At sixty five, I am at a senior home run by nuns, overlooking the cobalt shimmer of the Arabian sea. The sea rumbles menacingly at a close distance. The nuns run around with billowing robes and capes, picking up trash, clipping clothes on the clothesline, and shouting orders. Heat blanches the ochre sea-sand and ripples tremble like disc lights on the wall behind me. I have been propped up on a high barber chair right in front of the wall, under the shadow of an Astoria tree. A bougainvillea shrub creeps up, shoots a sprig of fuchsia flowers and forms an arch above us. I used to be petrified by the winter Astoria bloom during my childhood, as we were told yakshis loved its sweet sticky smell and hovered around them, dropping flowers and leaves in the evening. As an old woman, I sit under its shade all day talking to the yakshis who live among its foliage, pleading to them for company. Sometimes, they talk back, ruffling their invisible feathers, dropping a few bougainvillea petals at my feet, reciprocating my feelings.
The barber is a hairy man with a head full of permed curls that spill down into his ears and eyes like twisted pasta. He balances me on the chair like a doll and wraps me up tightly with a black apron. I cannot move, and I smell the rancid apron and watch a pale grey louse crushed with nails on its faux silky skin. A stout nun with a thin, pencil moustache on her face points at my head and instructs him with a mask tightly clutched in her hand. Her knuckles shine as the barber wrinkles his nose, shrugs his shoulder.
My mother folded her hands and frowned at me.
"You have no parenting skills," I made a face at her; amma squatted and pulled up my hair to twist it into a bun.
She threw up her hands, “You hair is too unwieldy. I give up.”
I try to fold my hands beneath the apron but it’s too tight for me to move. The barber straightens me up, sprays my hair with a sprinkler and runs a comb into it. My hair is stubborn and tangled; it pulls the skin on my scalp. I twitch with pain. The nun holds my hands under the apron, spraying spittle on my face as she shouts at me to stay calm. Sometimes, I cannot hear what she shouts. She has a firmer grip than my mother; I wiggle under the apron. The barber pins me down with his strong arms.
I take a deep breath, hang my head down. "One, two, three…." I am supposed to count as I breathe in and out. The new doctor who resembles my eldest son had taught me that. Lungs full of salty air calms me down. Avi is coming to meet me today.
The sentry's balding head shines like a steel plate in the sun. My husband had a balding crown-like him, which bothered him throughout his forties. At one time, he applied a layer of glue on his crown, stuck his thin hair on it and ran a wooden comb over it. "It looks ridiculous", I giggled. He turned back sharply and walked away, banging the door.
"Stop giggling, amma." The sentry's grip tightens like a noose.
The barber throws the comb aside and pokes the blade of the scissors into my hair. Ouch ! It hurts.
"Sit still", he whispers impatiently. A gust of wind ridiculously lifts the nun’s headgear and I catch a glimpse of her balding head too.
I cannot stop giggling.
The barber pokes the blade into my head again. A stench of rot and decay fills the air, I feel lice crawling down my forehead, tapping on my skin with their teeny-weeny feet. The barber bends forward to retch. The nun holds her nose. The sentry also looks away, not loosening the grip for a minute.
Clumps of dreadlocks fall on my lap and scatter on the floor. A beeline of lice creeps down my neck. I want to pick them up one by one and squash them under my nails. . I struggle to push the sentry push away, but he is far too strong.
My husband had this firm, purple grip too.
It was a rainy day, and it had been raining non-stop for two days. After our first son was born, we lived in one rented house or the other. We were literally asked to move out of the ancestral house after the first son was born. My father leaned down, picked up my six month old and cradled him like a nurse, grooving the baby's wobbly head on his elbow-creek.
"I may have to throw out my son-in-law soon, he’s not the person he pretends to be." He said, looking at me cautiously, still cooing at the baby.
I felt the gentle quiver of my eyelashes under my eyes. There was a storm brewing, the sky was gathering its strongest elephant clouds. From the window, I could see my maid shift from one foot to another, with a gunny bag toted in her arms. My husband looked down, holding the parapet and balancing on one foot. My father, bare-bodied, pointed his fingers and threw up his arms. My husband never looked up at my father. The maid wiped her tears with the tip of her lungi and walked down the steps into the pouring rain.
