If someone were to see Oreen Navle below Mumbai's Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre on Tuesday afternoon, minutes after she went bald, they'd have thought she had just won the Miss Universe title. The happiness on her face was evident.
She smiled at everyone -- from the hospital staff to curious passersby, from the liftman to the security guard stationed at the hospital's entrance. She even gave a surprised passerby a warm hug!
For those who wondered what was going on, she explained, "I have donated my hair for cancer patients."
Oreen was one of 50 women who turned up at Jaslok for #Hairley Angels, an event where women donated their hair for cancer patients on the occasion of International Women's Day.
The donated hair was handed to the NGO, Cope with Cancer. It will be made into wigs that will be given free of cost to cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy and have lost their hair.
"God has blessed me with such good hair," says 56-year-old Oreen, who has never sought the help of dyes or chemicals to colour her hair. "My hair is naturally black. I wanted to donate it for a good cause before it starts to grey. And that's why I'm here."
She cried a few times, she says, before she took the decision. "When I combed my hair before leaving home, I knew I was doing it for the last time till it grows back. But now, I feel good and happy."
Oreen had walked into the event with two bags full of hair. "It's my hair," she smiles. "For the last five years, whenever I combed my hair, I collected the fallen strands. I hoped, someday, to donate it for a good cause. That day has finally come."
Like Oreen, Sneha Shetty, a journalist who specialises in travel features, decided to donate all her hair. "By going bald," she explains, "I am making a statement. When anyone asks me why I did it, I want to tell them this is my attempt to support those who are suffering from cancer. This is not a fashion statement, but it makes me feel good."
Oreen and Sneha were not the only ones.
Sanjay Dalal took a day off from work so that he could bring his school-going daughters, Riya and Sana, to the event. "I wanted them to donate something that belongs to them, something that I wouldn't have to fund," he says. "That's why I urged them to donate their hair."
His younger daughter, who loves her long hair, decided to snip off her crowning glory to help someone in need. "I don't want to worry about losing my hair right now. I have taken a decision and I want to stand by it!" she says, touching her gorgeous hair.
When her turn arrived, Sana walked up to the front of the room. Scrambling onto a chair, she bowed her head and waited patiently. Celebrity hair stylist Sapna Bhavnani tied the 12-year-old's hair into a neat ponytail, paused for a minute and then, employing her handy pair of scissors, snipped off 12 inches. A loud cheer was heard in the room and Sana's nervous face lit up.
As she bounced off the chair, she twirled her short bob, flaunted the new hair-do before her older sister Riya, who was next in line, and then reached out for her mobile phone to click a selfie.
As Sapna got back to work, she seemed overwhelmed by the number of women who turned up for the event.
"It's great to see that so many women chose to donate their hair. People don't need to personally know someone suffering from cancer to be a part of this cause. It is necessary to care because, at the end of the day, we are human," she says.
"I'm very particular about my hair and its length," adds Samantha Samuels, a real estate agent working for a brokerage firm. "I can imagine how these women feel when they lose their hair. It must be very depressing. I have had friends who have passed away fighting cancer and I know what they went through. But, as Sapna Bhavnani says, you don't need a personal experience to do something like this. You have hair. Donate it. Put a smile on their faces."
The initiative seemed to have struck a chord with Sana and the wide smile on her face made her father smile too. "Just the other day, I saw an ad in the newspaper asking people to donate their hair for wigs for cancer patients. To be honest, I initially mistook it for a shampoo ad. But on taking a closer look, I realised it was an opportunity for my daughters to be a part of a good cause."
"People have often told me that charity begins at home. I think it is crucial as a parent to instil the urge to donate or do something for charity in children from an early age. If I push them today, tomorrow they will be crusaders of change in someway or the other," he says.
While Sana didn't prepare much for this day, there were others who had been preparing for months. Ritu Anand, 41, has been growing her hair so that she could give it to someone who'd be willing to make wigs for cancer patients.
