Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The Fertility Offerings

Shreya opened the door of the flat and entered. As she took off her slippers, she heard her mom Sandhya call from the kitchen, "Shreya, is that you?"   "Yes mom." she answered going into the kitchen. "So, how was your final exam?" asked her mom. "I did fine." Shreya replied. "Good. Lunch will be ready in a few minutes. Why don’t you go wash your face and come?" asked her mom. "Sure." replied Shreya heading off to the bathroom.
 A few minutes later, she and her mom were settled down to lunch. "Shreya, we are going to our village next week." said Sandhya. "What for, mom?"   asked Shreya. "It's a family custom darling. Every sixth year, all women in our family who have attained puberty and are not yet in menopause get their heads   shaved at the temple of the goddess of our fields. And in the sixth year, the fields are left to lie fallow. It's our way of giving thanks to the goddess for giving us such a beautiful crop year after year." "Mom, but a head shave?" protested Shreya. "Now Shreya, it's bad enough that I couldn't go last time.  Don’t make things difficult for me." pleaded Sandhya. "Cant I just get a haircut? After all I used to have a bob till two years ago when I finished tenth."  Shreya tried to negotiate. "No darling. It has to be a head shave." replied Sandhya.
 "If it is every six years, then how come I never saw you get shaved?" Shreya asked again. "The year I got married I had my head shaved, and again in the sixth year. You wouldn't remember that because you were only four years old. I was supposed to go the last time, but your father had just changed jobs and we could not go. I don’t want to miss this again." said Sandhya. "Wasn't that the time you got a bob cut?" asked Shreya. "Yes" sighed Sandhya. "I had the beautician cut off my plait and sent that through courier. I couldn't get my head shaved though. It was bad enough that the plait was cut by someone who wasn’t the temple barber."
 "I remember the look on the beautician's face though, when you asked her to cut off your long plait." giggled Shreya. "It's not funny Shreya. My plait was supposed to be cut at the temple, not in some fancy beauty salon." remarked Sandhya. "But why did you keep the bob cut for so long?" Shreya asked.   "To be frank, I liked the freedom of short hair." replied Sandhya. "Is that why both of us stopped getting haircuts for the past two years now?" Shreya continued to pester. "Yes. Stop talking, started eating, and are you going to come with us and get your head shaved or not?" asked Sandhya. "Okay mom, okay,” said Shreya, "I'll also get my head shaved if it satisfies you." "That's my girl. And besides, by the time your degree college starts, your hair will be long enough you be styled into a bob." replied Sandhya. "No mom, this time I'll wear it shorter for a while." "Whatever you wish." replied Sandhya.
 After they finished their lunch, Sandhya settled down to read a novel and Shreya was leafing through a magazine. "But what is the significance of the whole thing, mom?" asked Shreya again. "Well, just the way the goddess gives us a beautiful crop to harvest; we give her the harvest of our heads, our hair. This temple is in the middle of our orchards. We have a temple barber who does the job." replied Sandhya. "Who else will be coming?" asked Shreya. "Your aunts Balamma and Jayanti, and your cousin Pratibha, live in the village. They will be there. Vandana aunty will be coming from Vijayawada with your cousins Deepika and Divya, and Shobha aunty will be coming with Lavanya and your cousin Ramesh's wife Sheshamma." said Sandhya. "How was your head shaved, mom?" "The barber's wife prepares us for the shave, and makes the ritual first cut with a pair of scissors. The barber then takes over. Usually the bulk is cut off and the remaining hair shaved. For me, when I had my head shaved three months after marriage I was very nervous. I went to the temple wearing a plait. The barber's wife removed the flowers from my plait, and made a small cut at the base of the plait. The barber then caped me and used scissors to cut off my plait. Then he wet the remaining hair and shaved it off. The second time, I had my hair in a bun. This time though, the barber's wife pulled the bun free and plaited my hair before making the cut. Then the barber used scissors to cut the plait as usual. But then, he used comb and scissors to cut my hair really short and then shaved the rest of my hair,” reminisced Sandhya. "It is not always a plait though. He can cut off a bun too, and he can shave without using scissors. I've seen it done."
 "It'll be fun to watch Deepika get shaved though. She always used to tease me about my bob." giggled Shreya. "That's between you girls, but don’t tease her too much. Okay?" said Sandhya. "Awww mom..." Shreya moaned. "Enough talk. I want you to start packing today. Don't leave anything behind this time." A week went by and Shreya found herself in an idyllic village. Their family had extensive family lands and orchards. The harvest was just finished and preparations for the puja at the temple were underway. The eldest aunt Balamma was supervising the whole thing. A week after their arrival, one morning at breakfast Balamma announced that the preparations were complete and the head shaves would be taking place the next day. They would be leaving for the temple at 8 AM sharp by bullock carts. Shreya slept restlessly that night.
