don’t live here, and there is no salon in my town.’
The girl looked shocked – several heads being dressed turned and looked at me. One of the ladies said, ‘Good god, imagine living in a hick town with no salon!’ I blushed, but stood my ground.
The hairdresser’s assistant now said, ‘You can do it yourself at home, Mam. Lots of my ladies do. You can buy the dye here.’ So I bought some and later discovered I could have got it much cheaper in Commercial Street.
My first attempts at colouring my hair myself were clumsy and messy but after a little practice I managed quite well. I also discovered that while our small town had no ladies hairdressing salon or beauty parlour, not even in the two fancy hotels, Mr Sardar Singh’s dye was freely available in the shops. Every third Sunday I would exhort my husband and children to leave me alone for two hours in the morning to ‘do’ my hair. They were instructed to tell any unexpected visitors that I was not at home. Alas, the children were unused to being mendacious, so when my friend Ana dropped in, they told her, ‘My mother is dyeing her hair but she has asked us to tell everyone she is not at home.’ My secret was out!
I came out of the bathroom, my head swathed in a towel to see Ana sitting in the drawing room. She broke into uncontrollable mirth when she saw me.
I continued dyeing my hair an unnatural flat jet black as it was the only colour Sardar Singh produced. The children grew up. My brother had a plum posting in Rajasthan and invited us to spend our vacation with him. He suggested a winter holiday. It was a wonderful time except for my painful, icy couple of hours in a small bathroom with the desert wind whistling through the chinks in the window while I waited for the dye to take. Delhi, where we went later, was no better. Only my vanity kept me at it. A steamy bathroom in Madras with a plastic cap over my head to keep the dye in, is another story.
The chance to spend a year in England was an exciting prospect and I was delighted when my husband accepted the fellowship. His old college offered him a little row house in the heart of the university town. Familiar with them from a previous stay there, I had coveted those little houses and accepted the offer with joy. We were assured there was central heating.
The house was all that I had wanted but there was only a tiny, centrally located hot water radiator in the narrow hallway. The idea that it heated anything was a pure flight of imagination. However, I loved being there. There was always something going on in the streets – the Chancellor and all the dons walking to the old schools in their splendid gowns in a solemn procession, sometimes a group of tumblers enchanting everyone, street plays, musicians singing – I could not have asked for a better place to live in.
But the only bathroom on the second floor was cold.
There came the time for me to do my hair. I had armed myself with a vanity case full of Mr Sardar Singh’s product. The hissing gas geyser gurgled and gushed but the only way I could wash the dye off my hair was by bending uncomfortably over the bathtub and pouring mugs of hot water over my head from a bucket, while my back turned blue with cold from the chilly draught. One day, on a visit to the DIY shop, I discovered the handheld shower that one could fix to the hot and cold taps. Bliss!
But then, winter really arrived with aflurry of sleet and snow and cold blustery winds. I thought I would probably catch pneumonia while I waited for the dye to set.
The university wives often met for a cup of coffee in town. One such morning, while sitting in the club lounge, I was planning a suitable obituary for myself – ‘Died while the dye dried’ sounded rather nice! I suddenly heard this piercing voice saying, ‘I always go to Henri-Philipe for my hair. He’s just wonderful.’ It was a voice from heaven, a divine signal. I got up and rushed to the house, picked up a pack of Mr Sardar Singh’s best and went to find M Henri-Philipe. His salon was not far from where we lived. In fact, I went past it almost every day while going to the market. I was in such a hurry and so excited, I never thought of ringing up to make a prior appointment. However, I was lucky. I walked into the elegant salon and asked for M Henri-Philipe. The girl at the reception desk smiled. ‘Have you got an appointment, Madame?’
‘No – I don’t – I can make one and come back later.’
A male voice from inside shouted, ‘Shirley, what happened to the 11:30 appointment?’
‘Oh, Mrs. Black rang up and cancelled.’
‘B…ch!’ A small compact man, close cropped blond head, blue eyes, a little gold ring glinting in one ear came out. ‘What can I do for you love?’
‘I would like to meet M Henri-Philipe please.’
He bowed and said, ‘Harry Pratt to you, lovey – the Henri-Philipe is toney, you know. Stylish like. The ladies love it.’ He gave a wide, unaffected grin and again asked, ‘What can I do for you, darling?’
I launched into my story. ‘Whoa, whoa,’ he said. ‘Not so fast love, tell me slowly.’ Which I did. ‘Come and sit down, dear. Let’s see what we can do.’ He sat me in one of the salon chairs. ‘Undo your chignon, darling.’ I removed the numerous hairpins that held up my hair and unrolled it. ‘Wow, that’s long hair, that is. Don’t often see it so long these days.’ He touched my hair very gently, felt it between his fingers and clicked his tongue in disapproval. ‘You are doing your best to kill it, lovey. What have you been using?’ Out came Mr Sardar Singh’s famous hair dye from my bag. He looked at it, read the formula on the side of the little box. ‘Gawd, lady, that stuff’s bad. We stopped using it in the year dot.’
