The first tonsure

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Sravya was living in Vijayawada with her uncle, aunt and cousins. Her parents were in Hyderabad. The reason she was away from them was she was studying engineering. This was the first year that she spent away from her parents. Though she was a little disturbed at first, she managed to cope rather well and was beginning to settle down to life with her cousins, Meena and Sandhya. They were a fun loving family and she rarely realized that she was away from her parents. In short she was well taken care of, and her studies were coming along quite nicely as well. Soon, before she knew it, the first trimester was up and she was going through the hard slog of the examinations. But, the end was it sight, and soon she returned after breezing through the last examination. A fortnight of vacation stretched before her. She wanted to visit her parents, but her mom told her to put off her trip as her father would be travelling at that time.

In the meantime, her uncle and aunt had planned for their annual trip to Tirupati. Since Sravya was not going back to Hyderabad, she was also included in their plans. A day before their departure, there was a phone call that came late in the night. Sravya’s mother called up and spoke to her aunt at length. Not much was exchanged with Sravya though, and she was left wondering what happened. The next morning she had forgotten all about it in the excitement of the trip. She had plenty of fun travelling with her cousins as they kept cracking jokes and pulling each other’s legs all through the journey. Eight hours later, by about five pm, they were safely in the cottage that their Uncle had reserved for them.

That night, after dinner Sravya’s aunt called her aside: “Sravya, there is something I have to tell you.” “What is it aunty?” asked Sravya. “Your mother called last night. Your mother asked me not to tell you immediately, but, your father had a narrow escape in a road accident. His bike was hit by a truck. But luckily he is not hurt. He escaped with just a few scratches.” Sravya stared at her aunt in shock. “When was this? How did it happen?” she gasped. “Four days ago,” replied her aunt. “I want to go and see him aunty, please. Why did you bring me here?” “Listen to me Sravya, your mother called me only last night. There is a reason why you are with us. Please listen to what I have to tell you,” pacified her aunt.

“Okay aunty. Please tell me,” said Sravya. “Well, it seems that your mother has made a vow which is left unfulfilled. This is why your father almost had an accident.” “What is it aunty?” asked Sravya. “She made a vow to offer your hair at Tirupati if you secured above 95% in your tenth exams. But when you went to Tirupati, she did not fulfill the vow.” Sravya was knocked speechless by this revelation. “So Sravya, your mother has told me to get your head shaved during our visit,” finished her aunt. “But this can’t be true!” exclaimed Sravya instinctively feeling her braid. “I know you have beautiful long hair Sravya. I can understand why your mom didn’t offer your hair as promised. But, this is for your own good and for the good of the family. You should always fulfill your vows. Will you be a good girl and do as your mom told you to?” asked her aunt.

Part of her wanted to scream in protest, but she knew her aunt was right. She also knew that it’s generally not considered to be a good idea to renege on vows. She meekly nodded her head. “Okay. I will do as you tell me to.” she said in a small voice. “Don’t worry dear, you are not alone. Sandhya and Meena are also offering their hair. And so am I.” Sravya was surprised and looked over at her cousins. Meena was distinctively uncomfortable, but Sandhya gave her a quick wink and a smile. Sandhya had stopped getting her monthly haircut about six months ago. Her usual boyish crop had grown out to a bob that fell to her shoulders. Meena on the other hand had a thick braid that fell to her hips. Her aunt’s hair was about the same length too. However it was still not as long has her own hair which fell to her knees when braided. “So that’s settled then. Get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow morning we’ll go to the Kalyanakatta.” said her aunt.

She lay awake late that night. To be fair, she had never had a haircut in her life. Nothing more than the most minuscule trims when there were too many split ends. Even that was done about once or maybe twice a year. Her hair was naturally thick and healthy. She felt her braid wondering how long it would take before her hair was that length. She wondered if she would be teased back at the college. Sometime later she fell into a dreamless sleep and woke to the sunlight streaming in through the window.

The usual morning chaos ensued when five people have to share one bathroom. But soon things were sorted out. Teeth brushed, faces washed and freshened, they changed their clothes. Meena was wearing a sky blue half-sari with a light pink petticoat. Sandhya slipped into a pale yellow chudidhar. Sravya’s aunt started to do Meena’s hair while her Uncle left with a flask to get some coffee for everyone. Meena was looking fairly nervous as her mom combed out her hair. “Hold still Meena,” she scolded. “But mother, if I have to get my head shaved then why are you combing it out?” she protested. “It is an offering Meena. The same way we don’t offer dried flowers in worship, you have to ensure that your hair is clean and neat when you offer it.” Meena didn’t speak after that. Her mom quickly did her hair into a nice long braid. Sandhya took the chance to borrow the comb and comb out her own bob. It didn’t take much time.

