[Some of the familial references to neighbours might need explanation. Typical in any Indian neighbourhood, we do tend to use references like auntie or uncle for anyone who’s old enough to be in the same age group as our parents. Oh, it is also considered to be very bad manners to not accept food when visiting someone.]
I met Padmaja in 1995. She was our new next-door neighbour. A friendly lady, and an awesome cook. Soon, she and my mom were thick as thieves. Food would routinely be sent back and forth, well mostly from her house to ours because my mom was a career woman as well. No time for cooking anything ‘special.’ I was the errand boy between the two friends, running back and forth. She took it upon herself to keep an eye on me and take care of me till the time my mom got back. Consequently, I would be over at her house almost as soon as I got home. I used to take care of my homework and keeping an eye on her kid. On the whole our families got along quite well together.
Time passed. Three years worth. One thing that I could not help noticing was her hair. It was a few inches below her shoulders when she had moved in, and now it had grown out till it fell to her butt. True, I would rarely get a glimpse of the full length as she mostly wore her hair up in a bun. But the rare occasions when she had it in a braid, or was combing it out, it was quite the sight to watch. The one time she got bangs cut into her hair, I remember being both happy and disappointed. Deep in the adolescent recesses of my mind, I wondered if I would ever get to touch it. And then the unthinkable happened…
It was a few days after my sixteenth birthday. Finals were around the corner. School was mostly optional at this point. The schoolwork completed, most of the teachers just had office hours. It was a bright Monday morning and my mom had left for work. On her way out she reminded me to return some dishes to Padmaja that were washed and on the kitchen table. I spent a couple of hours checking up on my Physics notes and then decided to wander over. I grabbed the dishes off the table, locked the door and went over to her place. The front door was open and I just wandered in calling out for her.
“Oh, it’s you… Leave the dishes on the table. Do you want some breakfast?” She called out of the kitchen.
“No thanks, auntie*, I just ate.”
“Okay, how about second breakfast then?”
“Ummmmmm…..” Refusing food would be an insult.
“Okay, have some snacks then.” she said putting some snacks on a plate and setting it on the table.
Eating was not a choice. Even though she was an awesome cook, I was stuffing myself at this point. I’d probably fall asleep revising organic chemistry. She busied herself with the laundry and started the washing machine. Then she came over and sat at the table.
“So, how’s the exam prep?”
“Are you going ace the exams?” she teased. I gave her a lopsided grin in response.
“Don’t do that. It scares me.” I earned a rap on my skull with her knuckles.
“Don’t be a baby. That won’t even hurt Vasu.” she said referring to her six-year-old.
“There is something I wanted to ask you though, you’ve started shaving right?”
“Yeah, but why do you ask?”
I was a little weirded out by the question. She was silent for a few moments.
“Okay. Here’s the thing. We have a tradition in the family. Every four to five years we are supposed to offer our hair at the village temple. Now your uncle is on deputation to Ranchi and can’t come down. He tried his level best, but he couldn’t get the time off.”
“So what can I do about that?”
“Hold on a second, you impatient imp. I have to get my head shaved this Thursday, and, send the hair to the temple. Everyone in the family will be doing it on that day, and so must I… Are you even listening?” Another rap on the head.
I came out of the daze that hit me with the words ‘head shave.’
“”Ow! I am listening. But what can I do about that?”
“With your uncle not being here, I will have to go call a barber home. But that is something I really want to avoid. So, can you and will you shave me?”
My head was spinning. I had dreamed of touching her hair on many an occasion. But this was so far out beyond my imagination, I didn’t know what to say.
“But I can’t do a head shave, aunty, I only use a safety razor.”
“You will have to cut my hair short anyway because I can’t send wet hair. It will really start to smell bad.”
“But even if I cut your hair short, it will still be too long for the razor…”
“Cut it as short as you can and then use your uncle’s trimmer. That should make it easy to shave,” she replied.
“Yeah, but will it be proper? I mean barbers in the temple use a straight razor.”
“I know. But sometimes adjustments have to be made. The important thing is getting my head shaved. Not how it is done. Now will you do it or will you get me a barber?”
