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Tel Maalish! Oil for thought, comfort and warmth

Sundays in our home was reserved for Rajma-Chawal and tel maalish, the oil massage of our hair


Sundays in our homes were reserved for a few rituals which involved—but were not limited to—eating Rajma-Chawal (kidney beans curry with rice) for lunch and following it up with an uninterrupted afternoon siesta. The mornings would kick-start with the aroma of the curry, always. Alongside that, another aroma filled the air—that of coconut oil and sometimes amla (gooseberry) oil too.


It was a day that was devoted to tel maalish, the oil massage of our hair. I don’t know who decided upon this one ritual, but a tiny steel bowl was filled up with warm oil, and we’d apply that oil on our scalp and strands. “From roots to hair ends,” we were told. I didn’t particularly enjoy the task for what it was, as rinsing the oil from the hair afterward was another must-do activity. The sooner we got done with it, the quicker we could eat a large meal and then sleep which was a huge temptation. As I look back, I don’t recall being aware of the fancier oils (argan, jojoba, or even olive) available in the market. The fact that one could head to a salon for a hot oil hair massage sounded like an absurd idea, to begin with. It’s not that my hair grew much longer or got shinier that makes this memory special; it’s the simplicity of the ritual that snugs at my heart—much like the warm oil which was poured out of the ubiquitous blue-colored Parachute Hair Oil plastic bottle or the green-colored Dabur Amla Hair Oil one.


As I grew up, I learned the ritual was commonplace in many homes, irrespective of whether you were a little girl or boy. We’d all sit in a row; the one whose hair was to be oiled sat on the floor on a dhurrie (a woven mat), and the one whose role was to apply the oil sat at a raised level on a bed or a bench. We’d switch roles, of course. As the scalp was nourished, conversations took place. These covered everything—marks in a Math exam, the dress to be worn at the best friend’s birthday party next week, rising prices of detergent whiuch were so high that it felt like one was buying gold, work projects that are nearing completion, the new neighbors, new colleagues and new classmates. It was our catch-up time and one that I looked forward to purely for that reason.


It is said that a lot is shared, or rather confessed, on a hairdresser’s chair. I’d say the same about the massage spot on the floor at homes. It could be the massage of the scalp, the better blood circulation, the fact that it was the fingers of a loved one performing the activity, but we loosened up. We shared dreams and failures, trials and tribulations, wisdom and wants. Sometimes, an anecdote about a girl with thick, lovely pigtails in class would lead to mum sharing the secrets behind Naani’s (maternal grandma) long, thick, beautiful hair. We’d get excited, and a call would be made to Naani to tell us more. To date, a black & white Polaroid picture of Naani sitting on a chair with her long, flowy hair is fresh in mind. For us, she was the Barbie we wanted to be; we wished for silky hair like Naani’s.


Yes, it was over tales of hair loss and tying of braids, stories of Rapunzel and making of loose buns, excuses to avoid a hair trim and learning how to make a French plait that memories were formed. Was it just a ritual or a comforting tradition that, for a few minutes, tied us together with strands? I know not. What I do know is that the row of loved ones forming a queue and oiling each other’s hair was what made Sundays special.


This piece was first published in Khabar.





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