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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 – Advanced)
Topic: India (02/12/09)

TITLE: Swept Into Shadows
By Jan Ackerson


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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This article has been read 1269 times
Member Comments
Member Date
Seema Bagai 02/19/09
Great descriptions.

FYI, Basma is an Arabic name. If the MC is Hindu, she would not have a "Muslim" name.

I'm glad you wrote about this topic. Hopefully some women will think twice before paying for hair extensions.
Chely Roach02/19/09
I thought the descriptions were lush and vivid. At first I thought she was meeting her arranged husband,so the twist was a nice (albeit disturbing) surprise. Solid writing. Excellent!
Lynda Schultz 02/19/09
A fascinating story, but so sad. Such deception in the name of religion. Well done.
Sonya Leigh02/19/09
Your story was gripping, very mysterious until the sad end. I wonder what Basma's prayer was...very well written.
Benjamin Graber02/19/09
Excellent writing - this is a masterpiece! It is sad that so many woman are making a sacrifice to appease a god that doesn't exist, while others get rich on their sacrifice...
Joanne Sher 02/20/09
Wow - I knew nothing about this! Awful to hear about - and you made it so realistic. Nicely done!
Holly Westefeld02/21/09
Very sad. So few religions are about selflessness and giving. It wouldn't bring any difference to the supplicants, but the temples could at least donate the hair to organizations that make wigs for cancer patients or chilldren with alopecia.
Karlene Jacobsen02/21/09
At first I thought she was preparing for her wedding, then to offer herself as prostitute at the temple. The hair was definitely a disturbing surprise. So sad. Well written.
Angela M. Baker-Bridge02/22/09
Powerful telling of a pointless custom. If only we were that devoted to the Living God! Excellently done.
Gary J. Borgstede02/23/09
The factual nature of the story makes it a sad one indeed. The ending effectivelly leads a believer in Christ yearning to share the good news of the gospel to people blind in such dead religious customs.
Connie Dixon02/23/09
Your writing is amazing as usual. The story, while factual, seems so incredulous. Why? What is the point of sacrificing so much to a god who offers absolutely nothing......not even existence. Loved the info and the incredible way you shared it.
Carol Slider 02/23/09
A terribly heartbreaking story, told in such an incredibly vivid way that I felt I was walking with Basma on her journey. I definitely learned about Indian culture that I'd never known before. Exceptional writing!
Verna Cole Mitchell 02/24/09
Your beautifully written story had me wondering with anticipation what would happen next. Then you showed so poignantly how sad it is to worship with useless sacrifice a god that can bring no peace or happiness.
Yvonne Blake 02/25/09
I'm wondering if this would be better in first person. As usual, you have great details and emotion, but the first part seems impersonal, like we are watching a silent movie.

I also thought she was preparing for an arranged marriage...so sad that this their only hope for favor with their god.
Margaret Gass02/25/09
Wow...I read it twice just so I could soak in all the details! I felt like I was seated next to her at the table as she ate, and within sight as she let down her hair. The twist at the end was painful, no "Gift of the Magi" moment--the self-sacrifice is always one-sided when one serves an non-hearing, uncaring, god. So sad. This is definitely a favorite for me this week! Well done!
Mona Purvis02/25/09
I have oftened admired the beautiful black hair of Indian women. This story is very compelling, haunting in fact. Of course, beautifully told/written. Not overdone.
Laury Hubrich 02/25/09
This is so sad. Great writing, though.
Dianne Janak02/25/09
I was saddened to realize this really happens. We forget how much bondage the world is in to their other gods. The imagery and the pace of the story had me spell bound.
Micheline Murray02/25/09
Jan--I absolutely LOVE this. Your writing is amazing! I had no idea this practice was in existence; how little we know of others in the world. Thank you for writing this.
Diana Dart 02/25/09
Gripping. It started so lovingly and soft, the descriptions lush (loved the syncopated waves...sigh). Then it became filled with such a sense of despair and almost shame. I was held captive by this MC's plight. Excellent piece.
Marita Thelander 02/25/09
So many things have been brought out this week about the Indian Culture. This story had such hope mingled in, yet in the end...where is her hope?
Norma-Anne Hough02/25/09
Amazing and sad story. very powerfully told. Well done.
Charla Diehl 02/26/09
Jan, your writing always inspires, teaches and even excels the master level. I was unaware that this is where some of our hair pieces may come from. So sad for the MC that her hope is put into a meaningless god. At first I, too, thought she was preparing to meet her husband to be.
Helen Dowd03/12/09
Wonderful story, picturing the life of an Indian girl. My sister spent her life as a missionary in India, but I have never heard this aspect of a young girl's sacrifice to a god who can't help her. Oh how devoted would this little girl be to the true God. Great story-telling....Helen
Joshua Janoski04/20/09
This story took an interesting turn. I figured she was a part of an arranged marriage, but then I learned about this hair ritual that I didn't know existed. Very interesting and told in an engaging manner.