 That night at the barber's house, the barber was talking to his son Vijay, and daughter-in-law Kamala. As his wife was beyond menopause she would not be permitted to enter the temple. It would be the barber's son and his wife instead. The barber was instructing his son on procedure. "Son, pay attention.   And you too my daughter. From now, it is your turn to carry out the fertility goddess' sacrificial shaves. You will have to give your wife a new pair of scissors. She will be the representative of the goddess. But, because she is a woman, she is forbidden from shaving hair. She will instead prepare each of the women as she sees fit and make a ritual cut. The unmarried girls are not to be prepared, unless they are wearing their hair loose. After that, you have to shave their heads. It doesn’t matter how you shave them, though. The first snip can be made anywhere, and your wife may also cut some length at the end of the hair. Again, not more than six inches. You may also cut the entire length of hair of one of the married women, but not the girls. Is it clear?" The barber's son and daughter in law nodded in unison.
"Balamma will decide the order in which they get shaved. She will be the first. Also, when one woman is being shaved, the next one should be in the process of getting prepared. Once the offerings are complete, the cut hair will be placed in the temple at the feet of the goddess for a week. After one week, Kamala, you should go and take that hair. It would then belong to you. Also, that night, you must get your own head shaved by Vijay. This is the surrendering of your own ego." "As you say, father. But what shall we do with the hair?" asked Kamala. "You can keep it if you want, or ask your husband to sell it for you. But under no circumstances should the hair be thrown away." "Okay father." she replied. She was getting very excited at the turn of events. She would give weekly oil head massages to Balamma, Jayanti and Pratibha. She always fantasized about watching their hair being cut. It looked like her dreams were coming true. Not only of watching the women get shaved, but also her own shave.
Later in the privacy of their bedroom, she approached her husband and said, "I have something to ask you." "What is it dear?" he asked her.
"Will you shave their heads the way I want to see it done?"
"What do you have in mind?"
"Will you do it?"
"I will, but you have to answer my question." he smiled at her.
"Okay. I want you to cut off Balamma's hair in a bun and then wet shave her."
"Okay. Any other plans?"
"Yes. I want you to cut Jayanti's plait and shorten her hair before shaving her. Oh, and, wet the hair before you shorten it."
"You seem to have planned these..."
She snuggled close to him and he put his arm around her. "Just a fantasy. Will you indulge me?"
"Sure dear. What about the rest? We don’t know how many women are there."
"Let's see now... If I make the snip at the crown, then I want you to shave directly and not use scissors. A cut anywhere else means I want you to cut the bun or plait first."
"Okay. How about shortening of hair then?"
"Hmmmm... This does not apply to Jayanti. If I run my thumb along the blades of the scissors after the snip, or if I cut the entire plait off, then I want you to dry shorten the hair.  If I cut a little from the ends, then I want you to wet shorten."
"Pretty complicated. But I'll do it for you. But are you willing to shave your head as well?"
"Yes. I've always wanted to. I know my hair is long, but if you are the one to shave it, I will gladly submit to it."

Next morning the place was a beehive of activity. But under Balamma's efficient supervision, everyone was ready by 8 AM and by 8:30 they were in the temple. Vijay and Kamala were waiting there for them. He approached Balamma and said, "My lady, I am taking my father's place as you know my mother is no more allowed to come to this temple." “I know. So long as you know what is to be done." replied Balamma. "Don’t worry, my Lady. I will take care of everything. Please come. Everything is ready for you."
 The temple had a covered and raised platform about two feet high and at one end was the sanctum of the goddess, set about 5 feet higher up from the floor of the platform. Carpets had been laid out on either side of the sanctum leaving an aisle leading up to it. There was a stool in line with the sanctum.   A large basket was beside the stool. There was one more stool to the rear. All of them went and sat on the carpet while Balamma proceeded to start the worship. She lit the lamps and laid a couple of garlands on the goddess. Then she picked up a small box and asked the barber, "Are the scissors new?" "Yes, my lady." he replied. She laid the box at the feet of the goddess, closed her eyes and prayed for a couple of minutes. Then she took the box and gave it to the barber along with a water sprayer, and a few folded large white sheets. The box contained the tools the barber would be using: Scissors, comb, straight razor and half a dozen blades for the razor. Balamma applied a turmeric and vermillion dot on all of them, except the blades. She lit a lamp and placed it in front of the stool between it and the sanctum. One of the servants accompanying them had brought a bucket of water from the temple well. Kamala filled the sprayer with the water in the bucket and took a comb and the new scissors. It was time for the offerings to begin.
      |   |       Sanctum
|               |
|       *       | Lamp
|               |
|       #       | Cutting Stool
|               |
| +----+ +----+ |
| |    | |    | |
| |    | |    | | Sitting area.
| |    | |    | |
| +----+ +----+ |
|       #       | Preparation stool
|               |

Balamma's shave

Balamma got up and sat on the preparation stool facing the goddess, hands in her lap. She was wearing a white sari with a dark red border. The rest of the women on either side sat silently. Kamala came up and removed the ring of flowers around Balamma's large and thick bun.  This was expertly tied halfway between the crown and the nape. Kamala then pulled it free and started to comb out her thick butt length hair. Balamma felt the comb glide through her thick locks. She was forty eight and this would probably be the last time for her on the stool. She sat quite still as the barber's wife prepared her.  After a few minutes of combing, Kamala pulled the hair tightly to the nape and tied it in a bun again. Balamma's head bobbed as her hair was tied in a large thick bun once again. But this time, it was lower down at the nape. The preparations were complete. She barely heard the words "Please come" spoken by Kamala. She got up and followed Kamala to the shaving stool.
