Basma rises with a pulse beating rapidly in her throat. She dresses slowly, in the prettiest of her two saris—pale green, shot through with a thread of gold. As the morning lightens, Basma glances out of the single window of her small dwelling. It seems to her that somehow the universe should acknowledge that this is her special day. But the city is waking in its usual way: the streets are filling with the wonderful chaos of bicycles and rickshaws, greedy monkeys and yowling cats, vendors setting out their wares. The smells of various spices waft into her room from the food booths—chutney, ginger, chilies, curry. But no one in all that bustle is aware of Basma and today’s happy task.
Taking deliberate care, Basma prepares a small breakfast of flatbread and sweet, milky tea. She savors every bite, every sip—everything should be special today, even this mundane meal. When her tea is gone, she presses a fingertip onto her plate and picks up a few stray crumbs, then lifts the finger to her mouth. Even yesterday’s flatbread tastes especially delicious this morning.
Her breakfast completed, Basma walks four steps to a little table that holds a few objects for her morning toilette. A mirror, a comb—and her one extravagance, a small pot of kohl. She holds the mirror close while she artfully applies the kohl—will he find her beautiful when she goes to him?
She has been delaying this next act, wanting to prolong the joy, but now Basma raises her arms and begins to take down her long hair. Each pin drops onto the table with a little clink—five pins, then fifteen, then thirty. Thirty-two pins, and Basma’s hair falls nearly to her waist—glossy and black, and retaining a few syncopated waves from its confinement. She takes the comb and gently teases out every little tangle and snarl—a task that takes her the better part of the next hour. While she combs, Basma hums a love song.
And now her moment has come, so Basma leaves her flat and makes her way to the temple.
There is a small queue, and as Basma waits, the pulse that has fluttered in her throat all day increases, like a dholak drum at a festival. Finally her turn has come; she kneels on the hard floor with every thought in her mind one of her beloved Vishnu. With this gift of hers, surely Lord Vishnu will grant her wish. Basma touches her forehead to the floor. This is for you, my lord. I give it with joy.
A woman barber in a red sari grasps her hair, and with a few passes of a straight razor, all of it—all of Basma’s long black hair--lies on the temple floor. She runs a hand over her head—it is surprisingly prickly, and when she looks at her hand, there is a spot of blood on one finger. She puts the finger in her mouth, then takes it out and looks at it with mild wonder. The barber is watching her, and when their eyes meet, she gestures to Basma. Time to leave now.
Covering her head with a scarf, Basma walks away from the temple and buys some bhel puri from a food stall. As she finishes the spicy rice, she closes her eyes and sees again her last sight as she left the temple: several children sweeping away mounds of hair. They disappear into the shadows of an arched doorway. All those prayers…She passes her hand under the scarf, stopping again to test the edges of a sticky spot.
Back in her flat, Basma lets the scarf fall to her shoulders. She takes the mirror and brings it slowly to her eyes. The kohl has smudged a little bit, and she wipes it clean with one tip of her scarf. She looks at the familiar long and straight nose, the pretty red lips, and she knows that she is essentially unchanged. Even so, Basma does not hold the mirror any higher than her eyes. Instead, she lowers it to her lap and tries to recapture the joy of the morning.
Basma waits for Vishnu’s favor while her heart is swept away into shadows.
Note: Thousands of women each year have their heads shaved at the temple in Tirupati to please the Hindu god Vishnu. These women, many in dire poverty, receive nothing for their sacrifice, while the temple becomes wealthy selling the hair to European and American markets, where it is used to make expensive hair weaves and extensions.
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