Comb or Brush? An Immigrant’s Knotty Dilemma

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Like everyone else, I used a comb to maintain my hair when I was growing up in India. My comb, an unbranded, unsung item I would have picked up at a local provisions store, was about eight inches long and two inches wide, made of plastic, one half wide-toothed for removing knots and the other fine-toothed for silkening the hair.

The fine-toothed section had a second incidental function: you could capture a louse easily in the interstices between the teeth. The sight of a little black wriggling body was often the first sign to the user of the comb that she must take measures to delouse her head. Head lice were not a big deal. Almost everyone had them at one time or another. Head lice were not life-threatening. They gave children, me among them, something to do. In a dull class at school, I would track the tickle of little feet on my scalp and pluck their owner from my head. I’d watch it flail then place it on one thumbnail and squash it with the other. True to cliché, my mother, too, spent many pleasant afternoons sifting through my hair. If you had only a few lice, you or your mother took care of them. If you were hosting them in larger numbers, you used lice shampoo and made a graveyard of your head.

I knew what a hairbrush was, of course, but I didn’t own one. Neither did my sisters, my mother, or anyone else I knew. Fat and imposing, fancy and elitist, possessed of broad, gleaming backs denied the two-dimensional comb, a hairbrush was as foreign and intimidating an object as a roll of toilet paper. Meditatively plied by the hand of a foreign-returnee—we all knew at least one—or by the hands of flawless models on TV with impossibly long hair, they told of a distant superior world, marked a division between continents as explicit as a longitude and more tangible.

When I came to America twenty-five years ago I packed a comb, maybe two, in my luggage. Years later, after I finished my graduate studies, after I got married, after I had kids and they grew up a little and allowed me time for such minutia, I turned my attention to the fact that most people in America owned a hairbrush.

I have always been interested in good living, proper living, the best way of living, which, growing up an English-speaking urban dweller in a country where the majority of English-speaking urban dwellers crane their necks towards the West from the time they know where the West lies, I’ve always believed to be the Western way of living.

Years ago, when I was still working as a consultant, I grew tired of the frizziness to which my hair is genetically prone, which contrasted unfavorably with the svelte cashmere sweaters and wool suits I wore. So I bought the best flat iron on the market, perfected the use of it, and have (almost) never had frizzy hair again. I learned to wear rain boots, the most uncomfortable footwear ever designed, whereas in India I’d sloshed through deluges in open-toed sandals, never caring if the skin on my feet wrinkled and nameless bits of grit and gunk lodged between my toes. I learned the correct way to highlight my eyes—a smudged grey-black line on both lids applied directly with an eyeliner, as opposed to a severe soot-black line on only the lower lid drawn with a forefinger dipped in a tiny box of kajal, the way I grew up doing. I gathered my wisdom in intense spurts, using my exacting consultant’s mind to cull through the blizzard of information on internet blogs—each written earnestly enough to make even the most frivolous topic seem urgent—for the bits that shone gem-like with authenticity. I internalized these gems with diligent practice until, day by day, I got closer to being the well-adapted immigrant engaged in proper Western living.

Yet, I did not consider buying a hairbrush. After all, unlike my accent, my clothes, and my face, I could keep my use of a comb private. There was no pressing need to switch to a hairbrush like there was to aspirate my “t”s and “p”s—and alter my spelling. (I still smolder to think of the laugh my boss had at my expense when I spelled “spelled” like spelt. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to say, “It’s how the British spell it.” Because, of course, being British is better than being American.)

Even if I wanted to buy a brush, I wouldn’t have known exactly what kind to buy without spending time on the internet. My local CVS had a wall full of brushes, each affixed to a piece of cardboard that extolled its virtues. There were round, oval, ceramic, plastic, and wooden hairbrushes. Bristles could be thick or thin, short or long, natural or synthetic. I knew some things. I knew you used round brushes when you blow-dried your hair, but even these came in a variety of materials and sizes—which to pick? CVS carried plastic combs, too, which looked a lot like my Indian comb. That is, Americans did use combs but never just a comb. Combs were inferior; they performed lesser functions. Hairstylists used skinny little combs for parting the hair before they cut it. The comb, the primary and often exclusive hair maintenance tool in the country of my birth, looked cheap—underdeveloped?—next to the multitude of structurally complex hairbrushes. There was simply more hairbrush to a hairbrush than comb to a comb.

I was curious. What was the origin of the comb versus brush divide? Did it take root in differences in hair type? Constraints in materials and manufacturing facilities? Or did it simply mean that a hairbrush-wielding society had crossed the threshold of prosperity beyond which its people could afford to spend on doodads and foppery?

