The Indian Women Who Tried to Make Me Pretty

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The day I met Annamma Devi, she knocked on my door and asked to sit on my bed. We were to work together for the next six months in two of Chennai’s slums, and it was only fitting that we should get to know each other a bit.

Annamma was a beautiful woman in her late twenties with lips naturally set in a smile and a thin gold necklace around her neck. She had been hired as a translator by the Canadian International Development Agency, for which I was interning.

We chatted for a little while, then Annamma got up to go. But she seemed to be hesitating.

 “Actually, Susan,” she said. “May I ask you a small favor?””

“OK?” I conceded, cautiously.

Without answering, she called Pandy, the residence’s housekeeper, and said something to him in Tamil. She opened her purse and handed him a bill. He nodded rapidly and scrambled off.

She looked back at me: “Susan, I would like to fix your hair.”

“Oh,” I said, taken aback. “I don’t know.”

Pandy came back and handed Annamma a comb. “May I?” she asked.


I felt the hard teeth across my scalp. The first tangles were coming out. It was actually refreshing. It had been about a year since I’d last combed my hair.

Annamma seemed to have acquired a new energy. Her mouth was set in a straight line as she ripped through my short brown locks. “Indian girls, we love our hair.”
I inched my way to the mirror, then squirmed away. After ten minutes of vigorous battle, her comb had flattened my hair more than any gel could have. Gone were the pieces jutting out at the sides, balancing out my round face. It took everything I had to restrain myself from raking my hand backwards through my bangs.

It wasn’t just that I wanted to keep my hair ragged. It also had to do with a long-held conviction of mine that human beings are not meant to care about their physical image. Perversely, the whole time I had held this belief, I had continued to worry about my own image. I launched a series of attacks on my appearance to prove to myself that I wasn’t essentially vain. And I held onto this conviction for years, in the hope that my basic instincts would eventually catch up with my appearance.

India had seemed the perfect answer. People in India, I imagined, would epitomize a natural way of living. They would cherish none of the superficiality of the West.

This was before I met Annamma, and long before I visited the slums.

Anju Kudasai, one of the slums where Annamma and I worked, was a haphazard array of thatched and concrete houses. It lay on the bank of the Cooum, a river so polluted by sewage, it was black even in broad daylight. When Annamma and I visited the slum, the men were usually out at work. The women sat in small groups talking, playing cards or cooking on kerosene stoves. The fabric of their saris was spread across the ground as they sat cross-legged.

The first few times I entered Anju Kudasai, the women sitting on the steps of the multi-colored temple would laugh. Their pitch would rise as they alternately looked at me and squealed at each other. Then one woman would disappear for a couple of minutes and come back with a dark dot at the end of her finger. She’d lick it and plant it on my forehead, pressing and twisting to make sure it stuck. It was a bindi, worn by traditional Hindu women. Then a gaggle of teenage girls, giggling and dancing around me, would force a set of bracelets on my wrists. I’d come out of the slum feeling guilty that I’d taken the little they had. I soon learned to come equipped with my own accessories.

My expectation that Indians—particularly those with less money—would be untouched by vanity represented a distorted view of poverty. In Anju Kudasai, I quickly saw the extent of my error. If middle-class Indian women saw beauty as an earthly asset, then women in the slums saw it as sublime.

Annamma and I became friends. We huddled together on the roadside to eat hasty meals before going into the slums. We suppressed laughter in front of the water-quality man who, according to Annamma, was taking his sweet time with our results because he liked talking to us ladies.

One day, we were riding back from the slums in one of Chennai’s yellow auto-rickshaws. We were tired, and I leaned my head against the back seat. I snapped out of my torpor when Annamma turned suddenly to look at me. “Susan,” she said, her eyes fixed on me, “I know you don’t like this, but ...” Then she told me that I was getting older, and that I should start thinking about living an adult life—finding a job, getting married, and having children. And if I want those things, then I will have to start worrying about my appearance.

I was comfortable enough with Annamma to be sarcastic. “I guess it doesn’t matter whether I’m a good person, as long as I look nice?”

“Yes, yes,” she said, “but you should want to look like a good person, too. Should you not?”

In the last frantic early-morning hours before I left Chennai, while centipedes scurried across the white marble floor of my residence room, I gathered my belongings. I found the comb Annamma had bought me under a pile of clothes. I stood there for a while, trying to decide if I should keep it or throw it away. Then I caught my reflection in the mirror and turned to look at myself full on. I thought of Annamma, and of the women in the slums. Hastily, before I could change my mind, I crammed the comb into my already-stuffed suitcase and struggled to zip it closed.



Posted on 2/17/2009 by

Danielle Taylor

Danielle Taylor

There were a few women who pasted bindis on me during my travels in India, and once a woman removed the pins from her hair so she could fasten a string of jasmine in mine. I hadn't expected this push for beauty, either. Well said.

Posted on 3/17/2009 by

Dawa La

Dawa La

I live d for five years in India, three in Delhi and two more in Dheradun. My first big shock was the size of the diamond studs middleclass women wore to McDonalds in my Delhi neighborhood. So much for "indian ascetism". Then came my first of many trips to the beauty salon, the experience of getting hands and feet massaged, having my hair oiled and my head massaged, not to mention the manicures and pedicures -- all seemingly normal, regular grooming rituals of any self-respecting Indian female. Later I visited beauty salons in remote villages, one even without hot water, (a great shock after having my hair oiled and the following shampoo was ice cold) where I realised that income makes no difference to an Indian woman's desire to look as lovely as she possibly can. What a wonderful experience to reakise that while we have a body, and a brain, and a desire for more and deeper things in life; consciously acknowledging and accepting we also have a body is a real joy and a very big part of living.

Posted on 10/20/2010 by

Gabrielle Gibson

Gabrielle Gibson an African-American read AMERICAN woman I wonder why you would think that concern for looks are not a part of human nature? They are apart of everything else in nature's nature? Birds judge each other on this and so do other species in other ways...why would we big brained ones be any different? From the Masai, native Indian tribes to those women in an Indian slum looks matter to each of us and on all levels as it is a genetic artifact to finding a mate. I would have to agree with Annamma--you should care how you look. You don't have to be Hollywood or Koren woman obsessive about it but you should always try to look your best no matter what your socioeconomic standing. The outside reflects on the inside more often that we would like to admit.

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