'Shikakai and Sambrani' by Sudha Balagopal

The day after she turns eighteen, Prema's husband, Jeet, falls off his prized horse. He lies in the hot sun for hours before passers-by find him, body stiffened with rigor mortis.   

Stunned, she retreats into a silent prison; not a moan or a wail escapes. Not when his sisters throw out her colorful sarees, and replace them with white ones. Not when they use a wet rag to wipe the bindi—a sign of marriage—off her forehead. Not when his aunt uses a rock to shatter the vividly colored glass bangles around her wrist.

“You must grieve,” the in-laws urge, not comprehending her silence.

Prema stares at her bleeding palms where bangle fragments have cut into skin.



Until a man with a wide-blade razor enters. Then, she releases a guttural scream, flings herself on the floor, writhing, clutching her long, thick braid.

 “Be thankful it's 1930 and Sati is banned. Or, like your grandmother, you could have burned in Jeet's funeral pyre,” the aunt says.

The women pin her into a chair. The barber lops off the top of her braid. It falls in a serpent-like coil.

     

Growing up, her mother warmed coconut oil and massaged her head. “Hair is beauty,” she said as she washed Prema's hair with shikakai paste, and dried it using fragrant sambrani smoke.

Now, Prema closes her eyes against the sharp edge of the blade on her scalp, against the relatives holding her down as if for an execution. When she opens her eyes, the barber's gathering debris off the floor.

She lunges for her braid. The in-laws try to wrest it from her, lift her gripping fingers one by one.

She holds on, gritting her teeth.

The barber says he has another appointment, requests payment, asks when he should return for the next shave.

     

She wraps the lustrous black braid around her arm, inhales the hint of shikakai and roses. Every Friday, Jeet bought her venis strung with red button-roses to decorate her hair. At night, he loosened the plait, ran his fingers through the curtain, and in whispers told her he could lose himself in the silken abundance.

She holds the hair against her baldness. Her fingers tremble as they encounter the skin of her scalp, feeling an itchiness here, a remnant of stubble there. She places the braid in her cupboard. It looks forlorn as she shuts the door; a few reluctant petals cling to the strands.

---

First published in Wigleaf on 16 December 2018.

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