Balamma knelt in front of the goddess and touched her forehead to the ground. "Jayanti, you are next." said Balamma as she got up to sit on the stool.  She bent her head in supplication. The scissors were ready. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Kamala stand beside her and the blade of the scissors enter her hair. Everyone watched intently as the scissors slid into her hair and there was a loud snip. The ritual cut was made and it was time for the barber to take over.
Vijay came up to Balamma and placed sheets and the box containing the tools beside her on the floor. He unfolded a sheet he covered her with it and then drew then ends around her neck. Pulling it close, he tucked the ends in, securing it as a cape. The sheet fell past her knees and hung down at the back.   Then he adjusted the sheet to make sure it covered her completely. He bent her head gently and squeezed the large thick bun. It was soft and silky, and tied very tight. He bent down and took out the scissors. He placed a hand on her head and bent her head forward. She knew what was coming and bent her head. On the stool, she would have to surrender completely to the barber irrespective of her position in life. Her hair was now in the barber's control. He snipped the scissors in the air a few times and then slid the scissors into her locks above the bun and closed them. There was a loud snip as the sharp scissors cut through the section of hair. The bun did not move. Not yet. Balamma closed her eyes.
 Meanwhile, Hearing Balamma's words Jayanti got up and pulled the pallu of her sari around her waist. It was a sky blue sari with a dark blue border.  She was forty three years of age and this was the fourth time on the stool. She would have to shave once more in her life. Then she walked to the stool and sat down with her hands and her pallu in her lap. Her hair too was tied in a thick bun with flowers around it. Kamala was waiting for her and removed the flowers. Catching her husband's eyes, she flashed him a quick smile. She squeezed Jayanti's bun it gently feeling the texture of her hair.  If anything, her bun was thicker than Balamma's. Pushing her thumb into the centre, she pulled it hair loose. The almost knee length silky hair unwound and fell hanging a foot from the floor.
 Vijay, standing beside Balamma, continued to snip away at the hair as it entered the twist of the bun. Snip after snip seemed to echo through the silent orchard. Everyone seated there had a clear view of the hair being snipped away. Slowly the bun began to part from the head as more and more sections of hair were cut. The women on either side could clearly see the bun slowly move down. Balamma felt the weight of her butt long hair move to a constantly decreasing section at her nape as the snips resounded in her ears. She felt his hand on her head, holding it down firmly. She did not resist. A fine sprinkling of hair had fallen on her neck and cape. But this was just the beginning. She felt the weight of her hair sudden ease as he picked up the bun and put the scissors to the last section. He slid the scissors onto it and started to cut through the final section. The sound of the sharp scissors slicing and snipping though her hair filled Bala's ears. There was a resounding snip as the scissors cut the heavy bun free.
 Jayanti could not help but watch in helplessness as her co-sister's bun was being cut. It filled her with an impeding sense of despair. Jayanti felt her hair gathered up and tried to relax as her hair was being combed out. But it was not easy. She knew that the time for the shave was fast approaching. The barber was more than half way through snipping away at Balamma's bun. She usually enjoyed it when someone combed out her hair. But this was not the occasion.
 The barber let the bun fall to the floor. Placing the scissors in his shirt pocket, he then picked up the water sprayer and started to wet Bala’s hair. Some of the mist drifted towards the women sitting close. The barber used his fingers to thoroughly massage the water into Bala's hair, enjoying the feel of the thick silky locks of hair becoming wet. It fell around her in a wet limp and rough bob. Once the hair was thoroughly wet, the barber took the comb and started to comb out the hair, parting it in the middle. Water dripped from the comb and from the ends of her hair as she was prepared for the final shave. He took up the razor and a blade and broke the blade neatly in half. One half was dropped back into the box and the other half, inserted into the razor.
 This was Kamala's cue to stop combing. She'd have to finish plaiting Jayanti's hair before her husband finished shaving Balamma. She divided Jayanti’s hair into three sections and started to weave a tight plait. Preparing the beautiful hair for her husband's scissors delighted her. Jayanti sat still; there was nothing she could do now, but to submit. She sat still as Kamala expertly wove her hair into a thick plait. She knew she could cut Jayanti’s plait if she wanted, but she decided to let her husband cut it. She had an eye on another woman's (Shobha) plait that was the same length and thickness.
