Josna Rege

104. Untangling

In 1950s, 1960s, Childhood, Inter/Transnational, Stories on April 1, 2011 at 6:01 pm

When I was about seven, I was presented with some beautifully crafted wooden marionettes. I can’t remember exactly how many, perhaps three. Although I never mastered the puppeteer’s art, they gave me many hours of pleasure (and simultaneously exercised my subtle motor skills and hand-eye coordination) as I tried to work out how to make them sit, or walk, or interact with each other, one in each hand. But what I remember most of all is the untangling.

As many hours as I spent performing delicate operations with my loose-limbed dancers, I spent far more simply untangling and disentangling them; for not only did the strings attached to each marionette’s arms and legs get into horrible snarls, but the puppets also got tied up with one another, until setting them to rights seemed like one of those impossible trials from a Grimm’s fairy tale, a recipe for temper tantrums and the tearing of hair. Yet I found it strangely satisfying.

Then as now, patience was not my strong suit. And yet, somehow, no matter how high my level of frustration and despair when I was first faced with the mass of strings and jointed wooden limbs, I was soon intently focused on it, getting into the flow, my fingers almost instinctively knowing the intricate moves to make. It forced me to sit still, slow down, and apply myself single-mindedly to the task. Not only did I experience the pleasure of fulfillment when order was finally restored, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying the process itself.

Winding Wool (

Untangling puppet strings was a solitary pleasure, while winding wool was a shared one. My mother knitted most of our woollens with her characteristic elan. Once she started knitting something for one of us, she had to get it finished as soon as possible, and everything, including meals, would be put on hold as she worked like a fury at breakneck speed, needles clicking, fingers flying. (Once, when I was about to go off to boarding school in the mountains, she knitted a beautiful sweater for me, but the first time it was washed it ballooned to twice its size. So as fast as she had made it, Mum proceeded to unmake it, unraveling it, rolling the wool back into a big ball, and starting all over again. I wore that sweater for years.) But before she began she always had to wind her wool, and for that she needed me. Hands out, palms open and facing each other, I would hold the untwisted skein, while Mum would wind the wool into a ball. Sometimes we would perform the task in reverse: as Mum unraveled a garment, I would wind the wool into a ball. It was an ordinary, everyday task performed by mothers and daughters from time immemorial, requiring a modicum of skill and attention, but allowing for conversation, song, or simply quiet communion.

Don’t let me overstate the domestic skills passed down from mother to daughter: I was too impatient and inattentive to become a knitter, and in school, as fast as I knit my squares for blankets to be sent to “the poor”, talking all the while, the teacher made me unravel them due to the dropped stitches or uneven tension. To this day I have never managed to produce a completed  garment, though I have started many a sleeve or scarf. Nevertheless, the ritual of winding has always been calming.


Another mother-daughter ritual was anything but calming: the morning combing, parting, and plaiting of hair.  Between the ages of two and four my hair had grown long, and though I don’t remember that, I do remember the tantrums that attended the daily ordeal when I started school at four. Every time the comb would hit a snarl I would scream, until my mother’s patience wore thin, and at last she insisted on cutting my hair short until I could untangle it myself. We had just returned to India from England, and I think the heat and the prevalence of head lice were also factors in her decision, but wilful as I was as a girl, being shorn against my will was a blow to my pride. At seven, soon after we moved to Greece, I started growing my hair again, and haven’t stopped since. No doubt there were still battles as my mother plaited my hair in the mornings, but it was my responsibility now to get the snarls out of my hair, a task which I would put off as long as I could, until it was a tangled mass and I contemplated in despair the prospect of having it all cut off again. This was the point at which I would have no choice but to sit down and tackle it, knot by knot.

As with untangling the marionette strings, untangling my hair turned out to be an unexpected pleasure. It was a task that took the time it took—a long time—and required patience and attention. It was invariably on a Sunday afternoon that I finally had to put all my other plans aside and sit down alone with a comb and my bare fingers, my head bent first to one side, then to the other, working slowly and methodically from one knot to the next. And as with the marionette strings, I found myself  enjoying the process, as seemingly intractable tangles gave way, and allowed me to tease out the separate strands without splitting or tearing them. At last it was done, and I could run the comb smoothly all the way through my hair from top to bottom. Today, while my hair is much thinner than it was in my girlhood, I can put it up and out of the way in a bun, postponing the painstaking task for a day or two, but eventually having to stop everything and sit down alone, one Sunday afternoon, with a comb and my bare fingers, and allow myself to take as long as it takes.

When I was a child I had a persistent delirious nightmare almost every time I ran a high temperature: that of a smooth ball, rolling freely along a smooth surface, suddenly finding itself in a tangled mess, caught up in a ferocious snarl. (See TMA 27. Rumpelstiltskin.) The uncontrollable feeling of dis-ease it produced is indescribable and, while those childhood fevers are long gone, their dreadful memory persists. Untangling, the perfect antidote to a fevered brain, unfailingly produces the opposite effect.


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  1. I enjoyed reading this very much, Josna. (On this rare Saturday when I am alone in the house and can read my favorite blogs!) Such a pleasing tangle of reminiscences. The movement from marionettes, to knitting, to hair snarls gave us a hint of the pleasure of the detangling ritual.

    • Glad you liked it, Mary. I realize that my mind tends to flit from association to association, so I might as well make a virtue of it!

  2. This reminds me of “Untangling the Meaning of Turkish Hair,” by Carol Delany, which I read while in Budapest. I can’t remember a single thing about it now, but I see it’s available via JStor!

    I, too, had long hair when I was very little, and my mother got tired of my screaming and fussing every time she tried to brush it. Thus, I had a childhood of pixie cuts. I’ve only once had my hair cut short as an adult (two years ago, so you saw it). In my 20s, it was halfway down my back, and would get so knotted and tangled underneath that I eventually went a modified route of my mother’s solution: shorter hair — but not pixies!

    Thank you for the memory of winding wool with my mother. It never took that long, and I loved the feeling of being so helpful.

    • Sarah, thanks for telling me about that essay, which I am now reading and enjoying. I guess I only scratched the surface of all the gendered cultural meanings attached to hair: so much more to reflect upon. And I like thinking of you helping your mother wind wool and screaming as she did your long hair!

  3. This one brought a smile to my tired face! I can identify with the pleasure of untangling slowly “as long as it takes” and the feeling of satisfaction at finishing is definitely a good one.
    When I took up learning how to do ribbon embroidery a few years ago, I got the same feeling of
    satisfaction because it required much patience and delicate care to make the tiny ribbons fold and sew onto a piece of velvet or a friend’s vest and look like a garden with colorful flowers blooming.
    It is the kind of art that is only understood if done oneself and the jewel tones of the silk ribbon or the even lovelier hand dyed silk ribbons of watercolor perfusion are some of my favorite to work with. You have inspired me to try to take it up again when I need a break from gardening!

    • Ribbon embroidery sounds incredibly painstaking, Marianne, and I love your descriptions of the silk ribbons. I think of myself as hopelessly clumsy with that kind of work—all thumbs—but perhaps it would be fun to try. Sometimes we surprise ourselves and revise our ideas about what we are capable of. x J

  4. This reminded me of hours that I spent holding skeins of crochet cotton while my great grandmother rolled it into balls.She supplemented her social security income by crocheting tablecloths and doilies and I was frequently the chosen one to hold the skeins draped over my skinny outstretched arms while the ball grew large in her hands. The color of the cotton yarn was always ecru – a kind of off white.

    • Beautiful, Marjorie. I can imagine you standing there with your skinny arms outstretched, at work with your great-grandmother. Thank you for posting a comment.

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