tugging at knotted strands
shadows loom upstream
hiding behind mirrors
unused concocted themes
hollow unseeing depths
strands that unravel like some forgotten spool
unwinding some old forgotten nameless tune
humming in the deepest recesses of thought
marveling at its life as it eagerly seeks the drain holes
to escape like truant serpents
into a chasm
to become some echo
never to return
Saturday was the busiest day of the week for my mother, since the women of my family are blessed with luxuriant tresses. I would let down my well-oiled hair and sit in the backyard waiting for Mother to get the soap nut concoction that would be simmering on the stove, since the crack of dawn. I would have three buckets of hot water waiting, my mother would tuck her saree high and pour scalding hot water on my head, wetting my hair, and scrub every strand using the soap nut solution. I would shut my eyes tight as even a single drop would cause an unbearable burning in my eyes and I would have to walk around with red eyes for a couple of days. Still, a few obstinate drops would enter my eyes, and I would howl in pain. The sickly sweet smell of the boiled soap nuts would overpower every sense. Then I would rinse off using mug after mug of hot water but the stubborn bits of soap nuts would cling to my hair till it dried.
My hair took at least four hours to dry. My mother would place some burning coal in an urn and sprinkle some sambrani powder on it. The ensuing vapours would permeate every strand, leaving it smelling divine, like the scent of incense burning in dark corners of old temples. I would sit in front of the TV on Sunday mornings and watch wistfully the shampoo advertisements on TV. The models made washing your hair look so easy and the whole ritual was joyful. But no, I was told that shampoo would make my hair turn reddish brown and even worse, lead to hair fall.
I was never allowed to leave my hair untied as it would attract unwanted attention and the rules of the family were rigid. Girls were not allowed to stand in public places and talk to friends. It was frowned upon if girls laughed out loud in public. We had to take permission to go to friends’ homes and if they had older brothers, it was denied. Going to the cinema with pals was unheard of. Talking with boys was taboo. Girls were admitted to girls’ schools and later to women’s colleges till they were married off. Girls who lead sheltered lives were the ‘good’ girls.
Dressing in anything but traditional Indian clothes was unacceptable. As for jewellery. It always had to be gold. You were judged by the amount of gold you had. You had to have a minimum of two bangles, a simple gold necklace and gold studs for your ears every day. And on weddings and special occasions you were expected to dress in resplendent silks and wear heavy jewellery. Everything was to be in gold. From your vaddanam, a band of gold around your waist, serving weirdly as a belt, to the jadagantalu, a trio of little bells tied at the end of your long plait, everything had to be gold.
At home time ensured that we were left with tradition and nothing else. Gold began to disappear in bits and pieces. I remember being quite comfortable for years and then suddenly eating only rice with plain boiled tamarind water for years. I remember being gifted with gold rings, bracelets and earrings and not finding anything. My mother would wear a thick gold rope around her neck that would turn mysteriously from gold to rust to steel grey. I noticed that she was wearing the same ear studs as the ayah at school. When I returned home from school one evening, she was talking to our neighbour and I exclaimed that it was the exact replica of what Padmamma was wearing at school. Mother winced and hurriedly changed the subject, but not before I caught sight of a smug smile on our neighbour’s face. Mother wouldn’t talk to me for hours that evening. I didn’t know why. All I remember was prattling incessantly to her, and she made strangled noises in response. She wiped her tears after a while, her nose a bright red, her eues rimmed with red. She could not even cry in peace.
Then I understood.
I would open a jewel case to pick out my favourite necklace and an empty velvet lined box would greet me. Empty shells of trinket boxes remained in the almirah, with their contents gracing the desperate, dreary walls of dingy pawn shops.
I remember, once, when I was in the ninth standard, the syllabus for Math had changed and we were told to bring forty rupees to school for the new text book. While my father raged about the education system and the school, I quietly unscrewed the tiny ear studs I was wearing and placed them on the table and went to bed, stifling my sobs. I couldn’t cry in the open, for it was considered inauspicious for girls to cry at home, it brought bad luck. The next morning, I found forty rupees waiting for me on the table.
On another occasion, I had to unclasp the thin six gram chain from around my neck for something that my father had his heart set on. I don’t even remember. All I remember were those long silences or my father’s fury.
The rage of oxidized silver had begun. Shops were inundated by cheap black metal, imitation of silver jewellery. Pretty plastic baubles, glass beads and crystal attracted the eye. I spent my meager pocket money on collecting these pieces of happiness. My mother tried to buy artificial gold jewellery but I refused after a couple of experienced eyes spotted the deception and made loud remarks. I wore my bold, brazen jewellery with arrogance and defiance. Yet it contrasted sharply with my traditional looks. I should have been wearing loads of gold with those looks. On me, the bold jewellery clashed and called for more attention than otherwise. Sometimes I tried to go without any jewellery at all. I liked the stark look in the mirror, I looked pure, out of this world, almost ethereal. But then people looked at me with undisguised sympathy, derision and glee. I tried to ignore it all but I was only a teenager.
After being a misfit in social circles and family, I decided to take matters in my hand. I visited Blue Heaven and said goodbye to my tresses. When I returned home, my mother took one horrified look at me and refused to speak to me for a month. My father raged at my mother, saying it was her fault, but he did not look me in the eye. Some friends were impressed by my bold step and on the other hand, some took great delight in telling me exactly why I should not have chopped my hair off.
‘You know, I do prefer your traditional look,’ said a ‘well-meaning friend’. Well, they mean well. Yes, they do. Who are we kidding? I shot a murderous look at her and coldly informed her I would ask for her opinion if I wanted it. That was the turning point in my interaction with people. Everybody in the world was entitled to an opinion, as long as it was not shared with me. She smiled sheepishly and said, ‘But you look nice now too.’ I tossed my head and turned away. Why do people have a pathological need to express their opinion?
Well, my extended family went to the extent of casting aspersions on my character. After all I wasn’t a ‘good’ girl any more, was I? But I didn’t care. Now I could carry off all my flamboyant junk jewellery with aplomb. Yes, I was labelled modern, brazen, unconventional and headstrong. But who cares? I knew what I was, and what I did was right for me.
Another good thing came out of the whole episode. I never had to endure that Saturday morning ordeal anymore. And I used shampoo. You see, my mother stopped caring. Finally.