Hair unruly, yet immaculately presentable like the restless house I was raised in. My uncle spent hours upon hours detangling, washing, conditioning, combing, treating and plaiting my hair. It was an exercise as tedious and painful as when he taught me how to tell the time, and as my impatience grew, I could tell how much time had passed.
Detangling: standing in the shower of comforting warmth. Cold water is relative, hot water is temperamental and usually scalding when it appears. It takes minutes for the water to soak through my hair. It is long and thick and reaches my rear, a symbol of pride and beauty in my family I think.
Well, I never thought so until I wanted to lop it off and my grandmother demanded the hairdresser return it to her in plastic bags. These bags, probably disintegrating in the humidity, definitely filled with secrets and stories locked within the dead cells of my hair from things I probably witnessed but was too young to understand or process. I think these haunt my grandmother’s house along with her spirit. Hair, like clothing, like skin, absorbs scents and sentimentality, it definitely keeps secrets too.
The hair is finally soaked through and I help my uncle spray Johnsons & Johnsons Doremon detangler through this black mat while he gently but firmly combs through the knots, usually yanking my head every time he was successful.
Washing: finally free of my daily trauma, my hair is ready to be washed. It threatens to re-tangle itself in the process and my uncle is patient, methodical. He breathes and I breathe too. I love the smells that are surrounding me and I feel beautiful in this moment. There is care and effort placed upon my hair that some people don’t receive themselves in their lifetime.
Maybe my hair has befriended my grandmother’s detachable buns in the decades that have passed. Maybe they have shared stories, experiences and wisdom. Maybe they’ve registered so much more than we know we’ve even experienced and they’ve been screaming out for us to listen. Maybe if we paid attention, things would have been different.
Combing: Again, after washing. I hate this part. My hair is being yanked every which way and there are tears in my eyes. My uncle soothes me while I hear my mum and grandmother in the next room and I am craning my neck around the corner to see how they are dressed. Immaculately. My mother in gold and emerald, the colours I have always associated her with. The colours that stop people in their tracks when they see her. As I got older, she’d tell me she’s always been plain. I have never understood. My grandmother, pearls and blue. Calming yet ferocious like the sea. She has never been plain. My hair is down to my butt and I’m wriggling to get away.
Treating: Coconut oil to calm the frizz. Settle my soul and make me sleepy yet I am in awe every night they leave the house. In my curls, trapped in the oil, are whispers of beauty, whispers of power, and of how when you capture the two and find the balance the way my mother and grandmother have, that you can overcome anything. I hope these whispers resurface when I need them the most.
Plaiting: Tedious. I am simultaneously ready for bed but I also want to follow these women out into the darkness of night, from function to function. Watch them captivate everyone the way I get to see every other evening.
By the time we have emerged from the bathroom I am soothed, my hair in two plaits either side of my head and swinging with the slightest movement from the weight behind them. We enter into a flurry of my grandmother adjusting her hair with such finesse while my grandfather dotes over her by zipping her baju kurung and adjusting the silk to sit just so. My own mother in the next room attending to her own make-up, brushes her hair behind her ear so she can focus more clearly.
They both have gigantic matching mirrors, elaborate and ridiculous if not for the significance of their collective beauty and the power it gathers.
The scent of their perfumes fills the entire house, lingering for hours and soothes me to sleep.
There is a flurry of activity at my grandmother’s house and Malay soap operas blaring from a small, square television screen. There are women sat on the kitchen floor weaving coconut palm leaves into diamond-shaped vessels to pour uncooked rice to create ketupat, a process so labour intensive it only occurs once or twice a year. There are no men to be seen, they have been sent away to run last minute errands. They won’t be allowed to appear again until the food is ready tomorrow.
We would visit my Nek Chor (literal translation: Big Grandmother), the oldest of my grandmother’s siblings on the first day of Eid, who had the most incredible house and the best food of the entire family.
I’d often sneak to the kitchen to observe organised chaos. On offer was multiple types of rendang, lemang (glutinous rice cooked in hollow bamboo), ketupat palas (compressed glutinous rice cooked in woven fan palm), nasi impit, peanut sauce, dendeng (dry fried beef in chilli and onion sauce), serunding (spiced, dried shredded coconut and beef) as well as an array of traditional Malay and European kueh (cakes).
No men were allowed here until it was time to eat. Nek Chor’s maid would coo at me in Malay about my face shape and my weight before returning me to my grandmothers.
Back at my grandmother’s house – afternoon tea in the Blue Room, so named for the blue carpeting, reserved for guests and very serious conversations muffled through the glass sliding door, secrets and agreements swallowed by the portraits of my grandparents which overlooked the room, absorbed by elaborate Chinese vases and pewter tea sets. Nothing commanded attention and respect faster than her food. Around the corner, the women are still there with Malay soap operas still blaring. No men in sight.