I searched for “the history of the hairbrush” on the internet and found consensus that everything began with combs. For instance, a well-written blog post on Withings by Annelise Driscoll suggests that combs date back to the origins of man-made tools: “[C]arved from bone, wood, and shells, they were initially used to groom hair and keep it free of pests, such as lice.” From these beginnings, combs evolved into decorative accessories for hairstyles that became more and more elaborate with time and thus indicative of wealth and power. For instance, an article on LoveToKnow describes combs shaped like butterflies and birds and made of rhinoceros horn, gold, pearls, silver, or jade that women used to hold their sky-high hairdos in place, and a Chinese “coronet” comb that was so wide it required the wearer to turn her head sideways when passing through a door. Of course, women use combs even today as hair accessories: the ubiquitous crocodile clip is nothing but two comb-like pieces joined together.

However, elaborate hairstyles didn’t just happen. Sophisticated tools were required to create them—and so the hairbrush was born. Only the rich needed them which was convenient because, made by hand at first and expensive, only the rich could afford them. Today, thanks to automation combined with capitalist excess, companies such as Kent Brushes in Great Britain make hundreds of varieties of hairbrushes, including ones that cost more than two hundred dollars.

From the Withings blog post: “Because of their primary use as a styling tool (instead of a grooming tool), hairbrushes were an indulgence reserved exclusively for those with the money to purchase them.” Aha! I thought, when I read this. It implies that people who use only combs, Indians among them, are content with grooming their hair: doing the bare minimum of removing knots and lice. This is the reason there are no hairbrushes in India. Recall that, to vindicate my decision to leave my country, I need to believe that everything is better outside it.

Internet experts are not unanimous about the inferior position of the comb. For instance, there are blog posts that suggest it is better to comb your hair than to brush it: “[C]ombing may actually be the way to go,” claims a post on Beautiful on Raw, since hairbrushes pull the hair in many directions at once and stress the hair follicles. If you set aside dueling expert opinions and appeal to your common sense, it will suggest—sensibly—that comb versus brush is not a make-or-break decision. Your hair is tough, like you; it will survive your choice of tool. Yet every immigrant is faced with the choice between comb and brush, among other contentious choices, when she moves west.

When my daughter was little and had no say in the matter, I combed her hair. When she grew older, she osmotically came to know about hair brushes, and a neon-pink Wet Brush that was supposed to glide through tangles without breakage or pain appeared in the house, increasingly clogged with hair and dust. Soon it was like she’d never had her hair combed. I learned to say “Brush your hair,” instead of “Comb your hair.” I said “Pack your brush” for a sleepover, because American girls didn’t pack their combs. It was one more thing among the things that set her apart: her experiences at school in messy classrooms with desks that didn’t necessarily face the teacher, her eating of pretzels and weird candy, the way she rolled the words pajamas and banana like pajyamas and banyana. Her fingers simply curled more easily around the handle of a hairbrush than they did around the spine of a comb, just like her hands would not cup into the shape necessary to collect water from a faucet.

I grew up rinsing my mouth with water that I collected in my cupped hands. I still do this. The white ceramic tumbler I recently bought (part of a countertop set consisting of a tray, a tumbler, and a toothbrush holder) frowns at me from its station on the bathroom counter. Yes, I finally figured out what the cup in hotel bathrooms is for. Yes, I’ve come a long way since the time I asked a store assistant for a toothbrush holder then picked up a tumbler and said, “Never mind, I found it.” (How puzzled she looked.)

Privileged by the apparent inability to cup their hands, my kids need not worry about unlearning a habit they never had. And so, ever since they could stand, a pink plastic tumbler has reposed on the sink for their use. When we visit India, I borrow a steel tumbler from the kitchen for this purpose.

The use of tumblers versus cupped hands may be explained by differences in climate. It’s warm in India; you hardly ever cringe at the touch of water. But as with hair brushes, so with tumblers. There is an alternate explanation for those of us who’d like to believe the American way is better: somewhere along the way from stone tools to tractors and computers, Western society invented a superior method of rinsing via the rinse cup.

Alas, the internet, unbiased on average because of its vastness, won’t let us believe this for long. Apparently, rinsing with a tumbler may be life-threatening. Many dentist websites include a comprehensive list of the dangers lodging on your tumbler. For instance, according to a post on the website of Josey Lane Dentistry, your tumbler may harbor, among other contaminants, cold and flu viruses, which linger on household rinsing glasses for up to seventy-two hours, and fecal matter, which is released each time a toilet flushes. But, as an alternative to rinsing with a cup, the dentists do not recommend that you stoop to using cupped hands: they instead ask that you consider not rinsing at all.

Still, you can carry your hands and your comb on your person or in the two bags you’re allowed on your flight to America, each weighing no more than fifty pounds, and use them in whatever way you wish. You cannot, however, pack a faucet and running water.