I thought I detected a slight tone of impatience and desperation. Internal conflict aside, I couldn’t stand the thought of some barber getting his hands on her hair. After all, she did seem to be particularly nervous about trusting her hair to an unknown barber. I did not want to open that particular can of worms.
“Okay… I guess I’ll do it.”
“Phew. One less thing for me to worry about.”
“But what about Vasu then? And uncle?”
“This offering is only made by the women in the family.”
“Okay then, I guess I’ll be going.”
“Okay. Study well. And don’t forget on Thursday. Come around 10:00 in the morning.”
I went back home my mind in a whirl. So many questions. What was I getting into? What would mom say? Am I supposed to be happy that I get to touch her hair? How will I feel when I start cutting the hair that I’d secretly admired for the past few years. Over the next couple of days, the idea started to grow on me, and I actually found myself looking forward to the whole thing. I started to find it a little hard to concentrate on my revision, but somehow, I managed to stay on, and even get a little ahead of my schedule. Thursday morning dawned: The big day. I was eating breakfast and my mom was getting ready to leave for work.
“I almost forgot, apparently, Padmaja auntie has to get her head shaved today. Some sort of family tradition is what she told me. But because uncle is away, she is planning to get it done at home. I told her that you will get her a barber and stay with her while the barber is at her place. Go to her place and help her out. Take your books if you have to but keep an eye on things when you are there.”
I was surprised at this, but it probably made sense for her to tell my mom that way. She got her bag, patted me on the head, and left. I sat down with my books after breakfast, but my heart wasn’t in it. Soon, I gave up, locked the front door and went over to Padmaja’s house. I knocked on her door and she opened it. She was still in her nightie, hair still up in a messy bun. An unusual occurrence for her. She looked at me and then the clock.
“I said 10:00, right? Well, doesn’t matter. We can finish sooner. Just give me five minutes. I’ll change and come.”
I wandered in and sat on the sofa as she disappeared into her bedroom. A few minutes later she emerged, changed into a light green saree with a flowered pattern, carrying a comb and a pair of scissors.
“Let me braid my hair for the cut.”
“Can I do it please?”
She looked at me for a moment, then stuck the comb in her hair. She went over to the kitchen table and sat down. I went over to her and took the comb from her head. Her hair was finally in my hands. I tipped her head forward a little and pulled her bun loose with a bit of fumbling. I slowly started to comb out her thick silky hair. It fell a few inches past the seat of the chair that she sat on. Slowly gathering her hair, I combed her hair out for a while.
“Well? Can you braid my hair?”
“I know how, but I never tried it.”
“Just make sure it is neat, and tight.”
I continued to comb her hair for some more time, and then divided her hair into three sections. Very nervous, I pulled the sections tight and started to braid her hair. Stopping to comb every couple of twists, I wanted to make this time last as long as I could. But no matter how slowly I went, her braid was eventually done, and I tied off the last four inches or so of loose hair. As soon as I was done, she took the braid and examined it.
“Not bad for the first time… Now, go get the stuff from the bathroom.”
“Do you have something to cover you with?”
“No. Don’t worry about it. I will not be wearing this saree again anyway.”
Was it just me or did I detect a small hit of sadness. I went into the bathroom and opened the mirror cabinet. Inside was a shaving set. I took the safety razor (changed its blade), shaving brush and cream. I found the trimmer, plugged in and charged. She was standing beside the table when I returned. I put everything on the table and asked her to sit. She instead turned the chair away from the table and told me to sit on the chair instead. A little confused, I sat down. She then sat cross legged in front of me, at my feet.
“What are you doing? Why don’t you sit on the chair?”
“This is how it is to be done, okay? I have to sit on the floor. Also, listen carefully to what I tell you, okay?”
“Now it is possible that I may shed a few tears while you are cutting my hair. Don’t stop. Keep going till I am shaved clean. Okay?”
“Get started then. Ensure that you cut the braid as close as possible. After that, it’s entirely up to you.”
