Anatomy of a Braid Cutting: WhatsApp, Work Troubles and Attention
From blaming mischievous demons to black magic from Bengal, there are all sorts of theories that have collectively whipped up a fresh, new sundae of mass hysteria in north India — at least two dozen cases of mysterious hair cutting or “braid chopping” have been reported to the Delhi Police in August alone. Since June, 90 more such incidents have been recorded from states like Haryana, Rajasthan, and Punjab.
Unfortunately in most of these areas with little scientific temper, the media has ended up being a force multiplier — knowingly or unknowingly.
As the dust around this hysteria begins to somewhat settle, I set out to experience the lives of three women who claim to be victims of the braid cutting menace, to understand a day in their life, and as a psychologist suggested, get a sense of whether there is a part of it that they may be subconsciously trying to escape.
A Room With Four Corners
In an unassuming six-foot-wide lane replete with potholes — lined with tiny shops selling everything from saris to utensils on either side — lies the house of 35-year-old Mamata Amar.
Situated on the ground floor, Amar’s one-room set is one among 14 rooms, all symmetrically aligned, with just three toilets for the 14 families. As we sit in her room, the roof slowly leaks raindrops from earlier that day.
Separate corners have been singled out to serve different functions in the room. In one corner Mamata has a gas stove and some utensils; in another she has hung a clothesline; the third has a single khat for the family of three, and the fourth is earmarked for the Gods.
As I ask Mamata about her family, I sense a sadness in her voice. While financial insecurity is among her most immediate concerns, the alienation she feels from her in-laws comes a close second.
I ask her to take me through the ‘braid-cutting’ incident – she tells me that while performing her prayers on the morning of 3 August, she was suddenly struck with a piercing headache, after which she felt dizzy and fell to the ground.
When she woke up, she says, she noticed large swathes of hair lying next to her.
A child in her neighbourhood found her lying on the floor and called on the others. Within minutes, the whole colony, and the media (reporters were covering another nearby braid chopping incident) arrived at the spot. She was taken to the hospital, where she was treated for low blood sugar and discharged within a few hours.
Mamata laments that away from her family in Bihar, she has nobody apart from her husband and child here in Delhi. In a hushed voice, she tells me how nobody from the other 13 houses came forward to help her cope with the incident.
‘I am Old, What Would I Do With Attention?’
Just a few lanes away, lies the house of another victim. Kamla Yadav, a 52-year-old has been a homemaker all her life. With the coming of a daughter-in-law, though, her daily chores have been somewhat reduced.
Kamla has been suffering from a bad knee problem for a while, because of which she is bound to her second floor room.
As we sit down to chat, her husband joins in. There’s a certain marital distance between the two — nothing extraordinary in the Indian milieu. A no-nonsense man, he is a little irritated with how the family has suddenly become the talk of the town after the incident.
As he voices his annoyance, Kamla angrily retorts,
However, she does further go on to say,
Kamla is the second victim of braid cutting in Kapashera. The two cases happened a few lanes away from each other, separated by just a few hours.
Both families deny the involvement of another person, and blame an ‘external force’ instead.
“The whole house was locked. I was sleeping next to my husband and grandson. I had a headache, and when I asked my grandson to turn on the light, I woke up to find my hair on the floor,” says Kamla.
Kamla, who had gotten to know of this menace just a few days ago, recalls how it happened to her just a few days after she reached her home.
On 25 August, I got to know that there is a braid cutting menace in our locality. When I returned home from a trip on 29 August, I asked my daughter-in-law to get us nimboo and mirchi to cast the spell off from our house. Just three days later, on the night of 2 August, it happened to me.Kamla Yadav
My last stop is the village of Kangan Heri near Najafgarh. Lush greens and a cloak of patriarchy greet you at its gates.
A Broken Daily Routine
Munish Dabodiya says she gets up at 5 am daily. She is in her sixties, but goes to the fields to work everyday. Her frail bones may revolt, but that doesn’t mean she gets to skip the daily grind. It’s almost a sacred duty for every woman, who doesn’t tend to the household chores, to work in the fields. The domestication duties have been passed on to her daughter-in-law ever since she came into the family.
On 30 July, at 10: 30 am, Munish claims she had a searing headache, and only later did she realise that her hair had been cut off.
Munish, who usually wears a lot of gold, says the gold was intact after the ‘braid-cutting’. She rules out any miscreant from the village.
This tiny village had 3 instances of braid cutting on the same day. While the first incident happened at 8 am, Munish’s ‘attack’ happened at 10:30 am, and yet another one happened at 11 am. The police has few leads.
Now, a headache that lasts for days after a haircut may seem a bit odd to the upper middle class city dweller. But it’s a legitimate concern for Munish.
Of Repressed Feelings
“In my sasuraal in Rajasthan, women don’t even step out in salwaar kameez. Let alone have their hair chopped,” Kamla tells me.
For an urban educated woman, the cutting of hair might seem a trivial issue. But in the socio-economic context of Kapashera where Kamla resides, a woman with short hair is considered an aberration. Baal katti is a euphemism for the modern, morally flawed woman.
Another neighbor chimes in, “Today, young kids like you sport short haircuts. But we were told that girls with open hair would get possessed.”
Nonetheless, I tell Kamla she looks nice with short hair, and she gives me a beaming smile.
Meanwhile, bogged down with the harsh realities of life, Mamata Amar, 35, has taken refuge in the temporary bliss she feels while spending time with her child. Work didn’t interest her so much, she says.
Munish too has kept away from work ever since the braid cutting incident.
Talking to a psychologist back in Delhi, I’m told how in certain cases when a person has little agency in real life, they can make “subconscious efforts” to fulfill a desire that is otherwise repressed or denied to them.
In this case, the women in their cloistered lives, bogged down by the heavy weight of their daily drudgery, do at a subconscious level desire an escape, even a temporary one, and attention — not the ugly self serving kind, but merely as an acknowledgement of their existence aside from their marital duties.
And superstition, with its distance from logic, offers a good launch pad.
Anxiety: A Breeding Ground for Hysteria
“On WhatsApp we hear a kid is being turned into a snake or that a baba is behind all these braid cuttings as part of a black magic spell.... only God knows what the truth is,” says a local.
WhatsApp and hearsay majorly contribute to the multiplication of this braid cutting hysteria. But at its core lies anxiety.
Dr Sameer Malhotra, a psychologist at Max Healthcare specialising in behavioural sciences, says there is a possibility that dissociative actions fueled by mass hysteria are behind these instances.
“When there is stress and there is a low self esteem, it could lead one to a dissociative action that the person doesn’t recall later,” says Dr Malhotra. In other words, it is an altered state of mind where the person can perform an action and have it erased from their memory.
The said person also fills in the gaps in certain memories with false information without consciously realising it.
Such actions can be subconsciously influenced by another person in the vicinity, which could explain why there were multiple incidents reported from the same area.
Could this all be a play of the mind and its anxieties, or is there a miscreant hiding behind the cloak of a mass hysteria? Somewhere in between probably lies the real story behind these braid cuttings.
(Video Editor: Ashutosh)
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