 Vijay was quite busy with Balamma. He stood in front of her and placed his hand on her head again, bending it to position. Using his thumb he stretched her scalp at the beginning of the hair parting an inch from the crown. Bala felt the blade of the razor against her scalp as the barber expertly ran it down the hair parting. An inch wide strip of scalp was exposed. Then he moved to her right temple and started to shave straight down from the parting.   Quick neat strokes laid bare more and more of her scalp as the barber worked down the sides towards her ear. Thick wet clumps of hair hung for a while before falling to the sheet covering her. Odd strands of hair stuck to her cheeks. He reached her right ear and stopped.
 Kamala was taking her time with Jayanti's plait. It was coming along beautifully. She was sorely tempted to cut it, but managed to overcome the temptation. She would get her chance with the other woman anyway. She smiled to herself at that thought. She paused to comb the hair a little and continued with her appointed task. She felt a twinge that she wouldn't get to oil and massage this silky hair for quite some time, but that soon passed as well.
 Vijay now moved to Balamma's left side, and shaved in a similar manner and the pile of wet hair in Bala's lap continued to grow. She was half shaved now. Then he bent her head forward. He turned her head a bit, and ensuring that the women sitting could still see what was happening. Then, starting at the crown, he shaved a clean strip down to her nape. A lock of wet hair tumbled to the floor, landing on the bun which had been scissored off barely a few minutes ago. He adjusted her head again and started shaving from the top towards her ears, pushing the hair onto the sheet. He folded her right ear to shave carefully behind it. Then he did the same to her left ear. Starting on the back he pushed her head down till her chin was on her chest. Bala obediently bent her head the way he wanted. He started shaving down from the top, clearing away towards the nape in straight strokes. As she felt the razor move towards her nape, she realized that her shave was coming to a close.
 Kamala meanwhile had finished with Jayanti's plait. She secured the end with an elastic band, leaving about six inches free. She picked up the plait and ran her hands down it feeling the texture and squeezing it into shape. Jayanti saw the shave coming to a close. Her own shave was now very, very close.   Balamma opened her eyes and saw the large heap of wet hair in her lap. The cape was wet in her lap because of the wet hair. Her heart sank to see her lovely hair lying in wet clumps in her lap. The barber continued to shave away the remaining locks, running the razor down her neck to clean it up. She was shaved clean. She had a ring of wet hair on the back of her neck and wet hair clinging all over the cape. The barber removed the hair from her neck and pushed it into her lap. Then he undid the sheet and carefully took it off. Picking up the bun, he dropped it in the basket. She took a towel from one of the servant girls who had accompanied them, and wiped her head. The barber shook the cape out letting the hair fall to the floor. The stool was now ready for Jayanti.

Jayanti's Shave

"Please come." Kamala said to Jayanti. Jayanti got up and followed Kamala to the shaving stool. All eyes were on her thick long plait as she walked up. A gasp went up from all the visitors who had never seen the length of Jayanti's hair. She felt the wet hair of Balamma underneath her feet and caught a glimpse of Balamma's bun in the basket. She knelt before the sanctum, touching her forehead to the floor and then sat on the stool, hands in her lap. Her heart was beating very fast. Soon her plait would be joining Balamma's bun in the basket, though she did not know how she would be shaved. On previous occasions, she had her plait shaved off once, she had her hair tied into two loose knots and shaved, and the last time, it was the older barber's wife who had cut her plait. Kamala picked up her plait and pulled it tight. Sliding a blade of the scissors into the middle of the base, she made a ritual snip.  Jayanti could feel the pull and the snip. She thought she would faint. Instead she heard Balamma say, "Shobha, It's your turn now." Kamala was pleased to see the woman she had marked for herself get up and join them.  Shobha was wearing a dark green sari with a yellow border.
Vijay shook the sheet out and moved behind Jayanti. Kamala held up Jayanti's plait while he pulled the ends around Jayanti's neck. Then leaving the plait down her front she went to the preparation stool with Shobha following her. Vijay then tucked the ends of the cape around Jayanti's neck neatly.  Jayanti felt the cape close around her neck. She looked at the plait running down her front into a coil in her lap. She wondered what was in store for the plait. The sheet was adjusted to make sure that she was properly covered. Her heart seemed to be stuck in her throat. Soon six year of growth of hair would be at the mercy of the barber. She held back a tear. Her plait was pulled back. Vijay was examining it. His wife had done a good job; it was neat and tight.  He ran the plait through his hands and held it at the nape, squeezing it a couple of times. Placing his hand on the top of her head, he made her bend. She obediently bent her head till her chin was on her chest. She felt the barber pull her plait gently a couple of times. She could still see a few stray locks of Balamma's hair on the cape, and the dampness from the wet hair on her hands. She heard him snip the scissors in the air as he prepared to cut her plait.   Vijay felt a bit sorry for the woman whose hair was now at his mercy. She felt a firm pull on her plait just like the last time shut her eyes. In her mind’s eye, she could see the barber's hands holding her plait in a firm grip as the scissors came in to cut it off. She felt the scissors against her plait.   Seconds later the shearing sound of the blades filled her ear as the sharp scissors sliced into her thick luxuriant plait. The sound stopped and then repeated. Again and again, as Vijay continued to cut into her plait. Occasionally Jayanti could feel the cold steel of the scissors against her nape. A fine sprinkling of hair was on her neck and cape as the cutting continued mercilessly. She felt the pull on her plait shift to the left as the hair was being cut away. Finally when the pressure was at its highest, there was a resounding snip and a jerk as the plait came free.