My father kept shouting at her as she walked away. I saw the back of my husband's hunched shoulders and my father's fury-twisted face. My father rolled a betel leaf and pushed it into his mouth. He chewed twenty-four times before spitting out a red trail of red spittle into the needles of rain that battered the patio. My husband talked back something animatedly before storming into my nursing room. My baby squiggled and began to cry; I blew gently on his forehead to keep him away from evil eyes. I didn't have the time to pack my stuff; my husband gripped my hand firmly and pulled me out of the house. I kept resisting. Then he took a handful of my hair and dragged me out of the house.
In the distance, I can hear the triumphant roar of fishermen pulling in their nets. I see their black bodies glisten under the glare of the sun. Clumps of matted hair fall on my shoulders and my lap. The sentry has relaxed his grip. I turn my wrists and look at the purple patches on my wrists. He walks away and waits at a safe distance, watching me. I want to twitch and giggle. I like to watch the sentry's cautious eyes catch the warning signal and fire up .
The fishermen start pulling the nets. A line of lice creep down to my cleavages. I look at the nun through the corner of my eyes. She doesn't take her eagle eyes off me. An elderly white tourist woman dressed in a white see-through shirt hops around, taking a few snaps and volunteers to pull the nets. She must be my age, but far smarter. The fishermen laugh and wave at her to join them. I peer at her shirt to see if she is wearing a bra underneath. There’s a lot of red and peach skin under her shirt, like blanched tomatoes. “Shameless woman!” I grit my teeth.
After we moved in to a rented house, my husband asked me to make fish moiley at home. The booty of his ambassador car was loaded with seer fish and anchovies.
"Seer fish is perfect for fish moiley. But you have a truckload of them!" I exclaimed as the fish spilled into the car porch when he opened the booty. A couple of fish were wiggling and sparkling under the sun , still gasping for breath.
"There was a chakara. One of my friends called me up, and I drove to the beach as quickly as possible. Uma, grab what we need for a week. After that, I will go and distribute the remaining fish to my friends." He pulled out the wallet from his pants and started counting the money. He recounted it and looked up, pushing his chin up with his forefinger. His nails looked like fish scales.
I tried to grab as many fish as possible and filled the bucket. The starry sparkle, the sea smell, and the weed entangled fish gasping for air kind of excited me.
"Go easy, Uma! Don't be so greedy." He called out. I tittered and grabbed for more.
Avi tumbled out of the home to help me out. He was four and flayed his arms in the air, trying to grab fish, cackling loudly. I filled the buckets, picking each fish with caution and care. Avi peered at them, touched them, checked their fins and eyes and filled the pail with immaculate ones.
"Please bring some green chillies and curry leaves from the market when you return home. Come back before noon."
"I will be back in a jiffy." My husband shut the booty, a thin poof of hair on his forehead puffed with the thud, and he jumped into the car.
One of the nuns, the not-so-pretty one, who did more menial work than the others, lined the ground with Malayala Manorama newspaper before stalling the high chair close to the bleached walls. I twist my head and read the headlines from the clumps of dreadlocks. I squint and crane my neck. The barber steadies me roughly. With stubborn and beady eyes, the nun holds a small mirror in her hand, I still have hair till my jawline, and now, I look like a young girl.
"Don't cut more," I plead.
"Keep still; now is the most difficult and smelliest part." The barber scrunches his face and averts it. He wears a pair of gloves.
He shaves my head with an electric shaver. My hair kind of sticks to the scalp. Everyone around pinches her noses and looks at each other. The barber fishes out a barber's knife and scrapes the rest of my hair. He ties a cloth around his already masked face. I yank my head away feeling the itch of the last clump of hair falling all over my shoulders. The smell is unbearable. A steely pain numbs my scalp as the blade cuts into it. Blood flows down into my eyes.
"Avi, come and pick up the dried clothes from the clothesline," I called out to him engrossed in drawing fish eyes with his broken crayons. He made two big circles and filled them with enormous pupils. The fish faces looked sad. Avi had his hair falling all over his face. He should have been born a girl, I thought. He had inherited his father's good looks. I ran the knife over the fish, trying to scrape off the slime and scales from the skin.
"I am bizzy, can't you see, amma?" he lisped, engrossed in criss-crossing the paper with blue and red crayons.
"Avi, you never listen to your amma." A strand of hair fell on my face, and I pushed it back with the back of my wrist, still holding the knife in my hands.
The Ambassador car screeched in, the door opened and shut. My husband walked into the kitchen, swaying slightly, and whispered into my ears with a slur.
"I came early, you see. Here are the curry leaves and chillies . They are from Som's garden."
I wrinkled my nose as the stench of beer and fish hit my face. He leaned to me and started stroking my hair.