Sravya meanwhile had changed into a half-sari too. Pale green sari with a cream coloured petticoat. After finishing Meena’s braid, her aunt came over to do her hair. “I wonder where your uncle has gotten to.” she muttered as she started to comb out Sravya’s hair. “One braid or two dear?” she asked. “Uh… one” she murmured distractedly. She spent the next fifteen minutes combing out and doing Sravya’s hair. She kept up an endless line of chatter about her childhood days and the times spent with Sravya’s mom, but she wasn’t paying much attention. Finally, Sravya’s braid was done and her aunt started to do her own hair. She spent a few minutes combing out her hair and tying it into a nice thick bun the size of an overgrown orange. The door opened and her uncle came in with the flask and a few plastic cups.

After they had their morning coffee they headed off to the Kalyanakatta to offer their hair. Sravya felt increasingly restless as they waited in the queue to enter. The long hair of the girls drew a few glances. Soon they reached the counter where they were issued tokens and blades for the tonsure. Sravya thought she heard a gasp of two when her uncle asked for five tonsure tokens. A few minutes later they were in the large hall where they would be shorn. The four women had been allocated to the same barber and her uncle was given a different token.

“You take care of the girls. I’ll offer my hair and join you,” said her uncle. He gave four tokens and blades to his wife before walking off. There wasn’t much of a crowd and they didn’t have too much of a difficulty locating their barber. A woman was already sitting before the barber, getting tonsured. She was in a white sari and about a third of her scalp had been laid bare. Sravya watched in morbid fascination as the barber’s strokes cleared swathes of wet hair which was pulled into two wet knots on either side. The back of the woman’s head was fully shaved and the strokes went down the nape. The barber started working on the front and the right, and moments later one knot fell into a small channel that ran down the length of the hall. The barber continued without pausing and a couple of minutes later the second knot dropped into the woman’s lap. She dropped it into the channel while the barber checked her scalp and made a few more strokes.

The woman got up, gave them a shy smile and walked off. “Who’s first?” asked Sravya’s aunt. The girls looked at each other. Neither Sravya nor Meena wanted to be first. “I’ll go,” said Sandhya. She took off her dupatta and sat in front of the barber. Her mother handed the barber the token and blade. The barber tore the token into two. He ran his fingers through Sandhya’s thick shoulder length bob gathering her hair at the back. Then he divided the hair neatly and started to pour water and massage her head. He spent a couple of minutes massaging her head and then gathered the wet hair into two halves. There wasn’t enough length to tie a knot.

He then changed the blade in his razor. Sandhya already had her head bent. The barber put the razor at the crown of her head and started shaving towards her nape. Sravya watched horrified as the sharp razor scraped away the hair leaving behind a clean patch that extended from crown to nape. The razor glided down her nape and she could see locks of hair separated. The barber carefully shaved towards the left first. Locks of hair were now raining into the channel at Sandhya’s feet. Her head was constantly being turned by the barber as he shaved away. The pile continued to grow as the thick bob gave way to a clean scalp. It took the barber all of three minutes to shave Sandhya clean. The barber rubbed her scalp once to make sure she was smooth and then she got up.

By this time, they were joined by a few more women. Sravya saw her aunt nudge Meena forward. She reluctantly took the place vacated by Sandhya. She sat on the damp platform; the ends of her braid were brushing the edge. Her aunt handed the barber the token. The barber reached behind Meena for her braid. He looked at the braid and the token, then tore the token up and started to undo Meena’s long thick braid turning her head to get at her nape. Sravya was watching with a mixture of both anxiety and fascination. The barber finger combed Meena’s hair, pulling the hair towards him. The after a few strokes, he split the hair into two halves. He refilled his bowl with warm water and used a small mug to pour water on her head. She saw him massage her head thoroughly. Then pulling each half apart he tied a knot in the hair. Meena was ready to be shorn.

Sravya was able to make out some whispers among the women. They seemed to be equally interested in the proceedings. She saw her aunt hand over the blade to the barber. He changed the blade on his straight razor and drew Meena’s head forward. He put the blade at the crown of her head and made a smooth stroke towards her nape. An inch wide strip of scalp was exposed. Then he started shaving towards Meena’s right. The quick strokes worked their way towards her nape and ears. Sravya was shocked to see the hair disappear so fast. The barber kept moving the shorn locks aside. Within minutes a large knot tumbled into Meena’s lap. She dropped the knot at the barber’s feet while the barber started to work on the second half. He continued much the same way, starting at the nape and working his way around her ears and to the front. Chunks of wet hair separated from her scalp and fell away before the razor. Soon the second knot was also in her lap. After the barber was satisfied that she was completely smooth, Meena got up.

Sravya looked at Meena. She seemed so different. Her ears and neck, which were almost always hidden under her hair, were now clearly visible. She had a sort of sad look. “Nice Meena, you look good,” said Sandhya. Meena looked at her mom and her mom said, “Don’t worry. It’s only hair. You look good though.” Sravya was wondering if it was her turn next. She was about to move forward when her aunt moved in front of her and sat before the barber. She pulled her sari around her waist and gave her token and blade to the barber. Her uncle joined them by now, and he looked different with a clean head and without his customary moustache. “Almost unrecognizable,” thought Sravya.

