Book Review: God Loves Hair, by Vivek Shraya
by BEATRICE S. PAEZ
For all the knotty relationships he has with his peers, the nameless protagonist of Vivek Shraya’s God Loves Hair seems to have the gods on his side. The gods he reveres – Lakshmi, Vishnu, Sai Baba – figure largely in his coming of age, so much that he owes his eccentricities to them.
It’s those same eccentricities of inking himself to Vishnu blue and his over-eager anticipation of Sunday services, which ground him in his otherwise unmoored existence, in which he’s seen as an oddity by both his classmates and community.
And for all his confessional whispers of apology to Sai Rama (God) – all while trying to minimize his visibility and desperately longing for acceptance – he is unabashed in his self-expressions.
Here is a boy whose fears and anxieties about growing up – and coming out in a religious and an immigrant household – are amplified, and yet, there’s an inextinguishable refusal (however unconscious or not) to dull his personality in order to conform.
Envious of how girls seem to have all the fun that comes with playing dress-up and not one to be a closeted cross-dresser (and Nancy Drew fan), he volunteers and begs for a change in attire, swapping trendy baseball caps for a tiara.
Then there’s the issue of hair that wends its way throughout the collection of stories. With growth comes hair in the most unexpected of places. Hair, and the rituals that follow – learning how to properly shave to avoid nicks and taming the fuzzy caterpillars above the eye – become a mark of our development and gender.
Strangely, hair is also what bonds him to his mother. Hair, and its nuisance presence become central to a clever (somewhat cruel) twist of irony in how the gods respond.
In an all-too-common plea to the gods for a son to carry the name (and escape the “burden” of a girl), his mother promises to snip the locks of her first two (still unborn) sons as a sacrifice made to the Temple of Seven Hills in Tirupathi, India.
With the gods granting her tireless prayers, she follows through on her word – but waiting until he is two years old for his first cut, leaving him with enough length and volume to be mistaken for a girl for those first years of life. Not that he later minds being seen as a “pretty” doll for his aunties to make over nor does he protest when a friend wants to dye his hair a fiery red.
What pains him more is the uninvited hair that crops up for his classmates to poke fun at, “rising above my lips,” as he put it. But even his pre-pubescent (he’s an early bloomer) can’t shave it off with a blade – his parents say he’s still too young.
Though he later gets approval to get rid of his moustache when he hits 15, the long-awaited shave and a fantasy about his father giving him a how-to demonstration, is “stolen” from him when Dad says “it’s easy” enough. But those caterpillar eyebrows of his – think Bert not Frida – are a game-changer.
Following his mother’s lead, he plucks away at the furry buggers that conceal his eyes. Tired of sharing, Mom does the most innocuous yet affirming gesture of love: buys him his own pair of tweezers. A little sign, he writes, “that she knows my secret and loves me just the same.”