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Hairy tales

Updated on: 23 June,2024 08:23 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Meenakshi Shedde |

Somehow, I sensed that the short hair was probably the biggest blasphemy. Malayali men have a fetish for women with long hair, and I suspect, Indian men in general

Hairy tales

Illustration/Uday Mohite

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Hairy tales

Meenakshi SheddeAnd so it was, that I found myself in a toddy shop in a small village off Thrissur, Kerala, drinking with men in mundus. This was years ago: I was broke, had no job, and thought, for some reason, that a photo feature on duck farms in Kerala, shimmering on the water, would be an easy sell (I never sold the story). At Thrissur station, I told the rickshaw guy, “Duck farm. Photo.” “Address, madam?” “No address.” Finally after an adventurous photo shoot, I was ravenously hungry at noon. “Hotel? Oota? Eat. Where?” I asked, as my Malayalam is abysmal. No hotel madam, only toddy shop. What? OK, they’ll have some tapioca? Very good fish and tapioca madam. And so we walked into a toddy shop, made of a few wooden planks and coconut leaf thatch roof, and I invited him to join me, as he hadn’t eaten either. Aiyyo, what a scandal I caused!

Six local Malayali men in mundus were drinking copiously in the bar—and at 12 noon, imagine. They glared at me so ferociously, it was clear they were outraged that a woman had walked into their sacred, all-male space. The rickshaw guy ordered steamed tapioca and chemmeen (prawn) curry for us—and insisted I try the drink. I remember he said it was mathirakal, hazy white, and less fermented than the kaalu, toddy or palm wine, that the men were guzzling. The food was terrific; it was really an accompaniment to the booze. I tried to decode the outrageous glares that continued throughout, with nasty comments and jokes in Malayalam that I could not understand. Later, I understood my multiple transgressions: women don’t go to rural toddy shops in Kerala; I was wearing a shirt-pant; and I had short hair, a “boy cut”, and I was eating with my rickshaw driver. Somehow, I sensed that the short hair was probably the biggest blasphemy. Malayali men have a fetish for women with long hair, and I suspect, Indian men in general.

Unlike many women, I’ve never been obsessed with my hair or looks. When others, including hair dressers, are unduly fussy about my hair, I put them in their place by saying don’t make so much nakhra over just dead cells. And so, during COVID, when I couldn’t go to the salon for a haircut, I simply picked up a scissors and went chop, chop, chop. Covid made me rethink many things. Since then, I also avoid using lipstick or hair colour, so my “make up” consists of just face powder, and sometimes, a kajal pencil, that’s it. I also wonder why women are obsessed with body hair, but men couldn’t be bothered by it.

I’m known to prowl around my neighbourhood bindaas, in a shirt, shorts and walking shoes. It’s taken me the better part of my life not caring what people think, including about the hair on my arms and legs. Others find it offensive to even have thick eyebrows, hair on the upper lip, and transgressions around a ‘bikini line’. When I was young, I would think, OMG, I have hair on my arms and legs, and regularly go for painful waxing sessions, where hot wax strips ripped out each body hair—a lifetime of wholly unnecessary, ghastly horror. How many men do you know, who are embarrassed about their body hair? Or torment themselves waxing their arms, legs, lips and brief line hair every month, lifelong? Why do only women allow themselves to be brainwashed into a hairless beauty ideal, while men, as usual, get away with no demands? 

Do we also brainwash and condemn our daughters into a lifetime of painful, glabrous horror? I regularly see Indian men with not only beary hairy arms, legs and chests, but hairy gardens growing out of their nostrils and ears, and no one says a word.  Kaiku, kaiku? Let me know what you think.

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. 
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