Several years ago, when I was nearly fifty years old, I had gone from Delhi to one of the smaller towns to visit my extended family. I hadn’t seen them for some time and was looking forward to re-establishing ties. Many members had gathered together under one roof to meet me. I felt things were going well, there was laughter and exchange of information, and we were really connecting, when suddenly the eldest lady in the room —probably in her late sixties—asked me, “Why do you have gray hair?”
I was speechless—but I understood where she was coming from. For women, there is no country for gray people. You’d be hard pressed to find elderly high-profile women in India with gray hair. It’s true that Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi (age 68) has a few gray hairs, but they probably set her apart as much as her Italian origin. And there are a few like Arundhati Roy (53), Medha Patkar (60), and Anu Aga (73), but they can be dismissed as NGO-types, perhaps even consciously cultivating an “I only care about the environment” look.
By and large, raven locks are the norm. In India, business-woman Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw (62), minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj (63), actress Hema Malini (66), popular columnist Shoba De (67), chief minister of Tamil Nadu Jayalalithaa (67), designer Ritu Kumar (age 70), all the way up to dancer Vyjayanthimala (79), all sport jet-black hair.
In the United States, prominent examples are news anchor Uma Pemmaraju (57), director Mira Nair (58), PepsiCo head Indra Nooyi (60), former Iowa state senator Swati Dandekar (64), and author Bharati Mukherjee (75). And that color permeates down the pyramid to the middle class.
While natural hair dyes have been around at least as far back as ancient Egypt, synthetic hair dye was created in the mid 1800s, with L’Oréal and Clairol bringing it to the consumer market in the 1900s. Understandably, the most common color of dye amongst Indians is black since the key purpose of hair dye is generally not to change the color of the hair but to cover the gray. There are no blonde hair dyes or shades of gray on the store shelves in India. Gray may have been all the rage in the Europe of King Louis XIV and even making something of a comeback in the West over the last few years, but in India, black is indeed black.
When actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan swings around her luscious black locks in the L’Oréal advertisement and says, “Because I’m worth it,” she’s implying that if you don’t cover your gray, you’re lacking in self-esteem; you’ve let yourself go.
Interestingly, the same attention is not given to exercise or nutritious eating—which are more substantial ways of retaining youth. A healthy lifestyle, however, doesn’t offer the same commercial opportunity from a manufacturer’s perspective, and from a consumer’s perspective, it requires long, hard work, not to mention a shift in thinking.
You would think Indians would be more comfortable than most other cultures with the idea of aging. We are an ancient culture, we are philosophical, and we are religious. Coloring hair is in some sense just a continuation of the centuries-old tradition in some parts of India of using henna to cover gray. Furthermore, it requires little money and only one afternoon of your time to get highly visible results.
With their Viagra and flibanserin, Americans may be changing to a bottom-up anti-aging battle strategy, but Indians are still sticking to the top-down approach.
For those with light hair (blondes, redheads, brunettes), going gray is a more gentle and a less perceptible process. For those with black hair, it is a dramatic and traumatic change. From having had black hair all one’s life, going to the opposite end of the spectrum can be too much to bear. And therefore, the primeval desire and now the facility to seemingly control two uncontrollable processes—graying, and with it, aging—is too hard to resist.
Which puts us few grayers in a difficult position; if everyone around you has jet black hair, it’s intimidating to go against the current. The young look at you with awe and curiosity; despite living with grandparents, they may not have seen someone with gray hair before. The old, with their jet black hair, look at you suspiciously. Instead of admiring you for your naturalness and welcoming you into their club, they wonder what you’re trying to prove. With that question, my aging relative may have been rebuking me, “I’m 70 and sitting here pretty with my raven locks, and you walk in 50 and gray. Are you trying to blow my cover?!”
Or, upon kinder interpretation, perhaps she was merely offering advice: “Listen GF, do not go gentle into that good night—at least, not with gray hair.”
Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer, editor, and commentator. She has contributed to several publications, including the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times, the WSJ, the Financial Times, the Globe & Mail, and the Atlantic.