‘Mr Pratt, …’
‘Harry to you, love.
‘Well, Harry, what can I do to take it off my hair?’
‘I dunno, darling, that stuff doesn’t come off easy. Well, lemme see … Babs, come and have a look.’ Babs, a small impish looking blonde, came and touched my hair, and said, ‘You poor thing.’
‘Babs, the lady wants to take it off, what can we do.’ He did not wait for her answer and said. ‘We could strip it.’ Babs shrieked, ‘But Harry, that’ll make it orange.’ Shirley added, ‘Bright orange,’ with a happy grin.
That won’t do, love, we’ll have to think of something else for you.’ He wore a pensive expression, looking so comical, I almost laughed. ‘The best thing for you, would be to use one of them American rinses for a while, and then, when your hair has grown out, just wash it off. What do you think, Babs, Shirl …?’
They both agreed that it was the best thing to do. I pinned up my hair while Harry, Babs and Shirley watched with interest. ‘That’s neat, love, really neat,’ was his comment.
‘What do I owe you for all the trouble.’
‘You owe nothing at all – only too happy to help, that’s me.’ I thanked him profusely for his kindness and as I was leaving, he picked up my little box of hair dye with two contemptuous fingers. ‘Put it into the nearest dust bin, darling. The rubbish bin is where it belongs.’
I trotted off to the nearest Boots; they had an amazing array of hair products. I found the recommended colouring, chose one that was nearest my original brown shade, now alas covered with a dense black dye.
Now a new saga started. The American product was easy to use – no messy mixing, bowls and brushes, etc. Shampoo in, shampoo out, that was it. Soon we had to return to India. Once again my vanity case was full of hair dye, but not Mr Sardar Singh’s. Apart from a slight problem with the custom’s people … ‘What’s this in your hand luggage, Madame?’ (in Hindi). Me, in a small voice, ‘Hair dye,’ another officer, ‘Let it go, yaar – Baal ke liye colour hai.’
This, alas, was the era when India did not import cosmetics. So I had to recruit various obliging NRI cousins and nieces into the supply line for my hair dye. When the time was ripe, I decided it was the moment to wash off the hair colouring. The packet said it would come off after three or four shampoos. But there was some odd chemistry at work, so it would not go. My sister and her granddaughter were staying with me at this time. While we were out in the garden, the little girl looked up at me and said, ‘Aunty, your hair has become green.’ My sister looked. ‘Good heavens, it is looking bright green.’ Once out of the strong sunshine, it took on a more subdued shade – but still green.
There was no choice, I had to go back to the bottle of rinse and the long sessions in the bathroom. But my hair did not get back to the nice shade of brown of earlier days. In fact, in the strong sunlight it glowed an odd shade of plumy purple. I had no time to worry about it for there was a frantic phone call from my daughter. Her Danish nanny suddenly had to take a month off to help a sick father at a time when my daughter had a heavy work load. She didn’t want to leave her two small children with an unknown baby-sitter. Could I help – of course I could – I left for Zurich immediately.
The plane from Bombay lands at Zurich early in the morning. My daughter and I were having a cup of coffee in her bright sunny kitchen. A shaft of sunlight fell on me and my daughter stared in shock. ‘Amma, I don’t want to scare you …’
‘I know! My hair is glowing purple in the sunlight.’ I laughed ruefully. I told her the whole sorry tale, ending, ‘I’ll have to do something about it.’ She said she would take me to her wonderful hairdresser, only he was so popular, it would be difficult to get an appointment.
I don’t know what kind of magic she used but I could see him the next day. It was a small, elegant salon. ‘Jacques’ it said in beautiful lettering. There Jacques was, a somewhat scruffy Swiss, with a lovely Italian assistant called Franca, and a fiery Serbian girl called Vera. My daughter warned me not to say anything derogatory about the Serbs or Serbia; apparently Vera was very patriotic and apt to get somewhat violent despite the fact that her family had been in Switzerland for three or four generations. Fortunately they all spoke a fair amount of English, having had their training in London.
Once again I took out the pins from my chignon and Jacques and the two girls looked at my hair. He took a strand of it between his fingers. ‘Nice hair, but who put this terrible colour on it.’ I explained what had happened. He was mystified. He said the American stuff I had used was well respected and he had never come across the problem before. He shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, clicked his tongue and waved his arms about as he had a little confabulation with his assistants all in Zuri-deutsche. I sat there, a mute witness to all this, though my hair was the centre of the discussion. They made several phone calls, spoke in German and French.
Jacques now turned to me and said with a shrug, ‘They are not very helpful, but I think I know what to do. Madame, if you please.’ He gestured towards one of the chairs, and gave Franca instructions.
My hair was divided into several strands, each strand was painted with a strong smelling solution (smelt like household bleach) then wrapped in individual strips of aluminium foil. I had to sit around with the crinkling sound in my years. My only view of the passing show was from the reflection in the mirror which I sat facing. After half an hour the foil was removed and my hair was washed.
