The Razor’s Edge
Travel Stories: All along the Ganges, India's holiest river, pilgrims offer their hair to the gods. Leigh Webber joins them and contemplates her (former) blondness.
10.09.01 | 12:57 AM ET
I left my hair in Calcutta. It was the night before we left India. We had spent the winter crisscrossing the subcontinent, and, for a while, I’d been thinking of having it done. Beginning our trip at the Maha Kumbha Mela festival along the banks of the Ganges River, it seemed the thing to do. Hindus shave their heads twice in a lifetime, at least, to offer their hair to the gods. This offering is one of the few sacred Hindu events not denied to women and children. I fancied myself offering blond locks to the gods. What might Vishnu say?
The Kumbha Mela is a Hindu festival that occurs once every twelve years. This year’s surpassed the 1989 mela as the largest gathering of humanity ever, with 30 million people gathering together for a common purpose on January 24, 2001. The pilgrims converged to take a dip at the sangam, the intersection of three holy rivers, the Ganges, the Yamuna and the Saraswati. All of this took place within a radius of about twenty-five square miles. With the combination of the Maha Kumbha Mela being a holy event, and the second half of January 2001 being an astrologically auspicious time for Hindus, there was a lot of shiny dark hair falling into the hands of the gods.
The men squatted along the banks of the Ganges with their heads bowed towards the ground. They looked like guilty boys. I watched a barber start to shave a fellow Hindu at the crown of the head, careful to leave a tuft of hair in the back, signifying the tail of the cow. Others say that the tuft of hair is a reminder of the seventh Chakra, Sahasrara, the energy point of communication to the gods. I imagined myself squatting, a woman in a sea of men ages 4 to 114, to have my head shaved. I could feel the blade scrape across my scalp. But my daydreams ended as soon as I saw the dirty blades being used over and over, on head after head. Of course for Hindus there is the Ganges, the most sacred of all rivers, readily available to purify oneself if any diseases or bad karma were to transfer. I don’t have the all-healing faith in the river like the Hindus at Kumbha Mela do.
We left Kumbha Mela and traveled to Varanasi, one of India’s holiest cities and one of the oldest cities in the world. Buddha walked the streets and probably got his head shaved there too. I found the place that I would do it here, if I worked up the gumption. Down by the main bathing ghat there was a barber chair and a mirror set up outside, on the wall was painted “The Contemporary Man.” I watched men come for their morning shaves after a dip in the river. No man bothers to shave himself when he can have a cutthroat do it for him. If I were to going to do it, my boyfriend, Jason, could take photographs, I mused as I took shots of the outdoor barber myself. Unfortunately, Jason opposed my “hair brained” idea by reminding me of how much I might regret this. Jason loved my blondness. As Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things might say, with the loss of my hair, he will love me a little less. And he had a point: I’d been attached to my blondness for 25 years, why cut it all off on a whim?
Some Indians use henna to dye their hair an unnatural orange color, but this does not diminish the astonishment that many have towards blond hair. It constantly called attention to me in India. Men asked if I was German. Women giggled behind the tails of their saris. Children stuck their hands out, grasping for a lock.
Despite all of this attention and contemplation, I left Varanasi, coif intact.
I have been asked throughout my life, “Where does that blond hair come from?” Looking at the rest of my family, it’s hard to come up with a good answer. My blondness has always been a characterizing feature, for better or for worse, though mostly for better. It is not dyed or highlighted, or even spritzed with lemon to brighten in the sun. It’s just naturally bright and shiny and very blond for someone my age. And yet, I have never felt the brunt of “blond jokes,” unless I’ve been missing something all these years.
We crossed India, rambling through Delhi, Agra, and the Himalayan Mountains and into the state of Rajasthan, home of turbaned Maharajas, snake charmers and priceless fake gems. Following fellow travelers’ advice, we made a stop in Pushkar, a small, hippy-fied city lying on the edge of the Rajasthani desert. It was there that I met a new friend, Pip, and I told her what I almost did.
“You have great skull structure,” she said, unexpectedly. “It would look quite nice if you did it.”
Though I would never have considered shaving my head just because I have a nice bone structure, I again started to imagine myself with no hair. Would shaving my head divert the eyes of the millions of Indians who think it is OK to stare at me relentlessly? Might it actually free me from the far-fetched conclusions that are jumped to upon sight of my golden locks? Could faith in sacrificing my own hair for the gods actually protect me? Suddenly, I was convinced.
I didn’t want to waste any time before exterior forces (my boyfriend, self-doubt, etc.) started to change my mind again. In our first hour in Calcutta I spotted a decent looking barbershop. I am going to have it done. It is time to shed my mane, I need a fresh start, I want to renew.
Forget the photographs. I went alone. Jason was watching the India vs. Australia cricket match on TV. He was so engrossed in figuring out the arcane rules of the sport that he hardly batted an eyelash when I told him I was going to have it cut. The reality of what I was about to do did not register with him. He did not believe that I had the guts to shave off my beloved blond hair.
I went into the barbershop and asked the men sitting outside if one of them would cut my hair. Short. I indicated with my hands the act of shaving. A boy yelled in English, “Cut it all off!” Yep. We went inside and the disheveled barber pulled out a pair of dingy antique shears. He grabbed a lock of my hair. Crrrunch. Crunch. Crunch. He was taking it off in clumps, baring my skull to the outside world. He gingerly handed my locks over to his eagerly waiting friend who divided my hair into two equal piles. I called dibs on a few strands for my scrapbook.
Once the hair was cropped close to my head, he sluiced on some shaving lotion, a mixture of water and oil, and gave me a good slap. Then he pulled out a fresh new razor and set it into the polished handle. He began from the top, baring the delicate skin on the top of my head. It stung a little bit as he tugged against my fair scalp. His razor didn’t have the triple action with lubricating strip that my Gillette Mach III does. I watched as tufts of blond and pink-dyed hair left over from the Holi festival fell to the ground.
I gazed up and was half surprised. I liked what I saw. It was as if I was meeting my twin for the first time, one without a flip at the bottom of her hair. The expressionless Indian attended to the last few hairs poking out of my head, then handed me a mirror and motioned for me to check out the backside. I laughed. What if I didn’t like it, was he going to cut more?
The top of my head was ghostly white, splotched with pink from Holi, and I had a tan line from where my part used to be. Otherwise I thought I looked great. I was bald. I felt as bold as any woman could. Then, pouf, a blizzard of white, absorbent powder fell on to my head, the kind of powder I associate with sweaty men, and he rubbed it clockwise around my scalp.
The barber asked for 50 rupees, a dollar. I gave him two. It was such a small price to pay for my own liberation.
The fact of the matter is that I was looking to shed my shell and a cliché. Without my hair, no assumptions could be made about who I was. Or rather, I knew most people’s new assumptions would be wrong, because I’m not the type of girl who shaves her hair off.