My late grandmother who I lovingly called Dida, had thick long hair even at the age of 88. She combed her hair with a wooden comb that my grandfather had gifted her as a bride. She often would sit in the Delhi soft winter sun after a bath and request me to comb her hair. I enjoyed this ritual of running the fine-toothed comb through her almost now grey long tresses. It was a bonding moment for us. It was also the time when I heard her stories of the past. And tried imagining her and my grandfather’s plight of marrying this doe-eyed beauty. He was always on his toes with her demands for perfumed oils and hair accessories.
She is no more but her memories are etched into that little space of my mind. I recall Dida using the corner of the comb to fill her parting with vermillion we call sindoor. Over time, that comb has become a part of my memories of her. Today, it lies desolate on my mirror shelf with the last tooth that still achingly holds on to just a slight ember of that red. She stopped using that comb over time and graduated to the plastic combs that were available easily.
But in the collection of her beauty products she had an array of different combs. She had filigree combs and the ivory ones. The comb story goes back to early civilizations where beauty and valor would be equated with tresses. If you have studied in an Irish run missionary school, you would know the story of Samson and Delilah. Samson’s life was in his locks. And, until it was cut off, he was the strongest man alive.
In the same way, from Egyptian civilization excavation, archeologists have found combs made from ivory, bones, and wood. They are ornamental and have designs and filigree work on them. Losing a comb is considered an evil omen. In many cultures, during a wedding, the husband gifts his wife a comb.
Many art collectors have an array of combs of the past. Those vintage fine-toothed combs are used to comb out the lice in long hair. The large toothed ones are used to untangle the messy mane.
Dida is no more but her comb stays as a reminder of her resilience when she saw her son die before her and her husband who loved her so dearly also leave her, to soak in her fortitude of pain and sorrow.
I knew when I sat behind her and opened her long tresses to comb it during her later years. I could hear her sigh. And that sigh was like a surrendering to the impermanence of this thing called forever.
She taught me to love and immerse myself in that untouched little corner of your heart where lies the wonder of all things happening and things that are about to happen. She stayed mum for a week when her son passed away. But after a week she told me to sit beside her and comb her hair, while she sang to her favorite lord. She sang that the day has passed and dusk has fallen, it’s time for her to cross over from this life to the afterlife, where her weary heart can’t take this arduous journey anymore.
I still choke on those words when I recall her gentle voice against the setting sun and that desolate comb lying still and listless on my mirror shelf. The red ember has vanished now but I know that this will remain part of my collection forever.
I too would gift a young bride, a vintage comb to unravel her tresses to this longing called love and life.