Political Stories by Volga

Political Stories-1

Sita’s braid

Sita collects the clumps of fallen hair and holds them securely under her big toe. Whenever she combs her hair, so much comes loose. A month ago she came down with a serious illness. Although her sixty-year-old body has since gradually regained strength, her hair continues to fall. Looking at the silvery white threads coming off with each pass of the black comb, Sita becomes agitated. Tears well up in her eyes as the hair she once considered to be so precious falls out and she can do nothing but stare at it. Memories associated with her hair and the hopes and desires entwined with it stir within. Right from a very young age Sita had understood that her hair was important. In fact, the very realization that she was a girl had dawned on her because of her hair. Her mother used to take very good care of her black, silky tassel as it grew. She would sun-dry various kinds of leaves and flowers, soak them in hot coconut oil and work the extract vigorously into Sita’s scalp. She was a busy bee on the days she anointed Sita’s head. First she would apply pure castor oil to the hair, and then, after letting it soak for an hour, wash it with the extract of soap nut seeds. Afterwards she would light incense sticks, drying the hair as smoke enveloped the room, and then gently comb it to remove the knots. She usually topped it off arranging a string of jasmine or nutmeg flowers in Sita’s braid. Looking at the flower-decked hair, she would kiss Sita on the head and say, Pretty hair is what makes a woman beautiful.” Because of all the fuss her mother made and the compliments her hair received from the neighbors, Sita felt that she was what her hair made her to be. But once in a while Sita would get annoyed with the hair and want to cut it off so it wouldn’t get in the way of everything she did. She wished she could have it all shaved off and could roam free like her brothers who were tonsured for the summer months. If she were tonsured, it wouldn’t be necessary for her mother to work her hair every morning and evening. All that pain and suffering could be avoided. She wouldn’t have to wait until her mother combed it all nice and smooth; she could just run to the playground whenever her friends called. Nobody would complain that she was roaming around with unkempt hair. On Sundays she wouldn’t have to go through that hated combing to remove lice. On Sundays when her mother sat behind her with a fine-toothed comb, Sita thought of her as an incarnation of the God of Death. Should her mother find nits in the hair — you wouldn’t wish that pain on your enemies! 

She asked her mother one day if she could have her hair removed. Her mother scolded her: “Are you crazy? A girl should have her hair in nice braids, decked with flowers. Why do you want to remove hair like a hero?” Sita couldn’t understand why a shaved head was becoming of a hero? And if it was such a good thing for a hero, then why not for her as well? Once when she was not even ten-years old Sita witnessed a terrifying scene. It was said that the sixteen-year-old servant maid in the house of their neighbor, a doctor, had stolen something. She was sent away with her head shaved off clean and painted with white streaks of lime. She was neither beaten nor handed over to police. The maid went home crying her heart out. As she watched the girl walk home along the street, sobbing violently with her hands covering the shameful white streaks, Sita couldn’t help crying herself. She cursed the neighbors for shaving the maid’s head rather than yelling at her, beating her or handing her to the police. That night, as she removed the string of jasmines from her hair and put it securely away in a towel so it wouldn’t get crushed, Sita thought of the maid. Pulling the blanket over her head so nobody could see her, Sita cried for a long time that night over the maid’s lost hair. Sita had studied at a Missionary school from the eighth grade onwards. When she arrived at the school for the first time, Sita was shocked at the sight of the clean-shaven heads of the nuns. She remembered her aunt and realized that she had always thought that women were shaved off only when their husbands passed away. But these nuns weren’t even married, Sita couldn’t figure out why their heads were shaved. She and her friends discussed it.

“Why do they shave off their hair?”

 “Because they don’t get married?” 

“Why remove hair if you are not married?”

 “What is the link between marriage and hair?”

 “It seems you won’t have any desires if you don’t have hair.”

 “Desires? What desires?”

 “To wear flowers in your hair, to get married, to have children, those kind of desires.” “Well, they can’t have flower-decked braids for the wedding day, so how can they get married?” 

