She did give a stellar performance in The Queen but for me, Hellen Mirren is still the sassy Georgina of The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover. So when I see her walk down the red carpet for the Baftas, with hair dyed pink, I can only smile and smile some more. Blogs have already dissected the strands of her hair and its pink sunshine. At 67, what statement is she making? Is it a subversion of what is expected of an old lady? Is she trying too hard? Is she setting some trend? To this list, let me add my list of questions.

Does Hellen read these stories? Does she chuckle at these pink ripples? After seven or eight washes, the pink will wear off. Will Hellen then paint the canvas on her head, bright red or violet to add a dash of colour to the foggy skyline of London?

Jump cut to a birthday party, maybe in 2013 or 1991 or…

The little boy has cut the cake and the pieces are now being served to the guests. It’s an occasion when the boys’ parents (read mothers) have congregated informally for the first time and they are getting to know each other through homework not done, grades achieved, hours spent studying or not studying… And then one mother looks at our little boy’s mother and says, “It must be difficult for you to manage your son’s studies since you have to go to work.” Surprise. “But I don’t work anywhere…I mean, I am a housewife.” “Na…you have boys cut hair, so I thought…”

Well, even Ratnaboli Ray has boys cut hair. The founder and managing trustee of Anjali, a mental health rights organisation, is a renowned clinical psychologist and mental health activist. The back story is that empathetic interactions with patients ensured that her hair became lice infected. So she started chopping her tresses and decided to keep it just that way. Result: The closely cropped hair. Wait! Did I say that? Did I insinuate that you should keep the mentally ill at arm’s length, lest they harm you physically? Let’s get some more facts here. As in every other sphere of life, gender inequality is a searing problem in mental homes. Women are deliberately defeminised, lest they stir sexual tension. So they are made to wear loose frocks, bathed in groups, they are forcibly tonsured or their hair is closely cropped to the skull. Encouraging them to take care of their appearance, or maintaining hygiene is much more cumbersome than leaving them underfed, under clothed, unwashed in dark, dank rooms. Isn’t it? And in the face of such institutionalised and societal apathy, Ratnaboli’s hair becomes a statement. As opposed to the brute force that operates in our state run homes, her choice of hairstyle is voluntary and it challenges “the depersonalisation of this constituency.” With bright danglers, matching her flaming sareesand dresses, Ratnaboli is a style statement. Go to her Facebook page and see middle aged men and women behaving like moon-eyed teenagers and teenagers feverishly ‘liking’ all her photographs and albums and then zealously commenting with ten exclamation marks!

Ratnaboli’s hair throws up some interesting vignettes too. While, the mentally ill often feel a sense of kinship with her, sometimes there are mental homes that refuse entry to her. What is a “mad and ugly” woman doing on the streets? Boys cut equals mad. Boys cut equals ugly. Now cut to a high end apparel store. The owner thinks Ratna’s hair gives her the persona of a no-nonsense woman, somebody who is in control.

“Women loving women… Thanks to the 24X7 media, words like lesbian and gay are no more Greek and Latin, at least in the cities and small towns. Even, the old lady who fasts thrice a week, knows they exist even if she thinks they are diseased or freaks of nature.”

So is it class factor… the way we perceive a woman’s hair? Before you raise the red flag of political correctness and propriety, let’s reiterate that in a developing country, where the economic divide is widening with a vulgar and inhuman rapidity, where caste based discrimination is still a daily reality, we need to keep niceties aside. Daily sappy soaps that are streamed into your consciousness, only harp about the ideal woman who dolls up, does her morning puja, serves breakfast, cooks lunches and protects her husband and herself from the evil machinations of the vamp, who often dyes her hair, wears loud make-up, drinks and sometimes also sports crew cuts. And yes, the ideal woman wears her hair long. Look at the long curls of our Goddesses. Look at our mythologies. Think Dushashana. How he grabbed Draupadi by her hair and brought her to the court and Duryodhana ordered him to disrobe her. Think of the vow she took of not tying her hair till she had drenched it in Dushashana’s blood. The dutiful and chivalrous Bheem vows to tear open Dushashana’s chest. He keeps his word and brings blood for Draupadi.

