by Tithi Mukherjee
(New Delhi, India)
The flat, steely edge of the scissor brushed coolly against her nape. She felt them follow her long black curls, severing each damp strand. They travelled across her skull uniformly like a marching band, one by one walking out of sight. When it was time for the trimmer, she gripped her seat tightly. The tingly feeling of blade brushing against skull, unsettled her. It brought back memories of a discarded summer afternoon from long back. She held her breath as a pair of hands ran the trimmer firmly through her snipped hair with a crisp, precise finality. By the end of it she felt physically lighter and was convinced that her head might wobble if she turned it around too much. Meera looked at the mirror in front of her. A twenty six year old reflection stared at her with gaunt cheekbones, heavy black spectacles and a shiny, bald head. She moved her head from side to side, inspecting her reflection. Maa would be horrified.
It was stifling outside and the sun felt brutal, as it scalded her hairless skull. It reminded her of a tacky Glucose TV commercial from long ago where a menacing, snarling, graphical Sun siphoned the energy off of the heads of sweaty little school boys battling with a football on a field, with a large plastic straw. In spite of herself, the absurdity of the advertisement made her smile. Several people on the street stared at her in horrifying disbelief as she walked past them, looking for a taxi. She found one just around the corner from the salon. Relieved, she jumped in and told the driver where to go. The driver’s stare lingered on her pate long enough for her to irritatingly clear her throat. He looked away clumsily. As the taxi sped through the deserted Sunday bypass, the wind, whipping across her head felt as glorious as long swigs of cold cucumber water running down the insides of her parched throat on a sultry day. Meera closed her eyes and leaned her head against the back of the seat, still contemplating her mother’s reaction to this drastic physical change she had decided to go through with. It reminded her of a similar day twenty years ago at her grandparents’ place which she visited every year during the summer.
It was a stuffy day in the middle of her summer vacations, right after her sixth birthday and Meera sat in the stairs of the courtyard, twisting florets of jasmine plucked from her grandfather’s garden, all over her long black curls that curtained her entire back. He lovingly called her Rajkonye, for princesses, he said, adorned their tresses with flowers just like she did.
Her mother came up to her and told her they were going for a stroll. She asked Meera to tidy her hair which was tied up in braids with jasmine petals embedded in the knots. On the way, Maa had bought her a new doll with curls just like her, but they were golden and her skin was pink unlike Meera's which was darker. Together they walked to a shop that looked old and smelled of soap. There were rows of chairs and mirrors inside and her mother made her sit on one of the high chairs, her new doll in tow.
Maa told her that it was her friend’s shop and that Meera was to wait there till she was done visiting. She sat there playing with her doll, listening to her mother’s voice just behind her.
Suddenly, she squealed in shock as she felt a man creep up behind her and spray cold water all over her head. She looked around for her mother who was still standing behind her. It was a game he was playing with her, she said. She had to be completely still or she would lose. So little Meera sat obediently, not looking up. Occasionally she would feel a coldness brushing against her nape, a
pair of hands combing her hair, constantly and the faint sounds of snip-snip-snip.
When she finally turned her head up and looked into the mirror, a sharp pain ran straight through her heart. With tears streaming her eyes, she swung around to hit the man with her doll only to find her mother blocking her way. She looked unaffected by the man’s actions and Meera felt pangs of betrayal for the very first time. The counter in front of her was strewn with torn clumps of crushed jasmine that had refused to let go of her hair and the chair stood amidst a mass of lifeless, dark curls. Her head had been stripped off of every last strand of hair.
It was the first time that she had felt hatred towards her mother who stared apologetically into the mirror at her. On their way back, she explained to her how her birth hair had been promised as a sacrifice to a goddess prior to her birth. Meera had not spoken a single word to her mother till they reached home when she ran to her grandfather, threw her arms around him and cried for the entire day.
Her hair grew back eventually, but she had never completely forgiven her mother for that day and neither did she have curly hair after that. Her new hair grew to be ramrod straight and lanky. As she grew up and arguments with her mother became more serious than haircuts, she used the incident to accuse her of betraying her trust.
Her mother’s constant defense was cloaked under the bizarre terrains of ritualistic offerings and traditions for blessing her with a safe and healthy baby. It had no effect on Meera and instead of alleviating her pain, it incited in her, a hatred for rituals and traditions. She never let her mother touch her hair again and never listened to her when she constantly begged Meera to tie her hair up at night for fear of spirits possessing her through her unkempt hair. Since then, every argument they had, every line she crossed, every kilometre she moved away from her mother reminded her of that incident which she used it as a weapon in severing the umbilical cord.
Time played its part in this gradual estrangement, as disagreements escalated quickly from haircuts to an interest in women instead of men. Theirs became a bittersweet relationship with extra helpings of the bitter and the day she moved in with Rohini in her tiny flat in Bangalore, her mother had disconnected the phone without saying a word. It had been five years since Meera had heard her voice.
As the taxi moved closer to her destination, she let her fingers graze her barren skull. The day smelled familiar, just like that day at the saloon. It had come back to her like a fresh gust of wind, unannounced. The air smelled like the insides of a saloon, stuffy and wooden. She told herself that she was merely disobeying yet another abominable ritualistic protocol, but deep down she felt the childish resentment from long ago, lift from her soul like a heavy shroud that had heaved upon her all this while. In its place was a new shroud, entrenched with pain and loss. She felt an incarceration claw deep into her soul as she held back her tears that pounded on her throat from the insides.
The taxi screeched to a halt and Meera looked at her grandfather’s place, packed with people, dressed in white. She was here again, twenty years later with her head, now voluntarily shaved prepared to embrace a ritual completely off limits to her. Although she was a daughter and not a son, she for once wanted to resort to the traditions her mother lived and died for. Meera felt her life coming to a full circle and she wondered if Maa knew what she had done. She wondered if she would ever forgive her. ***