Sita’s respect for her hair increased. Stroking her hair affectionately, she thought: One has desires only if she has hair – otherwise, not.Oh, my!

“No, it is not like that. With hair, one looks pretty. These nuns are not supposed to look pretty.”

 “Why not?”

 “I don’t know.”

 “See how pretty Sister Ignatius looks even without hair! She is prettier than women with hair.”

 “Yes, yes,” said everybody in unison. 

When Sita was in the 10th grade there was a big brouhaha in her family about her twin braids. It was Sita’s grandmother who started it all. “The girl is old enough now. She is growing like a palm tree. One of these days we have to get her married. How long is she going to wear two braids?” she complained. It had only been six months or so since Sita assumed the care of her own hair. Until then her mother had been parting her hair in the middle, combing it on each side into a tight braid beginning just above the ear, and tving a ribbon to the end so she could fold the braid in half and tie it at the top. About six months ago a teacher at the school had taken a fancy to Sita’s hair and had her unbraid the tight plaits, comb the hair down rather than up and tie it in two loose braids without ribbons. But no one at home had liked those braids; they made fun of them and raised a lot of commotion. But Sita cried, stood her ground and continued to wear her hair down in two loose braids. Now there was pressure on Sita from everybody in the family to drop the twin plaits and wear just one braid. Sita resisted for a while, but eventually conceded to their wish. She gradually got used to the thick, long braid and grew rather proud of it with all the attention it garnered. She took good care of it. It used to amuse her when the other girls complained that their hair wasn’t growing despite the care they gave it and all of the various potions they used. But there was one friend who never cared much for Sita’s hair. “So what if one has hair or not? Why does one need hair? It is the brain under the hair that is important. You are using your brain just for thinking about your hair and caring for it. You better forget about your hair and start using your brain for something else,” was what that girl Subhadra said. Subhadra’s hair was just shoulder length. That might have been the reason why she talked like that, Sita imagined. Sita did continue to be preoccupied with her hair. She eventually failed her high school exams, and ended up getting married. She thought her husband was enchanted with her hair. In fact, he was. For the first three months he praised her hair at every chance, but then he began to complain about it, having realized that Sita’s focus on her hair was getting in the way of a lot of things. Whenever he wanted to go somewhere with Sita, he had to make allowance for Sita taking a half hour to do her hair. He also resented the care and attention she lavished on her hair. “So what if a few strands are loose? Why don’t you just cut the hair short?” he said, provoking tears in her eyes. Eventually he stopped paying any attention to her hair, which became a thorn in her side. When Sita was thirty, her husband passed away leaving her with their two sons. The young widow was frightened at the prospect of her grandmother demanding that she should now shave off her hair. The grandmother did arrange a grand inquisition as feared, but Sita’s brothers intervened on her behalf. At the time these arguments were going on, one day Subhadra came to see Sita. “Those who say that hair makes a woman attractive, that it is very important for women and all that furn around and demand that the woman should shave it off when the husband dies. Hair grows naturally. It is ridiculous to keep it or shave it off for the sake of social reasons,” she opined. Sita liked that. Subhadra encouraged her further: “I don’t know whether you loved your husband or not, but I know well that you love your hair. Don’t remove it under any circumstances,” she said. Sita’s hair was saved, but it no longer received the attention it had before. Nobody cared for it now. No oils were prepared for it; neither were flowers bought. Yet, the now dull looking hair remained thick. Memories of her husband had occasionally aroused her; thoughts of his warm embrace and loving kisses stirred her into frenzy. Then she would remember what she had heard in her childhood: that if one cut off one’s hair, desire would vanish. Though she knew this wasn’t true, in those frenzied moments she was ready to cut her hair off to get rid of her disturbing desires. She would cry in agony and pull her hair. Her sisters-in-law resented it when Sita applied oil to her hair before washing it. They were jealous that her hair was longer than theirs. As time went by, Sita’s braid appeared to them more dangerous than a snake. “How long should you wear this showy long braid? Why can’t you tie your hair in a knot?” they began to ask, their mouths pursed in censure. Finally when she succumbed to their harangue and tied her hair in a knot Sita could not hold her tears back. Nobody knew whether she cried in recollection of her youth, or in fear of losing it — or because her folks harassed her until she acknowledged that she wasn’t young anymore. Who knows why she cried, but she cried her heart out. Looking at the cropped hair of her two sons, Sita wished she had had at least one daughter. She blurted out this desire one day only to be scolded by Subhadra. “If you had a daughter you would have made sure she lived for her hair. She would have turned out like you,” she said. Subhadra didn’t have much hair and even that, she had cut short. She was now a teacher. She braided her daughter’s hair, however. Annoyed at this hypocrisy Sita asked Subhadra why she braided her daughter’s hair. “It is now a fashion to crop a girl’s hair. Bobbed hair and ponytails is all the girls are thinking of. I decided my daughter should wear her hair long until she is grown up. Then I will have it cropped,” Subhadra said. Subhadra is a bit crazy, thought Sita.