Do the masses read The Second Sex or can they imagine that someone can write the vagina’s biography (even if written in the most unintentionally comical way!)? So what is the mass media doing to challenge the existing beauty myths? What is it doing to break stereotypes? What is it doing to propagate the importance of individual choice as opposed to society sanctioned choices?

Answer: It is bringing Saif Ali Khan to pull his begum, Kareena’s long hair to marvel at its tenacity. For the lucky few who are uninitiated, I am talking of a television commercial for shampoos.

I am not yet done with the boys’ cut.

If Indian cinema were not equated with Hindi cinema, then Paroma (1984) would be a milestone in the history of Indian feminism, seen through the lens of Indian cinema. A middle aged lady who is a dutiful wife, a dutiful mother and daughter-in-law, one day realises that she wants more from life. She wants to break free from the monotony. But freedom has a cost. Her husband discovers that she is having an affair and her family ostracises her. Unable to bear this rejection, she attempts suicide by slashing her wrist and while slipping off, she falls and hurts her occipital bone. She needs a scan to determine whether surgery is required and so the doctor cuts off her long hair. It feels like one last punishment for her transgression; to be shorn of her beauty, sexuality and femininity. Now, the lady tried to die which means she is repentant. Moreover, she has been adequately punished. So the entire family is back at her side. Operation is not required and the doctor says that she is ready to reprise her roles of the mother and wife again. She only requires a little counselling to bring her back on track. But Paroma realises that she isn’t apologetic for the new turn her life has taken and she demands her own space under the sun. She takes up a job, that will pay her a measly salary but that will be her first earned money, her first step to reclaiming her identity.

From the days of Joan to today, an infinite number of women have been forcefully tonsured and then beaten up, raped, paraded naked. Sometimes she is a witch whose evil stares and not the snake bite killed the neighbour’s son, sometimes she loved a man of the same gotra, sometimes she exposed corruption in the panchayat, sometimes she loved another woman…

Women loving women… Thanks to the 24X7 media, words like lesbian and gay are no more Greek and Latin, at least in the cities and small towns. Even, the old lady who fasts thrice a week, knows they exist even if she thinks they are diseased or freaks of nature. Now, scan the image of a lesbian couple. A masculine woman, with crew cut hair, in ‘men’s attire’ and her partner who is the womanly woman. Now, nothing wrong with such an image. A great challenge to the status quoist image of the woman as the soft, docile person with long hair who can only find love and shelter in a man. For all you know, the masculine woman might be dominated by her partner in bed, in the greatest power game; lovemaking. As I write this, I wonder simultaneously at the redundancy of such speculations, terms and roles. Can love have only a certain number of possibilities? But then, this isn’t an ideal world. And hence, this.

Coming back to the image of the lesbian couple, why is it the only image that comes out of the media? There are scores of women who don’t wear ‘men’s clothes’ and still love women who wear their hair long. Or there are women, whose hairstyles have no relation to their sexual orientation or gender. Short hair could be for the summers or for that sexy tattoo on the nape of her neck? Is that too much of a nuance for the mass media?

I am reaching the end of the essay and some readers might wonder at the absence of the long hair in this piece. Well, don’t you think the poets and the lyricists have and are writing enough on those dark tapestries of histories and a million stories? Or that mesmeric painting of Frida Kalho titled Diego and I, where her unruly hair almost strangulates her (reflecting her torment at her husband’s Diego’s torrid affair)? What more can I add? Do I want to add anymore to that music and noise?

But still I will end this piece with the long hair.

The long white hair hangs loose. It has journeyed across oceans, through fatwas and extremists and nude beaches and culinary delights.

The person sits straight with the hair towards the camera. You only see the person’s side profile. It’s a black and white frame. The person delicately holds a hand fan.

The luscious curve of the person’s waist and bare back, with the shining white hair…

It’s a book cover.

The Man Who Would be Queen. Autobiographical Fictions. By Hoshang Merchant.

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