"My maasi (aunt) is a cancer survivor," she says. "When she was fighting cancer, I used to go wig hunting with her. I have experienced the struggle of sourcing a good wig at a reasonable cost." That's when she decided she would not cut her hair until she could donate it.
"I just wish that such an initiative was there 20 years ago. I'd have a lot more hair to give," she laughs. "In school and college, I always had short hair. But, post marriage, I kept my hair long."
Shweta Singh, who is studying for her masters in banking and finance, has a slightly different reason. "I stay in Parel. I pass the Tata Memorial Hospital (it specialises in cancer treatment and research and attracts patients from all over the country) every day on my way back home. I see people who suffer from cancer every day and I thought this is something small that I can do for them. I hope it reaches them."
Heena Parmecha, on the other hand, donated her hair in memory of a friend's aunt who lost her battle to cancer. "It was painful to see her struggle. She passed away eventually," says the 21 year old, fighting hard not to break down.
Fiona Joshi, an investment banker, has similar reasons. "I saw the ad for the hair donation and it inspired me. I have friends who have fought cancer. When they talk about their low points, they always mentioned the loss of their hair. This is my tribute to all my friends who have faced cancer."
Cut-a-thons (donating hair for cancer victims) have been immensely popular in the West. But the problem that plagues them is to find a use for the mountains of donated hair, most of which cannot be made into wigs.
Back home, wig-makers face a similar situation. Cope with Cancer has been actively involved in making wigs for cancer patients for the last three years.
"The hair donated by one person is not enough to make one wig," says Dr Anand Parihar, of Cope with Cancer. "We need at least six, seven donors to make one single wig. When we dust the donated hair, a lot of it just falls off. There's very little hair left that can be put to good use. But, yes, if the donor's hair is really long and dense, it could be used for one wig. But that is a rare case."
Oreen's contribution brought a smile on Dr Parihar's face. "Given its length and density, we are sure it would be sufficient for one wig."
"People don't need to wait for an event to donate their hair. If you want to donate your hair -- the minimum length of hair to be donated for a wig is 12 inches -- then you can log on to our Web site (www.copewithcancer), follow the instructions on cutting your hair the right away, pack it in a plastic bag and courier it to us. You never know, your hair might bring a smile on someone's face."
And that, he says, is one of the best gifts women can give cancer patients. "At times, these patients lose their self-esteem. We want to spread awareness and get people to donate their hair, knowing that it would be used for someone who needs it," says Dr Tarang Gianchandani, CEO, Jaslok Hospital.
Meanwhile, the Oberoi Mall in Goregaon, a northwest Mumbai suburb, had seen a stream of people walk in on March 7. They were not there to shop; their visit to the mall had a completely different purpose.
Niranjan Karnad, a photographer by profession had travelled from far flung Boisar to donate his hair. Unfortunately, it was not long enough. "I fell a few inches short of the mandatory 15 inches," he shrugs. But he is not disheartened.
"My brother and I," he explains, "used to hold plays and magic shows for children at the Tata Memorial Hospital a few years ago. Then, our busy work schedules intervened. I had heard about this hair donation event last year and thought if I can't host events for children, at least my hair can be used to make wigs for them."
Niranjan plans to continue growing his hair so that he can donate it next year.
Both Nehal, a receptionist at a hospital, Bina Biju, a housewife, were there because they wanted to help cancer patients. "I can't do much for them," says Bina, "but this is something I could do in my own small way." Both ladies, now sporting hair much shorter than the length they had walked in with, walked away proudly.
But it was Mehal Biju, Bina's daughter and a Class 4 student at Our Lady Of Nazareth High School, who stunned everyone present at the event. A Bharata Natyam dancer, she was there to perform at the event. And then, the little girl did something that warmed everyone's heart.
She walked up to the chair to get her hair snipped off. "I'm here to help cancer patients," she says proudly.
Watch the video to see how Orleen Navle went bald to support cancer patients!
Photographs: Hitesh Harisinghani/Rediff.com
Video: Afsar Dayatar/Rediff.com