If you were born in India and lucky enough to grow up with access to a toilet, it would have had a faucet next to it. A plastic mug, maybe a bucket, would have stood below the faucet. You would have filled your mug with water and proceeded. American toilets, of course, do not have taps next to them, and this forces the Indian immigrant to examine her cleansing routine. Some of us switch immediately to toilet paper. Some of us fill a mug with water from the sink before we take a seat. The ingenious among us dip a wad of toilet paper in a mug filled with water and so combine the best of both hemispheres. Whichever method we follow, alter our behavior we must. It is as if America made a deal with us: “I will give you a fine life,” said America, “if you adapt to my toilets.”

As you might expect, the reverse adjustment, which Americans like my children must make when they visit India, is not difficult. Ever accommodating of the Westerner, India maintains plentiful stores of toilet paper.

I visit India with my family once a year and spend most of my time in Mumbai in a house where the bathrooms are always stocked with toilet paper. Jet lagged and tired, I go to bed as soon as I arrive. Stuffed uncompromisingly with cotton, the mattress and pillows are as unyielding as when I was growing up. They are heaven. Unlike my fitted sheet in America, which I wake to fix twenty times a night, the sheet there stays put. I don’t quite know why; perhaps because it’s humid or because the fabric is coarse. The bed linens are unfussy and sparse: no throw pillows, no quilt, no flat sheet. The floor does not creak. The floor is coated with the dust of millennia, which makes my feet grubby and rubs off on the sheets. The air doesn’t have a nip in it. The ceiling fan whirs and moans, and a breeze, heavy with damp and smells, irritates my face. All sorts of sounds come from the open window: drums and music from some gathering or other, someone yelling, stray dogs barking their offensives. A rooster crows at 4 a.m.; various people begin ringing the doorbell starting at 7 a.m. The maidservant begins her clatter at 8 a.m. I sleep well.

In 2018 we visited my father, who lives in a little house perched in the foothills of the Himalayas ten hours by train from New Delhi, an environment as different from the house in Mumbai as a log cabin in Boundary Waters, Minnesota is different from a Boston brownstone. The car dropped us off on the main road, and from there we hiked up a steep path to the house. Once inside, we were like flightless birds in a treetop nest. My son whispered a question in my ear. Though I didn’t want to bother my ninety-year-old father, I relayed the question to him on an off-chance he could assist. He immediately sent a lad scurrying to the local provisions store, two miles down the main road. The boy came back, breathless, bearing an eight-pack of toilet paper rolls. He had no idea what we needed it for, but plainly he was proud to have been of use.

Whether they like it or not, our Indianness has rubbed off on our children in indelible ways. Like us, they won’t bundle up in sweaters or wear shoes or socks or booties indoors. Like us, they don’t own dressing gowns and don’t use washcloths. They don’t layer their clothing, don’t wash their hair every day, don’t watch football. They’ve visited more countries in the world than they have states in America. They like spicy food and know what to do in Indian restaurants. Their difference will be clear to the people in their lives even when—when!—people no longer notice the color of their skin.

Twenty-four years after I came to America, I finally bought myself a hairbrush, an oval paddle brush with boar bristles. The handle felt weird in my hand. The bristles hurt my scalp and caused static even in summer. I couldn’t understand what was so great about it—it wouldn’t even catch my hair. Most of the time I forgot it was there and reached for my comb. Then suddenly one day I’d punish my scalp with a hundred brushstrokes. Finally, I stuck my comb in the hairbrush and noticed that the bristles kept the comb upright and kept it from getting wet on the counter. I figured I’d found a fine use for the hairbrush.

In the matter of lice, however, I’m all-American. When my daughter was in third grade, there was a lice infestation among the children in her class. The school nurse sent a frantic email to the parents, reading which I was properly aghast and, as the school recommended, immediately took my daughter to a delousing salon. For two hours, I watched a girl slather my daughter’s head with conditioner and comb out her hair. When they showed me the little bodies embedded in the lather, like dirt in snow, I recoiled as convulsively as if I’d never squashed a louse on my thumbnail and wiped the blood on my dress. And when my daughter went back to school, I threw an all-American fit about violation of privacy because the nurse checked her head in the lobby in front of other parents, and did not feel in the least like an imposter.

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Rumpus original art by Eva Azenaro Acero.


Anu Kandikuppa's writing has appeared or will appear in Epiphany, Michigan Quarterly Review, Salt Hill, The Cincinnati Review (miCRo), The Normal School, and other journals, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net anthology. Anu worked as an economics consultant in a former life and lives in Boston. Her website is www.anukandikuppa.com. More from this author →