 For Vijay, this was the first time he had ever cut off a plait. The sharp scissors bit hungrily into the thick lush plait. The shearing sound of the scissors seemed to fill the very air as he continued to work the scissors through Jayanti's hair. He could feel the sharp scissors slicing through the thick plait. He kept a firm grip on the plait and continued to cut away. Half way through, he paused for a few seconds and then resumed cutting. A couple more minutes later, with a loud snip and a jerk the plait came free. He dropped the plait at his feet and here was a collective gasp from the women watching as the fifty one inch plait hit the floor and fell in a heap.
 Meanwhile, Kamala had Shobha on the preparation stool. She removed the flowers from her victim's loose plait. Shobha was in the habit of starting her plait below her shoulders. Kamala wanted a tighter plait to cut. She would simply plait it up again. She pulled the elastic band from the end and started to undo it. She heard the scissors slicing into Jayanti's hair and looked up. Her heart skipped as she had a perfect view of her husband cutting a long and beautiful plait.  She paused to watch. Shobha was pretty composed. This was her third time, and she was used to it. But she could not help feeling sorry for Jayanti whose plait was being cut off in front of her. All the same, the sight of the plait being cut was exciting. She felt Kamala pause in undoing her plait and smiled inwardly. She used to wear a boyish cut as a young girl, and had grown her hair out only during her graduation years. She was no stranger to scissors. And thanks to her in-laws, she had experienced the razor as well. Once Jayanti's plait was cut, Kamala returned to her ward. She quickly undid the plait and started to comb out the hair.
 Vijay took out the comb. In his left hand he had the water sprayer. He sprayed a fine mist on Jayanti's head combing her hair back at the same time.   The wet hair was slicked back and drops of water were now running down her face and cheeks. Putting the sprayer down, he took out the scissors again and bent her head. She heard the snips of the scissors in the air and seconds later felt the cold steel against her nape. Putting one blade against her neck, the barber cut a straight line across. Then, using the comb to push up a section of hair, he cut it short. The cutting continued rhythmically: Two or three down strokes with the comb, then a quick reverse stroke to hold up a section of wet hair and then the scissors cutting them short. Slowly he worked his way to the crown of her head. Shobha was relaxing as Kamala combed her hair out thoroughly. She knew her own hair would be up for the chop as soon as the barber finished with Jayanti. She didn’t mind that. She looked forward to at least six months of freedom from long hair. Long, short or bald made no difference to her. But she definitely liked someone else combing her hair out.
 As the wet hair began to rain down, Jayanti still had her eyes closed. She felt the barber's hands on her head again as he combed the hair straight down from the parting over her cheeks. Kamala was happily multitasking: combing Shobha's hair and watching the carnage on Jayanti's. Vijay moved over to her left side and lifted up a section of hair from her temples. The waiting scissors snipped them away and the first wet locks of hair landed in her lap. One more section went the same way. Then she felt the comb fold her ear down as the last section was cut down to size. She opened her eyes and looked at wet locks of hair in her lap. Looking up a little, she caught sight of the growing mound of wet hair in her lap. She quickly shut her eyes again. The barber meanwhile was snipping away, working towards the top of her head and the hair parting. She felt the cut hair being combed off the top of her head. The snipping stopped. The barber moved over to the right side and then she heard and felt the action start again. She prayed for the barber to finish soon.
 Vijay on the other hand, was enjoyed the scissors slicing through her thick wet hair. He worked quickly and rhythmically. He would have loved to do it even more slowly, but he had nine more women and girls to work his way through.  She was obedient though, bending her head to his will. Soon he had her hair reduced to two inch stubble. He glanced over at Kamala who was now plaiting Shobha's hair. Jayanti sat covered by her own hair. Kamala caught a glimpse of Jayanti's plait lying on the floor and started to feel a bit sorry for her. Her husband was wetting Jayanti's hair once more with a fine mist from the sprayer. Then he picked up the razor. He replaced the blade with the other half and bent her head once more.
