Much as one would like life to be about “letting one’s hair down”, it tends to turn out just the opposite — the hair letting you down.

The lockdown is just the latest; my hair has survived its share of seasons. With my sister and I separated by just about a year-and-a-half, our mother’s nightmare when we were little was that we might get “lice” — a pestilence of which every little girl circa the end of the ’70s lived in fear of. As messages screamed from everywhere (remind you of something?) warning the disaster that awaited should “two heads meet”, the mother gleefully ensured her daughters didn’t dream of any growth past their ears. We were too innocent to question her own knee-length, luxuriant hair, or to suspect that she didn’t want the trouble of two competitive siblings comparing hairstyles.

Move a couple of years later, to the un-stirring evenings of Gangtok, long before Sikkim became the coronavirus-free envy of India, and too cool to sweat much about it. Through its dim lanes, the mother, holding the daughters by the hand, would march to barber shops that stood in for salons then — the distinction being the ripped-leather-bound wooden beams they put across chair handles for children such as us to get to the level of chipped mirrors, and the photographs of film stars on their walls. There, once the two of us were plonked on those chairs, the mother would command the slightly swaying barber (the tipple is what kept Gangtok going those days) to give us a “Sadhana cut”.We knew no one personally by that exotic-sounding Bollywood name. So till the time the barber removed the cloth around our necks with a flourish, we lived in the dream of emerging as that town’s Cinderellas. We did catch on that the fringe we sported for several years wasn’t really the sensation we had hoped for — particularly in that land of, even-then, stylish hair — but the mother was in luck. We didn’t have a TV, anyway, there was no reception in those parts, and so it took us many years to realise that Sadhana the star combined the fringe with a bun, not the look of a poodle.

However, it would be unfair to blame all my hair-raising tales on the mother (the sister fared better, with her naturally straighter, shinier hair). With teen years, the move to the big city, and actual salons, came the ambition to “experiment”. Hopping across a string of salons (in fancy market complexes) and beauty parlours (their humbler counterparts in neighbourhoods) taught me one thing: That, from that chit of a man in Gangtok intimidated by my deceptively diminutive mother, to the hairstylists in aprons with multiple pockets, filled with a dizzying array of brushes and scissors, all had one thing in common. Any resemblance between what you had asked for, even pointed out precisely in glossy magazines, and what emerged was purely coincidental.

Still, hope floats. So I tried it all — colouring (black, because my hair was “too brown”, then burgundy, because who didn’t want that colour in their lives, especially after Dimple Kapadia’s Crowning Glory hair toss); blunt (because of how that style “framed the face”, except it never did after the first wash); inside-out folds (yeah, there was such a thing); “boy cut” (the guilty party was a friend with a gorgeous head of hair, who later consoled me by saying my looks were so feminine, it didn’t matter how my hair was); perm (because, Dil Chahta Hai); and then bottles of serum to repair the damage.

But I never went so far as to go for a haircut styled after the boy who traipsed into our hearts and will forever occupy a space there, SRK (that’s a story only the friend and fellow fan, far braver than me, who survived this, must tell herself).

What followed next must come in everyone’s life, the approach of grey. Having seen every aunt of conceivable age sport an unseemly orange, the mehndi nuskha was out. Having then gone on to see other acquaintances lose hair gradually to fancy colouring agents with an inflation rate that defied all economic models — including dear mother — I decided to let it grey (a certain Nafeesa Ali may have flashed across the mind).

Middle age is a good time for such resolutions, be it greying, or growing hair to a length where a little slipped scissor can make no difference, or settling for disorderly “steps” that can disguise a messy hair day. It’s my time to flaunt now, as trendier (okay, also younger) friends, envyingly bolder, eagerly await a reunion with their hairstylist post-lockdown.

Which is why that appearance of the rosy-cheeked, dimple-chinned and jet-black-curly-haired Rahul Gandhi, in that interview with Raghuram Rajan, was the unkindest cut of all. As those two good-looking, rich-looking, well-meaning men worried politely about lesser mortals (switching briefly to Hindi when they came to the “gareeb”; English being reserved for deeper issues like the economy, leaving one wondering whom the dialogue was meant for), one couldn’t take one’s eyes off that young-again, old-again; president-again, not-president again; stubble again, no-stubble again, leader of the Congress. In a party where hair today can be gone tomorrow (think Shashi Tharoor, Jairam Ramesh, Kamal Nath), and where actual leaders have done much more with much less (think Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee), how long will we have to wait for almost-50 Rahul’s shades of grey?

This article appeared in the print edition of May 16, 2020, under the title ‘Lockdown, hair and now’. [email protected]