But even Subhadra didn’t realize that it would be impossible to ignore her hair. It was society, not her, that decided how a woman’s hair should be kept.

Sita had a few nieces who were now grown up. The methods they used now to care for their hair were quite different. They would go to the salon every two weeks. Every other day they would shampoo their hair and every month they would change the shampoo they used. Eggs, curd. lemon juice – there was nothing that they didn’t try on their hair. And Sita’s sisters-in-law went along with everything they did. Sita approached Subhadra thinking that she might know about these shampoos and hair salons. She gave Sita her opinion: “I don’t know if these things help hair grow or not but their business has certainly grown into crores of Rupees. If the hair falls out, then the business of fake tresses will boom. As long as our delusions about our hair continue to grow, their business will flourish. If you ask me, the only way our misery will end is if all women have their hair cropped and put the shampoo and tresses folks out of business.”. Well, Subhadra hasn’t yet gotten over her dislike of hair, thought Sita. What can she do? Poor thing, she has such short hair.

All of a sudden, a serious crisis befell Sita’s family. Her second brother’s daughter had begun to grow a sparse hall on her chin and upper lip. Initially everybody made fun of her. That poor girl cried for two days and starved herself. It wasn’t just the crying that was the problem. The color in her eyes and face, the energy and sharpness — they were 10 gone. Her face looked like a dark cloud. Gradually her mother also grew worried. They tried many potions on her face. Nothing worked. Nobody could console her as she cried that her life was now ruined. Poor thing, they pitied her. While the boys of her age went around proudly showing off their sprouting mustache and beard, this girl was struggling to get rid of hers. God knows what evil deed she had done in the past, she is paying for it now, thought Sita. For some time she worried about her own hair turning white. Her sisters-in-law used to gather and discuss such matters as whether or not to color their hair. They never bothered about Sita’s hair turning white; maybe they thought that would be a good thing. Sita’s hair eventually turned white and no one besides herself worried about it. Today, recovering from a month-long illness and watching her hair fall out, Sita ruminated on her past. She recalled the oils her mother worked into her hair, the castor oil, the soap nut extract, the jasmines; she remembered the flower laden braid on her wedding day, the tassels, the fear of tonsuring when her husband died and the relief when she learnt that she wouldn’t be tonsured. Since then the hair had been ignored — no flowers, no nothing, and now it was falling – Everything appeared to sway in the breeze like her hair. Did this hair grow with my blessing? Did it grow as I wished? So many people had ruled over Sita’s care of her hair. How is it that there are so many rules and restrictions on hair and so many with authority on it? If society rules over a woman’s hair with such a grip, how much harder is its control on the woman? Can she really slip out of that grip or would she have to grow old and weak as its captive and fall

off like her hair? If I could escape from this grip? For this authority? – What would have happened if I had not been controlled like that? What would have been the questions stirred vaguely in her mind.

Maanavi (Udayam) June 1988


(To be Continued-)


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