 Kamala paused to comb the hair out again before continuing to plait. Shobha's plait was just as thick as Jayanti's and she did not have any qualms from letting her husband cut Jayanti's plait. This one was hers. She kept her eyes on her husband. He was standing behind Jayanti, and he shaved a strip straight down from the crown of her head to her nape. Using this as a starting point he started moving quickly to the right. Jayanti felt the razor scraping over her scalp and inwardly sighed. Her ordeal was coming to an end. The barber shaved away in quick strokes. He folded her ear and shaved carefully around it. Working from where her parting was, he shaved down to the sides and worked his way over to her left. Resuming from the front he continued to run the razor over her scalp, shearing away the remains of over four feet of hair. Soon the barber was shaving away the last of the stubble. He wiped the blade on the cape and dropped the razor into the box. He pushed away the hair from her neck, removed the sheet covering her and shook it out, sending a large mound of wet hair to the floor at her feet.
 "Just in time," thought Kamala as she secured the end of Shobha's plait with an elastic band. As was her habit, she picked up the plait and squeezed it into shape. It looked beautiful and she was giddy with the thought of being the one to cut it. Jayanti opened her eyes and saw the huge mound of hair lying at her feet. Tears came to her eyes but she blinked them back and got up from the stool. Six more years to go! She looked behind her and saw Shobha being led up to the stool. She walked over to Balamma and sat down beside her. She took the towel and wiped her head clean. She felt light headed. She saw the barber pick up her cut plait from the floor and drop it into the basket to join Balamma's bun.  Kamala brought Shobha to the shaving stool and seated her. "Who wants to go next?" asked Balamma. Seeing no volunteers she said, "Vandana, your turn."
Shobha’s Shave

 Shobha followed Kamala to the shaving stool and sat down on it. All eyes were on her thick knee length plait as she walked up the aisle between the carpets. She tried to avoid stepping on the shorn hair on the floor, but it was not possible as the breeze had scattered some of the locks. She felt Kamala pick up her plait as she sat down. She put her hands in her lap and waited for them to begin. Kamala’s heart was beating very fast as she picked up Shobha’s plait and slid the scissors into it for the ritual cut. She made the snip and held the plait up for her husband to cape Shobha. Vijay shook out the cloth that had covered both Balamma and Jayanti. It was pretty damp from the wet hair. He called one of the servant girls who had accompanied them and asked her to dry it in the sun. He then took out a fresh sheet for Shobha and covered her with it. Shobha bent her head as he tucked in the ends.
 Kamala looked at Vijay and smiled at him. “I’ll cut her plait,” she said. “Fine,” agreed Vijay and waited. Kamala tightened her grip on Shobha’s plait and bent her head down like she saw her husband do on Jayanti and Balamma. Her victim was placid and bent her head obediently. She ran her hand along the sacrificial plait a couple of times and then took the scissors. Shobha waited, and so did the audience. The scissors were put to her plait and Kamala hesitated. The plait swayed in a slight breeze. Shohbha started to lift her head, but Vijay put his hand on her head and held her down. The tension was getting to be unbearable for her. "Go on, Kamala, cut her plait off." said Balamma. Kamala felt the feeling of pity pass and broguht closed the blades. The sharp new scissors sliced into the plait and slid back. Once the first cut was made, she began to cut and slice through the thick plait. Now she began to enjoy every second of this and she was revelling in every cut and every slice that the scissors took in Shobha’s hair. She saw a fine sprinkling of hair settle on the cape and she continued to hack through the plait. Her husband held Shobha's head down for her while she continued to cut away.
 Shobha felt the scissors bite into her plait. Soon the dead weight on her head would be gone. She looked at the pristine whiteness of the cape that covered her. Her head shook slightly from the vigorous chopping at the base of her plait and the pressure of the barber's hand holding her head down for his wife. She felt the scissors cutting through and with a final snip the plait came off. Kamala looked at the plait that she had just cut off. It felt really heavy. She coiled it around her hand and dropped it in the basket where it fell on Jayanti’s plait. She looked around to see Vandana already seated on the preparation stool waiting for her. There was stunned silence from the first timers in the visiting audience who had just seen two over four foot long plaits cut off so ruthlessly. They were expecting a quick shave, but clearly, that was not on the agenda. And neither was Balamma objecting to this, because it was tradition to let the barber shave as he saw fit.
 Wearing an orange sari, Vandana was sitting on the stool, watching Kamala chop off Shobha’s plait. This was the fourth time for her as well, and she knew what was coming. She was resigned to her fate as Kamala joined her. She felt Kamala gather up her hair. The knot she had tied mid-back was pulled free and Kamala now held her waist long hair. Kamala was a bit disappointed. Nevertheless she picked up the comb and started to comb out the thick hair.
 Vijay was busy combing out the rough bob his wife left behind. This one would be a dry cut. He bent Shobha’s head down and to the right. Standing on her left, he used the comb to separate a section of hair near her temple and lift it up. Holding it apart, he snipped it down to an inch in length. A section of hair dropped into Shobha’s lap. He continued to work his way towards her ear, sending a rain of black silky hair to into her lap. Shobha watched a little dismayed at the hair piling up in her lap. She had expected a quick shave, but she also knew that it would be the barber’s wish to shear as he pleased.
