The Hairbrush

Bhagyam sat down heavily in front of her dressing table and surveyed herself, eyes burning into the mirror as if she wanted to imprint this moment into her memory for life. She was beautiful, of that there was no doubt. High cheekbones, expressive eyes, well-formed lips set in an oval face.

She favoured the traditional Indian look, and could always be seen with an enormous crimson bindi in the centre of her forehead, eyes lined with kohl, and a small bit of sindoor where her hair parted. She usually wore traditional gold earrings that were intricate in design and gave a glow to her face.  No other make up or fluff was needed. She usually wore starched cotton sarees in rich, vibrant colours that complimented her looks perfectly. She always looked crisp, elegant and well-groomed.

But the highlight of her beauty was her thick, long tresses. Her long, straight hair fell like a silky, wavy satin sheet all the way to her hips, and swayed languorously with every step she took, every turn of the neck caused it to ripple and shimmer. The beauty of her locks had not diminished even after her marriage and two children that followed, now teenagers. She knew she owed the beauty of her lustrous hair to her Paati, great-grandmother.

Bhagyam recalled her childhood, when her Paati would oil her hair and then proceed to wash it with the herbal powder she prepared herself by sun-drying hibiscus flowers and leaves, gooseberries, soap nut, acacia and powdering them all into a superfood for the hair. A smile escaped her lips at the memories of the aromatic herbs and oils Paati applied lovingly on her hair to ensure she always had strong, vibrant tresses that were the envy of the neighbourhood! While she would not particularly enjoy this routine while she was a child, she felt nothing but gratitude over the years as she grew up and her womanhood blossomed.

She recalled how Chinna Paati, her grandmother, and then her Amma took over this task and never complained about the maintenance of her hair on a daily basis, always taking care to continue the oil and herbal treatments that were a legacy from her Paati.

She had lost count of the compliments she got for her crowning glory by now. She remembered how the love of her life ran his fingers through her hair while gazing into her eyes deeply, closing in for their first kiss. She remembered how beautifully her hair was decorated with flowers and adornments for their wedding, earning her so many compliments that her Chinna Paati insisted on performing a set of rituals to ward off the evil eye! Her tiny children would yank her hair to get their attention, something that would both amuse and anger her at the same time.

But above everything else, she remembered the wonderful, ornate hairbrush that had been handed down to her from previous generations on her mother’s side. It was made of natural bristles that improved the blood circulation in the scalp, cleaned out dead skin and dirt and  kept the hair tangle-free. Her Amma, Chinna Paati and Paati all had beautiful hair just like her and they all swore by the hairbrush as the final touch in all their hair management therapies, the stroke that brought it all together.

Her Paati’s favourite bedtime tale to relate, and Bhagyam’s to hear before sleep took over was the story of how the hairbrush came into the family’s possession. The beautifully carved wooden brush decorated with swirls and delicate artwork was the property of a British general’s wife. It was given to an ancestor who worked as a cook in the British household, one whose tresses were the object of envy for all who saw her. She treasured the hairbrush and handed it down to her daughter. Somehow over the generations, the hairbrush seemed to choose one person to take it forward to the next generation, to enjoy its use and bask in the compliments that inevitably followed.

Not this time though, thought Bhagyam. You seem to have made the wrong choice this time, she thought aloud, while her fingers absently stroked the brush.

Bhagyam had just come back from the doctor. The unexplained symptoms she had been suffering for the last few months finally had a name – cancer. And while it was luckily in the starting stages, she was given a detailed account of her treatment. She didn’t actually need to be told. Not one person in this world would be remaining who did not know about chemotherapy and the havoc it can wreak while it attacks the cancerous cells. It attacks just about everything – your pride, your vanity, your dignity, your body inside out… and your hair.

She straightened up, trying not to think how she would look without the hair her Paati, Chinna Paati and Amma had so lovingly maintained for years. Her eyes shone with unshed tears. Hair? Is that what she should be fixating on right now when she had bigger issues to think of? But her mind was fixed on one thing for the moment and it wouldn’t budge.

Would she like a wig or would she prefer to go bald? Would the shape of her bald head be beautiful or would she have a bump from her childhood that she didn’t even know of? For as long as she could remember, her hair had been the envy of everyone who knew her, and her personal pride. Her confidence, her sense of self, that feeling of being beautiful – all came from her hair. She felt that she wouldn’t just be losing her hair, she just might land up losing herself…

Her thoughts flitted from one thing to another, reflecting how she felt inside. Until her mind focussed on the wigs, and immediately she thought of small children suffering through the same treatment that she was about to embark on. How selfish of me! How shallow! She sat there chiding herself, until… until a sudden wave of inspiration hit her.

She got up with a purpose. She wiped off her tears and cleaned herself up. She opened the door of her bedroom to find her family standing outside, worried about her but also willing to give her the space she needed to process the news. She smiled and told her husband Krishnan, “Can you take me to the beauty parlour please?”

It was an odd request and the last thing anyone expected of her. But Krishnan quietly complied. On the way, when she sat silent and smiling he couldn’t contain himself any longer and said, “Bhagyam, may I ask what this visit is about? I am a little confused my darling.”

Bhagyam looked at him apologetically and said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to say anything until we got there. But I can see that’s not fair to you. Actually I was sitting and thinking about my hair, and about Paati and all the love she has given my hair and suddenly I realised once the treatments start, I will lose all of it.”

Krishnan stopped the car on the side and looked at her, tears in his eyes. “You know that I love you no matter what right Bhagyam? It doesn’t matter to me one bit. I just want you to be well again!”

“I know… I know. But I want to cut my hair off while it is still beautiful and healthy, and I want to ask the beauty parlour if they can help to make wigs for children out of my hair. So that Paati’s care finds some meaning, brings some cheer to someone. I don’t want to watch my hair waste after the chemo. I want to put it to good use before that happens. Are you with me Krishnan?”

Krishnan had no words, he took her hands and kissed them reverently. He looked deep into her eyes and stroked her hair like he had all these years, running his fingers through their silkiness while Bhagyam closed her eyes, huge tears falling on his fingers. They both understood each other. Nothing more needed to be said. Bhagyam would surely get her wish.

And one day, she would have her long mane of hair back again. This time, grandchildren would yank her hair to get her attention.

Bhagyam opened her eyes as Krishnan resumed driving and thought, you did choose right. My hair was being groomed by you for a purpose. And today, I finally understand. I do.

Illustrated By: Dr Anisha Kumar (Visit

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