She turned back to watch the barber bend her aunt’s head down. He reached for her rather large and thick bun and pulled it loose. Gathering the thick hip length hair (that was identical to Meena’s); he split it neatly into two halves. More water as her aunt’s hair was thoroughly wet. It was almost like an instant replay as she watched the barber tie each half into a knot. A woman in a uniformed overcoat came up and took the hair out of the channel. She watched as Meena and Sandhya’s hair was put into a basket and taken away. The barber, meanwhile, changed the blades and bent her aunt’s head a little more. Adjusting her head, he then started to shave her clean. Quick fast strokes were repeated as the hair was cleared away from the scalp. The barber seemed to me working faster to Sravya. Each stroke of the razor brought her tonsure that much closer. She could not help trying to imagine herself bald. It didn’t work.  She reached behind her back and felt the familiar thickness of her braid as the barber was shaving away the last few locks of hair at her aunt’s temples. The knot seemed to fall with a heavy finality into her aunt’s lap. The barber removed the large mass of hair from her lap and her aunt got up.

Sravya stepped forward in a trance. As she sat in front of the barber, she heard an audible gasp from the women behind her. She saw her aunt hand over a token to the barber. She looked behind her to take a look at her aunt. Next thing she knew, she felt the barber’s strong hand on her head turning her and bending her forward. Another hand reached behind her for her braid. It slid forward into her view in the barber’s hands. “Mottaya?” (“Shave?”) asked the barber. She did not see her aunt not affirmative, but she did catch the exclamation of the other women watching the turn of events. She closed her eyes, but could not keep them closed. She saw the barber holding her braid. He was about to pull off the rubber band at the end when someone handed him a few tokens. Her braid still in his hands, he checked them and separated two. “Two here, the rest there” she heard as he redirected whoever it was.

She watched the barber undo her braid quickly. She felt her hair gathered at the nape.  Seconds later she saw a cascade of hair fall into her lap from either side. Her lap was full and she could barely see the colours of the half-sari she was wearing. Then she felt something warm trickle down her head. The barber was wetting her hair. Drops of water ran down her face and fell into her hair, glistening like pearls. She felt the strong fingers of the barber in her hair, expertly massaging the water into her head. Drops of water ran down her spine as well, making her shiver. The barber continued to massage for some time. After what looked like an interminable while, she felt the barber gather the left half of her hair. He had some difficulty handling the length, but in the end, managed to smooth out the locks and tie them into a rather large knot that lay in her lap.

The hair effectively obscured the vision on the left side. She felt the barber gather the remaining hair on the right and smooth it out. Seconds later another knot hung from her head and she could not see anything, except for a tiny crack in the curtain in front of her. Meanwhile, her aunt was giving a fresh blade to the barber and he swapped out the blade on his razor. Her shoulders were wet with the water in her hair and she raised her head a little trying to see what was happening. Seconds later she felt the barber push her head down. His fingers stretched the scalp at her crown. She felt something touch her head and a scrape down the top of her head. It was accompanied by a much louder gasp behind her. The next scrape went from the crown to the nape. Then she felt the razor work from the crown of her heading various directions around the back of her head. Soon the strokes continued towards her left and she had the distinct impression of hair raining into her lap.

She felt the cool air caress her exposed scalp as the barber worked around her ear. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the light coming through as the hair fell away and the razor glided across her sideburn and temple. It was like a curtain being drawn away as the razor continued to the top of her head and more locks spilled into her lap. The barber was turning her head all the while to suit the strokes. She cooperated. Nervous as she was, she had begun to calm down now and she was actually enjoying the sensation of the razor gliding across her scalp. Soon one half of her surroundings were visible again and the razor continued its way across the top of her head to the right. She saw the hair rain into the channel in front of her and into her lap.

By this time she started to enjoy all the sensations: the razor scraping away across her scalp, the firm fingers of the barber turning her head, the cool air that was now playing over her exposed scalp and her long thick hair falling off around her. The razor continued the grand tour of her scalp as the barber now worked around her ears and slowly down the back of her head. Moments later the razor slid down the nape and neck as the barber cleaned up the last of her long thick locks. It felt like a curtain of vanity had fallen away from her eyes. She started removing the hair from her lap when the barber took it from her. He removed the large mass of hair from her lap and the channel and set it beside him. As she got up from her place, she saw the woman with the basket come over to collect her hair and her aunt’s hair. For the first time in life she felt an amazing lightness and a sense of freedom. She felt like she had left behind all her material worries and her ego. She joined her aunt and cousins with a smile and together they headed out to have a bath before visiting the temple.

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