 As Kamala combed out Vandana’s hair, she cast an eye about the rest of the flock waiting to be shorn. There was one more woman with her hair in a loose knot hanging in the middle of her back, and another woman with her hair in some sort of bun, but with the pallu of her sari over it, so she couldn’t make out what it was or how long her hair could be. Then there were five more girls. Two of them had twin plaits, two of them had their hair in clip, and one of them had a plait. She let out a small sigh and continued the combing. Her eye drifted back to the stool where Shobha was getting a shearing.
 Vijay worked steadily at Shobha's hair, dilligently cutting it short. He crossed her sideburns, and reached her ear which he folded with the comb while getting at the hair behind it. Once he reached the crown from her right side, he moved over to her left and continued to shorten her hair down to an inch. She sat obediently, bending her head to the barber’s wishes. Her lap was filling up with thick silky hair, about seven inches long. She slowly lifted her hands and sent a mound cascading to the floor at her feet. But soon, the pile began to grow as the barber reached her right ear. She saw some of the locks of hair being blown about in the breeze. She caughat a glimpse of her plait in the basket, lying on top of Jayanti's plait with the loose end sticking out. She felt a pang of sorrow. One of the servant girls ran forward with a small broom and a basket in response to a signal from Balamma. Quickly sweeping the shorn hair into a pile, the girl stuffed it into the basket and put it beside a pillar. Moving behind her he bent her head down till all she could see was her lap.  The comb then ran up her nape and the scissors were happily chopping at her hair as more hair rained on her shoulders and on the barber’s feet.  Slowly he cut his way to the crown of her head.
 Kamala gathered Vandana’s hair at the nape and started to twist it into a bun. She had already decided that Vandana would be straight shaved.  No sense wasting time with the scissors. Her own hair was down to her knees and tied in a thick tight bun. She was almost wishing she was on the stool being shorn by her husband. She would have to wait a week for that. Vandana had no idea about the plans for her hair that were going through Kamala’s head. She was watching in resigned horror at Shobha’s shearing, and the locks of hair that were being blown about in the breeze. Vijay refilled the sprayer and began to mist Shobha's head. She sighed inwardly as she knew the razor was not far away. She was right. A new blade was broken and inserted into the razor. She felt the barber stretch her scalp at the crown and shave a stripe right down to her forehead.
 Vijay moved quickly, pausing now and then to wipe the blade. He followed the same method as Balamma, cleaning up the stubble left behind by the scissors. Straight down from the parting down her sides. First over the temple, straight strokes taking him to her sideburns, and then behind the left ear. Stop, move to the right, and start again from the temples. Quick careful strokes, taking care not to nick her. The last vestiges of another Indian rapunzel's crowning glory were being swept aside in quick strokes of the razor. Shobha liked the way the razor was gliding over her head scraping away her hair. She liked both long hair and a shaved head, so she was happy with the end result. She watched the tiny clumps of wet hair rain on to the cape. Kamala had tied Vandana's hair in a firm bun at her nape, and was holding the bun. She liked the way Shobha was being cleaned up. The dark patch that was the remaining hair shrank away as Vijay reached the back of her head. A last few strokes down her nape and she was done. The barber uncaped her sending some more hair to the floor.
 Shobha got up and wet to join the shaved women, while Vandana was escorted to the stool. The watching women wondered how she would be shaved, and who would be next. "Sandhya..." called out Balamma. Shreya watched with trepidation as her mother, wearing a light green sari got up and went to the preparation stool. Vandana pulled her sari around her waist and sat down.

Vandana was brought to the shaving stool. She was pretty nervous and high strung. She never did like getting shaved, but her mother-in-law had insisted upon it. With no other choice, she had travelled to the village to lay her hair down for the third time in her married life. After seeing what Shoba and Jayanti had gone though, her nervousness had increased. She bowed before the godess and sat down on the stool. She closed her eyes and prayed for the godess to make it quick. She felt the barber cover her with a sheet as he had done the others. Moments later, something hard enter her hair at the crown and heard a snip. Kamala had made the ritual cut, and in doing so, indicated to Vijay that Vandana's hair was to be shaved directly. In a way, her prayers had been answered. Barely six months ago, Vandana had walked into a beauty parlour with a knee length plait with a friend and asked for a trim. Unknown to her, the friend, who was envious of her hair, had talked the hairdresser into cutting off more than half the length. The hairdresser for her part, claimed a misunderstanding, but then, nothing could be done. Her mother-in-law, who had earlier consented to Vandana skipping the visit this time, had been furious. The breach was only healed after she promised to visit the village and get her head shaved.