I looked at her. Something about her bangs. Slightly overgrown. I picked up the comb. Taking her chin in my left hand, I drew her face forward slightly. I ran the comb through her bangs and adjusted my grip on her chin, pressing my fingers into her cheeks. I slid the scissors into her bangs and slowly cut them level with her hairline. As the first pieces of hair fell in her lap, I realized I had officially become her barber. I wiped off a few strands of hair that stuck to her nose and cheeks. Then, I reached behind her for her braid.
She started to bend her head down as soon as I reached for her braid, but the position wasn’t quite comfortable. I asked her to scoot forward a bit. She obliged. I bent her head a bit more. and her head was almost between my knees. I adjusted my grip on her braid and put the scissors to it while pulling firmly on it. She obediently kept her head down. The scissors were ready, but I hesitated for a moment.
“Go on, start cutting.”
I detected a slight quaver in her voice. Steeling myself, I closed the blades of the scissors, taking the first bite out of her thick braid. The submissive nature of the position in which she sat was exhilarating. I continued cutting away at her braid with the scissors, her head shaking with every bite. Hair fanning out as I was enjoyed each bite. I felt some irregular shakes of her head and realized she was crying. There was nothing I could do but keep going. I started cutting a little faster and soon her braid came off. It was anything but neat. I coiled it up and put it on the table. As she raised her head, I could see tear tracks. She wiped her face with the pallu of her saree.
“Come on, let’s get it over with.”
I ran my fingers through her now barely-longer-than-chin-length hair and asked her to sit with her back to me. She turned around and scooted further back so that she was sitting quite close to me. I tipped her head down again. She obediently bent her head.
“Please don’t cry again.”
“I’ll try, but no promises.”
I pushed the comb up the back of her nape and started to cut her hair short. Resolving to push ahead as quickly as possible, I started to crop her hair short quickly. First cutting off huge chunks of hair reducing the back to about a couple of inches in length, then quickly making another pass with the scissors cutting it as close as I could. Her hair was falling all over her shoulders and floor. There was a nice pile in her lap as well as I cropped her hair short diligently. Here was a woman, a good fourteen years older than me, completely compliant and letting me shear her like a sheep. I continued to turn her head and crop her short till her hair was reduced to about 1/2 inch in length.
Putting the tools down, I rubbed her fuzzy head. Grabbing the trimmer, I removed the guard. I turned her to face me yet again, but this time I had her sitting at an angle. She closed her eyes as I tipped her head forward. I switched on the trimmer and ran it up her nape. They worked rather well at this length, shearing off the 1/2 inch or so of hair left. Slowly I made the passes up the back of her head starting from the base of her neck, leaving behind a sand papery stubble. She turned her head obediently to give me a good angle as I continued to shear her. I steadily worked around the sides and the top of her head. With the last of the scissor stubble gone I turned off the trimmer and put it aside.
“I’ll get some water for your shave.”
About an hour ago she had almost four feet of hair. In another ten minutes she would be smooth. I went and got some water in a mug. I applied some shaving cream to her scalp. Dipping the brush in water, I worked up a thick coat of lather all over her scalp. Then I took the razor and started to shave her from the forehead back. Long slow strokes with the razor. I carefully shaved the top of her head, getting rid of the lather in the mug. I ran the razor down the sides, one after the other. She had her eyes closed and completely obedient. Finally, I tipped her head down and started on the back.
I looked at the clock as I ran the razor down her nape all the way to her shoulders. I ran a hand over her head to feel for any rough patches and cleaned them up as well. Dropping the razor in the mug, I ran a hand over her smooth head once more. “Well, I guess it’s over.” I said. Looking down, I saw her lap full of her hair that I had cropped off her head. It was a huge soft pile. Something glistening caught my eye. Teardrops in her cropped hair. She had shed some more tears after her braid came off. I felt a little guilty about the whole thing and also about enjoying the experience of cutting her hair. She got up and shook all the hair out of her lap onto the floor.
“Now I have a lot of cleaning to do. Both myself and the floor. Thanks a lot. And don’t worry that I cried a little. Overall, way better than the barber shop. Oh, if we are still here, then I guess you’ll get another chance in four years.”