“But who am I to pass judgement on today’s girls?” my aunt asked when I stopped by to visit her during my recent stay in Chennai. My mother’s 78-year-old sister was talking about a betrothal at which most of the young south Indian girls had not bothered to wear their hair bunched up within barrettes or braided or coiffed up in some way.
“Hair unbound and cascading down their backs. In our tradition, we do that only at one kind of event, you know,” my aunt clarified, muttering the words “at a cremation” under her breath and waving her stubby fingers in disgust. My breath caught in my throat at the resemblance between the sisters.
Once again, my late mother had waddled in from the land from which mothers could still admonish daughters. She was looking askance at the day’s mores, pulling a face at girls who used a vile fragrant syrup called “shampoo” that left their hair unprotected and “paraparaaa” while seducing them with voluminous promises of fragrance and body.
A coconut oil evangelist, my mother rued the day shampoo deluged India through the media and seeped into the country’s bathrooms. The story of shampoo—derived from the Hindi word champo, a verbal form meaning “to knead the muscles with a view to relieve fatigue,” as well as a noun meaning “the kneading” or “the pressing,”—is also the tale of how a new word diffuses into tongues and cultures around the globe. Shampoo is pronounced like it is in English—with minor variations and inflections, of course—in French, Chinese, Greek, Japanese, Lituanian, Norwegian, Russian, Spanish, Swahili and many other languages.
In the early 17th century, under the British East India Company, oriental beauty and health practices began to find their way into England. In 1821, a young Bengali officer opened a shampooing cure treatment center in Brighton and became the shampooing surgeon to the king himself. “Champing” or “shampooing” was “a restorative, luxurious kneading of the flesh in warm vapor baths,” according to Leslie Dunton-Downer in her book, The English Is Coming. She describes how, over time, the term eventually began to describe an oil massage and washing of the scalp.
What once used to be a powder version for hair treatment at a barber shop evolved into what we know now as the “wet” shampoo, especially following the popularity of indoor plumbing in the west. By the middle of the 19th century, most nations advertised their versions of the product.
In the 70s, influenced by my friends in India, I too switched to shampoo. I discovered that my weekly hibiscus treatments made my hair luxuriant but never as sweet smelling as when I used my Sunsilk goo. My adoption of the chemical alternative annoyed my mother and my aunts.
“But who am I to say anything about children today?” my aunt wondered again that morning in Chennai, saying that every generation always shocked the previous one.
She said that in the sixties, my grandmother had lamented to her husband that three of their married daughters had begun draping themselves in six-yard saris eschewing the more formal nine-yard attire. To that, my grandfather—a philanthropist who flung colorful epithets into the air whenever a low-caste man walked down his road—had only one thing to say: “You must change with the times.”
Likewise, my mother balked at change. She would not embrace the chemical trumpery pandered by the beauty industry—or care to properly pronounce fashion-related words—until the day she died. She looked askance at lipstick and shampoo. In the Chennai of the 70s and 80s, lipstick was a sign of wantonness. At the sight of lip color on me, my mother’s mouth curved downward. She would cluck at me from her designated spot on the sofa as I flitted about the house, a girl of 21 with a red stain on her lips. “Come here,” she would command. She didn’t broach the subject of coquetry implied by my mouth. Instead, she told me to turn around so she could take in the shock of my hip-length hair clamped by a barrette. “Why don’t you braid your hair?” she asked.
She nitpicked about hair quality. “It looks like hay. No coconut oil. That’s what all this new-fangled chemical stuff, this shiamboo, does to beautiful hair.” Then she got up and walked around to scrutinize my face. “You need more talcum powder. On your nose.”
Finally, her eyes swooped down to my lips. “High society lady,” she tsk-tsked, her brows raised in disdain. “Look at you. Liftick and all!”
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.