50-54 years ago , hair was a big thing. Long, that is. Everyone I knew in school had , say, waist length hair, or more. That is, if you were in a English-medium school, which still had a few Anglo Indian teachers.
If you were in a vernacular school, that taught in one of India's several languages, chances were that 90% of the girls in your class , had to shove a thick plait aside, before they sat down in class at their desk.
Sunday baths were a ritual as far as the hair went. Nicely oiled, massaged hair from the night before, was subject to a squeaky clean tough wash, primarily with what was called shikakai beans, boiled in water and strained. Our mothers dedicated those 15 minutes to pouring this stuff and rubbing it in and massaging and cleaning our hair, while we held a towel over our eyes, and quibbled about this whole thing, as it frequently burned whenver some stuff went into our eyes.
After rinsing, the hair was wrapped in some thin cotton wraps (towels would be a misnomer), rubbed dry, and then we kind of bent over, hair falling across our faces, down to our waists, while we/our mothers, sort of swiped the towel/cloth through the hair to get rid of any shikakai particles that may have lodges here and there. It always made a slapping sound. There were no hair dryers then, and the thing to do was to have two side strands of hair pulled back on either side of the face, and lightly plaited , leaving the rest of the hair open. After which we spent the entire morning playing in the sun with our friends, incidentally drying our hair, while climbing trees, plucking guavas and tamarinds ; the more approved thing was to sedately move around your garden, and then your neighbor's, plucking flowers for the morning puja. ...
Somewhere in teenage , girls with shoulder length hair, left open, started making an appearance, eliciting reserved opinions from parents. Beauty Parlours started bravely appearing on the scene, and folks started offering hair cuts. A lot of us secretly wished to have short hair. The business with plaiting your hair everyday , in two or one thick plait , was not exciting, like, say, the wind in your open hair as you cycled to college. But the parental attitude was, that we should get married and then do whatever we wanted, even if it meant getting a crew-cut. Marriage prospects were a function of approved lengths of hair. Conservative cultural norms prevailed.
By and by, in the late sixties, I graduated, and went to attend graduate school in the US, which was considered a risky thing to do in those days, for a girl of "marriageable age". Despite alarming advice to the contrary from sometimes well meaning relatives, my parents supported my wish and I went to UCI for my masters. I was the only girl in my class with a red dot on my forehead, and a thick single plait to my waist, and after a while people kind of gave up wondering about me. It didn't stop me from having lots of friends, some of whom I am in touch with till today, and even met last year . Maybe the whole experience of living with roommates, and making decisions alone, emboldened me, and just before I left the US shores, in 1972, in a now-or-never-kind-of-thing, I went to a place in New York with my roommate's family, and got my hair cut !
I have had short hair ever since, and, like the lady next to me in the New York parlour, I have often wondered about where all the cut hair went.
The Tirupati temple in India, has a tradition of devotees getting their head tonsured before proceeding to the inner sanctum to pray. The faith in Lord Venkateshwara is so intense, that the practice of surrendering one's ego to God, is actively followed in the form of 500 barbers cutting the hair of 10,000 devotees daily. Every six hours the hair is collected and sealed in containers, which are auctioned , and reports say, that German and Italian pharmaceutical companies pay, like 7000 Rs/ kilo, for these. The mind continues to boggle at the economy of the temple.
Many times this hair is converted into wigs. Today , western hair salons do hair extensions, and insist on Indian hair or "temple hair" for the purpose. Exclusive London salons charge a minimum of 500 pounds for these hair extensions which need to be redone every six weeks, , and folks like Ms. V. Beckham, who are in the "looking" business, spend upward of 2000 pounds a month, doing this, to make their hair looking lustrous etc. It makes them feel less guilty, and more spiritual, knowing that this is "temple hair" :-)
So, it is with a great amount of interest that I recently read about Valtcho D. Zheljazkov, at the Mississippi State University, who recently published some amazing stuff about hair in a journal called Horttechnology. (The study compared the productivity of four crops: lettuce, wormwood, yellow poppy, and feverfew, grown in commercial growth medium using untreated control, noncomposted hair cubes at differing weights, a controlled-release fertilizer and a water-soluble fertilizer.)
Turns out that human hair added to your farm fields helps your produce grow better and faster.
I know Kahlil Gibran was fond of saying some nice things about wine, "folks sitting beside you", as well as "moving fingers". He is also supposed to have said, that "Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair"
These days , in the 21st century, the earth , along with the wind, also longs to play with your hair.
Hair, in an uncomposted form, is supposed to have spurred growth in lettuce, amongst other plants, according to Valtcho D. Zheljazkov.
While I can now visualize shiploads of hair making their way from Chennai Port in India to various places, where mechanized machines will strew it across farmlands (with , no doubt, 10% wastage), it's also possible that barber locations in India may undergo a drastic change. Rural farmers will lease out places for barbers, so hair can fall directly on to the fields. Entrepreneurs may introduce dynamic mobile barbering (DMB), where you and the barber sort of automatically, move all over the farm, going snip-snip-snip, and push-push. Posh folks from city downtowns will head out to the countryside for a haircut picnic, bringing a revolution in weekends.
Like the recycled paper business in India, which is on a downturn currently, thanks to a shipload of foreign papers suddenly having landed here, there will now be a danger of sudden shiploads of hair from countries like China, trying to undercut the hair business. Departments of Food Science, across Universities will be flooded with funding to investigate the relative effects, of brunette, blond, red, or plain good old black hair , on the output of lettuce.
Hollywood restaurants will advertise special organic salad buffets with specially ordered "blonde" salads and Ms Spears, Ms Jolie, Ms Beckham, and Ms Kournikova, will be pictured acting blissful while eating it. McDonalds will charge $1.99 extra , if your salad has to include, "brunette" lettuce, and Trader Joe's will go into overdrive, having an entire section dedicated to ready to eat temple hair lettuce salad mixtures, with a picture of an Indian God on the plastic bag, guaranteeing, the "purity" of the hair.
In all this brouhaha, I have a doubt. Today , a lot of hair is colored, streaked , bleached etc. Even amongst the hair dyes, there are those considered chemically dangerous, with carcinogenic ingredients. There are several new hair dyes , that today purport to avoid all these dangerous things, but certainly contain other chemicals.
In all the excitement about Hair fertilizers, how will we differentiate between natural hair, and colored chemical hair ? How much of it will seep into the earth , contaminating the fields, and not only lettuce, but any other crop growing there ? Will the ground water there be affected ?
Will we have folks getting sick after eating some salads, and the Government "recalling" produce emanating from certain farms,fields or countries ?
Maybe 25 years after this hair fertilizing practice starts, the National Institutes of Health will come out with some research that says, that certain anomalies at birth, and changes in DNA have been caused by these long-chain-blah-blah-chemicals, known to have been used in, say, blonde/mahogany hair dye earlier.......
Typically, some multinational will challenge this with their own research and tricks and try to prove otherwise.
But we have learnt.
Coca Cola , convinced farmers in Kerala, (a state in India's southern region), that the sludge byproduct from their Coca Cola factory, was an ideal fertilizer. Initially there were results in the fields. But there were also results in the soil. The soil started showing dangerous quantities of cadmium and lead, a big part of that sludge. Regional health suffered. NGO's in science research took the company to court with laboratory findings. Typically , CocaCola folks disagreed and showed alternate findings. Finally the Supreme Court ordered them to stop this harmful sludge disposal; but the ground had been permanently contaminated, changing lives.
Life they say, comes full circle. Maybe its time to start plaiting my hair again.....