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I Thought Dye-ing Young Would Make Me More Desirable. Twenty-Three Years Later, I’m Ready to Stop

Trying to hide white hair now seems like an avoidable agony

 I'm fat, fifty-plus and ninety percent white-haired. I've been dyeing my hair for the last twenty-three years, and I'm sick and tired of having to colour my hair every week.
When I was a schoolgirl, a would-be-fashionista friend asked me whether I bleached my hair, as it was a very light brown colour in the front.  It was the 1980s, and I had never even heard the term “bleach”. When in my twenties those same strands of light brown hair began to go white, Indira Gandhi-style, I panicked. To have white hair was to be old and undesirable. So I bought a sachet of Kali Mehendi for the Rs 3 (Godrej hair dye was available too, and a safer option, but too expensive for me at the time) and very happily amended nature’s course. At the tender age of 24, my dyeing days had begun.
As I hit middle age, all my friends were dyeing their hair too. A uniting fear is that white hair is taboo and vaults us up to the status of a desexualised Mataji. Having white roots peeping out right in the front is frowned upon. It indicates letting oneself go. It is like a red flag signalling defeat. So, one finds us scurrying around, checking the shelves in the supermarket for not only the ammonia-free salon-look hair colour but the accompanying shampoo and conditioner to go with it. The more affluent ones spend thousands in beauty parlours getting their tresses streaked in hues of brown, gold, burgundy so that their hair too followed the fashion trends. Colouring one’s hair is the easiest cosmetic procedure to counteract the encroaching lines and wrinkles. As long as one has a mop of jet black hair a la Dev Anand, it declares to the world that you are still young and healthy – and by extension, desirable.
Infuriatingly, for me, my husband is blessed with genes that have kept his hair and figure youthful, despite being nearly a decade older. I, on the other hand, have had to reluctantly resort to strange acrobatic exercises in order to look younger. For all my peers who dye their hair and are reading this – you know what I'm talking about! You prepare the colour, apply it while contorting your whole body so that maybe this time you might see the back of your head (and ultimately entrust it to God), wait around with a head full of chemicals desultorily watching TV, then you rinse, shampoo, and condition. The whole process is a tedious ordeal. Sonam Kapoor is lying when she chirps 'Hair colour is fun!' DO NOT believe her. And when I think of the approaching Delhi winters, when the mere thought of taking a bath is abhorrent, and I resort to once-a-week showers, the idea of battling for an additional hour in the bathroom with hair dye seems like avoidable agony.
And then last July, something happened that pushed me a step closer to stopping entirely. I had a brain aneurysm, and was laid up in a hospital bed for ten days (getting operated upon and fussed over), which threw my hair-colour-schedule off balance. Strapped down in the ICU with tubes all over me, touching up my roots became a tad difficult. A month went by. My hair grows pretty fast, so soon there was a solid inch and a half of white roots showing below jet-black hair. I used to glance at the mirror – "Ugh" – glance away, and groan, "God, I've got to colour my hair eventually." The interval became longer and longer, until I spontaneously decided that enough was enough. Here was the perfect opportunity to give up this nuisance for good.
This was a simple decision for me to make, but I had no clue as to how I looked in the eyes of others. Post-operation, lots of folks dropped in to see me. And to them I posed the question "What do you think? I want to stop colouring my hair". I was hoping they'd say encouragingly "Oh, wonderful! You look much better already, dye is harmful for your hair, etc etc" so I would feel vindicated in my decision.
But instead, most people looked at me askance, and their immediate reaction would be one of shock, horror and an underlying sense of betrayal, "Oh, you colour?" in spite of my visible roots. Pat would come my response: "Yep. I started going white in my mid-twenties, just like my daughter." They'd say, "Oh really? Well, it's not looking bad, but I think you should carry on colouring." So I was disappointed in them and they were disappointed in me. Apart from my husband and daughter, everyone expressed a faint sense of disapproval, as if I was breaking away from the herd.
On the phone with my mom, I hopefully repeated the exercise. I sounded out my plan only to be met with "Tor dike aami takate parbo na! Aami benche thakte-thakte tui shada maatha korish na!" (I won't be able to look at you! Don't you go white while I am still alive!) As if me going white made her twice as old. And to be old for a woman is somehow the worst possible fate. Her reaction just strengthened my resolve, most of which I ascribe to my innate rebelliousness – whatever my mother says, I must do the exact opposite, whether I'm fifteen or fifty. And as I’ve grown older, age no longer feels like a terrible fate that needs to be disguised.
But the process of letting yourself go grey means measuring every day how much percentage of each strand is black or white. In frustration, I asked my hairstylist to just bleach it all. He recoiled and said, "No, no. It'll make your hair very rough, just let it grow out". Haircut it was, then. My plan was to chop it so short that only the white roots remained, dreaming of pulling a Nafisa Ali, who shaved off her hair in Tirupati and said goodbye to hair colour. My daughter wailed "Ma, you'll have to get a buzz cut. You'll look like a baby bird or worse, Salman Khan!"
I relented, but sneakily looked out for a chance to rebel. During an unplanned visit to a mall, I came across a glass booth advertising 'Express Haircuts for Rs 99!' All the hairstylists inside looked suspiciously inexperienced, but what did I have to lose? In I went, dragging my daughter behind me. I got the most horrendous haircut ever, but now, as the haircut has grown and settled, I am left with a proper penguin mop, fifty-fifty black and white just like a chessboard. I am reminded of a poem I read in a British children's magazine when I was eight and I had never heard of hair dye.
I am a little penguin
short and fat.
White is on my front part,
and black is on my back.
With my life experience now, I'd like to make some amendments.
I am a little penguin,
white and black
I have stopped colouring
and I'm never going back.
That’s how I am, that’s how I look, and that’s just fine with fifty-plus me.
Sumita has been a teacher for over 24 years. Now, she goes to remote, offbeat places and writes about her travels.
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