Jacques had a look at it, was not satisfied with the result and told Franca to repeat the whole process. In fact, the two girls took turns to work on my hair between attending to other people. It was a unisex salon so a few men came to get their hair cut and looked at me quizzically. My eyes watered, my scalp was stinging but the whole operation was repeated many times. They supplied me with excellent cups of coffee but I had nothing to eat. By the time they finished it was closing time. My hair was more than somewhat rough by now but I was assured by Vera that a bit of warm olive oil rubbed into my scalp would work wonders. I paid my dues, tipped the girls generously, thanked them profusely for their kindness, picked up my things and put on my coat.
Jacques looked intently at my hair. ‘Madame, please come back next week – I am not happy to leave it as it is.’ My heart sank.
After a week’s holiday with friends in the mountains I was back in Zurich to start my stint as resident nanny. I told my daughter I was not going back for further treatment, it was too expensive. She was shocked. ‘Don’t be silly, Amma. After you have gone this far. Anyway, I’ll take care of the bill. Jacques is my hair stylist, I don’t want you to offend him.
So back I went to the salon, but this time the treatment was mercifully short. Jacques came and stood beside the chair, took a strand or two between his fingers while Vera and Franca waited. After a critical appraisal, he said, ‘I think I will give it a peachy rinse. It will suit your complexion.’ He must have seen the alarm in my eyes and laughed. ‘No, no, you don’t have to worry. It will wash away easily if you don’t like it.’ The result, I must say was great even though I say so myself. I could see why Jacques was so popular. He was a real master with ladies tresses.
I thanked them all and took out my purse. Jacques waved it away. ‘No charge Madame, it was my pleasure.’ He went into their inner sanctuary. I bade a grateful goodbye to Vera and Franca, but before I could leave, he hurried out with several gold coloured vials in his hand and gave them to me. ‘It is the peach rinse.’ I took out my money purse. But once again he waved it away. ‘I get trade samples. You are welcome to try them. There is even a silvery one,’ he laughed.
I left with a light heart. My daughter was delighted with Jacques’ artistry and told him so. For the next one month I had a wonderful time looking after my grandchildren. The Danish nanny’s father recovered and she came back to take up her duties and I had to get back home.
Came the day when I had to leave. The children started crying at the airport. I had foreseen what would happen and armed myself with a little bag for each of them filled with small books, puzzles, crayons, toys and of course, chocolates and toffees. While they were distracted by their treasures, I walked away to the check in. Now the tears were in my eyes.
My husband and son met me at the airport in Bangalore. They looked at my hair. My husband wore a wry smile. ‘It’s not too bad,’ But I could see he thought it was awful. My son was non-committal.
That evening we went to the wedding reception of a young couple whose parents were wealthy and related to half the town, so it was all rather grand. As we walked in the lovely lady who had tried to teach my sisters and I Bharatanatyam as girls with varying degrees of success looked at me. ‘Good gracious girl, haven’t you heard of hair dyes?’ in the same tone she used to use in dance class. I could almost hear her saying ‘Keep your back straight, and hold your head up.’ The next person to greet me was an elderly uncle. ‘Hey, come along, I’ll take you to the beauty parlour.’
After greeting the happy couple and moving amongst a gaggle of cousins and uncles and aunts, I moved towards the sumptuous looking food. As I looked for a table, full plate in hand, a screechy voice belonging to a young nephew called, ‘Hey, join us. News has travelled to the far corners about your adventures at the salon.’
I sat down with a bunch of nephews, nieces and grand nephews. A cheeky NRI kid looked at me in puzzlement. ‘Why did you go through all that? You could have gone to the nearest temple and offered your hair in devotion. The barber would have shaved it off, the gods would have blessed you and kept a special seat in heaven and your problem would have been solved neatly and cheaply! And you would have looked like Telly Savalas.’
‘The late lamented Persis in Hollywood.’
‘The much admired Shabana today.’
I got up from the table. ‘The trouble with you NRI kids is that you haven’t been taught to respect your elders and betters.’ I rolled my paper napkin and threw it at them and left as they groaned in unison.
I thought I had finished with the topic of my hair. Even my gossip loving family had to get tired of it all, but I had not reckoned on meeting my ninety year old aunt at the door. While my husband gestured frantically to leave, my aunt stopped me. ‘I heard you were back from your daughter’s place.’ She peered closely at me and said, ‘I have heard people go to Switzerland and have treatments and operations and come back looking young but you, you’ve come back looking old! But then, you were always an eccentric child.
As I hurried out to join my husband and son who were waiting impatiently in the car, I heard a child’s voice calling, ‘Ajji, Ajji’. It took me a few seconds to realise the granny he was referring to was me. I turned and found a little urchin holding out my plastic spectacles case. ‘Ajji, you dropped this on the footpath.’ The child was surprised when I gave him the coconut and the packet of sweets and savouries that I had been given at the wedding.
So I am no longer akka, didi, shishter, nor amma, mami or aunty, but ajji to the world. My white hair assures me this honorific. I am content.