She heard Kamala walk away to attend to her next victim. She heard the now familiar squirting of the sprayer. A shiver ran down her spine as the cool mist hit the top of her head. She felt the dampness run down her cheeks and Vijay patting her head to let the water soak in. She wondered if she was lucky enough to be shaved directly. A shadow passed her closed eyelids and she realized that she was being caped with a sheet. She obediently bent her head and felt the ends being tucked around her neck. She opened her eyes. The sight of a summer breeze playing with Shoba's shorn locks greeted her eyes. She swallowed hard as the barber moved in front of her. She closed her eyes and felt the barber's hand on the crown of her head again. He was pushing her head back gently, raising her head. Moments later, she felt something touch her scalp near her hair parting. And then she heard the razor scraping away. Starting from her hair parting, down her left temple, all the way to her side burns and down her cheek. The next stroke followed the same path, but higher.
      Hearing the sound of the razor inside her own head was something she was not quite accustomed to. She felt like she was being combed with a razor. The strokes kept moving up, but stopping near her ear. Slowly they reached the end of the parting, and the direction was now mirrored. The barber started working on her right side, bending her head slightly to get a better angle. She felt the wet hair slide and settle on her shoulders and the wetness of the hair seep through the sheet and reach her skin. She kept her eyes tightly shut as the strokes continued to lay bare her scalp. The cool breeze from the orchard sent shivers up and down her spine as it caressed her freshly exposed scalp. The strokes stopped and she felt the barber push her head down. She obeyed till her chin was touching her chest, and all she could see was the wet sheet covering her.
      She worked up enough courage to open her eyes. She looked about and saw the baskets containing the offerings. Suddenly she heard the sprayer again as she felt the mist hit the back of her head. Her scalp tingled as the mist hit the exposed top as well. The barber's fingers were massaging the water into her scalp at the back. The spraying stopped and she felt the barber's hand on her shaved scalp, holding her head down. The razor was back in moments, working its way down the back of her head, towards the knot at her nape. Her eyes moved towards the baskets beyond the barber. There was some kind of morbid fascination for her as she looked at one basket containing the shorn hair. Without even thinking she sought out the other basket. She could make out Jayanti and Shoba's plaits in there. She also saw locks of hair clinging to the barber's trouser legs and feet
   Meanwhile, the razor was making short work of her hair. In the expert hands of the barber, her ordeal was almost coming to an end as more and more hair was stripped off her scalp. Held tightly by the knot, the hair could not fall anywhere. She felt her neck and shoulders get uncomfortably wet under the sheet. She felt the razor stop a few inches short of her nape and stop. The barber then began to examine her head. A minute later, he started shaving again and let out an inward sigh. It had been quick. The last few strokes ran down her neck as the barber cleared the knot from her head. She felt the knot removed from her shoulders and looked around. She saw the barber's wife drop it into the basket. She heaved a sigh as the barber removed the sheet covering her. She got up and ran her hand over her bare scalp unable to believe it. As she walked back to her place, she saw Sandhya being seated on the stool.
      Sandhya had sat down on the stool after the barber's wife joined her. She was looking forward to the shave, but was also nervous. The nervousnes was because she had missed the last time. Well, not entirely a miss as her cut plait was sent to the temple, but still it was not a shave and she was worried about what would happen. Kamala gathered up Sandhya's hair at the nape and ran her fingers through, pulling the knot loose. The thick, black, slightly curly locks fell about six inches past the stool. She stroked the hair a couple of times more trying to decide what was to be done with Sandhya. Taking the comb from the waist band of her saree, she started to run it though the locks that she held so firmly. She saw her husband starting to shave Vandana. She knew that she did not have too much of time to think.
      Quickly she split the hair into three sections and started to weave a plait. Sandhya's hair was certianly thick. And, it would take some time to cut it short with scissors. She loved to hear the scissors sinking into thick lush hair. But dry cutting was out of the question as the breeze was picking up. If cut wet, atleast the hair would hold together till it went into the basket. She tried to work a bit fast to ensure that she would have Sandhya ready before her husband finished with Vandana. Sandhya's hair was really silky and she would have loved to play with it a little more. She started to plait the hair. She looked up to see her husband working on the back of Vandana's head. He looked up just in time.
      She gave him a quick signal to show she needed a couple of minutes more. He smiled in acnowledgement and stopped to examine Vandana's scalp. Kamala worked faster to finish the plait and secure the end with an elastic band. She gently nudged Sandhya to get up. Seeing them get up Vijay resumed shaving Vandana. By the time they got to the offering stool, the last few strokes were made. Kamala picked up the wet knot and dropped it into the basket. Vijay took off the sheet and Vandana got up. Sandhya bowed to the godess and took her place on the stool. She would be happy for the offering to start straight away. She felt Kamala lift her plait out of the way as the barber covered her with a fresh sheet. The barber moved aside for Kamala and she held the ends of the plait up to cut a little off.
      "Stop!" rang out Balamma's voice.

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