"Go, bathe. You are stinking." I pushed him away, unable to hide my disgust. "Som must have been away at work. That means you were with his wife till now." I fixed my stare at him. He stopped stroking me and his smile turned to a jowl. I regretted the words as soon as they were spoken. My hands began shaking as I washed a stalk of curry leaves under the faucet.
He kept scowling at me, and fine lines appeared all over his forehead. His eyes were red and they became smaller, almost disappearing into their slits.
I washed the fish and marinated them in turmeric and crushed cumin sauce.
"Avi, dear one! How long had I been calling out for you to help amma?" I felt a wave of anger rising up like dough from within. Sour and bitter at the same time.
Avi looked up briefly, picked up the crayons and started colouring the paper with a sullen insouciance.
I sighed, fished out some green chillies from the plastic cover my husband brought and held them under the running tap. I rubbed hard at their wax skin, making them sparkle under the running water.
My husband was watching me, gathering the kind of fury, whenever he was guilty and drunk. I crushed the chillies with a granite pestle and left it near the stove.
"Avi, Avi." I called out to the boy who was resting his head on his elbow and colouring some curry leaves near the fish eyes.
He looked up once again and dropped his head down, bit his lips, concentrated hard on the leaves.
"He too has turned out to be like his father's son. Never listening to me, never helping me out, but engrossed in his own world." I frowned at the boy. Hearing this, my husband lunged forward.
"Eda Avi, how many times should your mother call out for you?"
Avi looked up with surprise this time, and involuntarily he gathered the drawing sheet and crayons in his arms. My husband bent down and snatched the drawing, tearing it into pieces and crushing the crayons under his boots.
"No achaa, don't do that achaa.."
Avi clung to his feet, trying to restrain him. My husband dragged him along before pulling him up and pinning him on the wall. The boy yelled as he was dragged along with crushed crayons.
"You won't listen to your mother, will you?" His eyes were red, they bulged out of their sockets.
I tried to hold on to Avi and prise open the arms that pinned the child to the wall. He flung me away to a corner when I lunged forward to snatch Avi from his arms. I felt his sharp slap; I staggered and fell.
"I will kill this son of a bitch, if you interfere once again." His stern voice and eagle eyes pinned me down to the spot. Then I tried to struggle and get up and felt another sharp slap on my face before darkness engrossed me. "Get lost, you mad woman! I know how to discipline my son!"
I saw in flashes Avi's hands tied to the windowpane and the child's scream. I tried to prise open my eyes, while my husband scoop a handful of chilly paste and dab it on the child's eye. The child's teary eyes, now painted with the chilly-parrot green.
Avi's scream penetrated the walls, and then it muffled to soft sobs as he passed out, along with me.
I open my eyes, and the cut on my head is dressed. The barber heaves a sigh and removes his gloves. "You are done! Now you need a good bath. By the time your son comes to visit you, you would look spanking new."
The maid-like nun sweeps off the hair and gathers it into a duster, averting her face. She removes my apron, and the sentry hurries up to me. They both help me stand up, and the stout nun holds up the mirror once again. I am completely bald. I look like Avi, Avinash, now. I have his sharp eyes, with red veins running from the corner to the middle. The barber packs up his stuff, the sentry and the maid-nun cleans up my chopped hair, and the stout nun leaves me where I am and walks into the nunnery.
Avi has grown up and works far away. My neighbours admitted me here a year back after Avi got his new job, in a far away town. I don’t remember if my husband is dead or alive. But I have been dead for years.
I hold the mirror and look at the tonsured me. Behind me, the sea pants in the sun sweating out cobalt, teal and turquoise. The fishermen are still around picking up fish from their net. The fresh, sparkly fish pretend to be dead, then spring in the air. Their brown fingers pin them down, pick them up and throw them into barrels so deep from which the fish can never escape. The fishermen segregate seaweed and dead jellyfish from the net and throw them back into the sea. The detritus floats on the waves for a while, disappears and washes up to the shore again. I hold the mirror and watch their ebb and flow.
I can see Avi walk towards me from behind. He is a grown-up man now and walks with a swagger. He doesn't look like his dead father. He looks more like me. He has eyes like the frothy waves. The parrot green of pain in his eyes remains in the corner. Avi closes his eyes tight squeezing out a tear drop as he holds me close. I squint at the bougainvillea blooms and smile at the sixty-five year old yakshis peering down from the Astoria leaves. They drop a few more petals and leaves. The sea simmers, intensifies its glint, waxes glittery new, like a mother who feels alive after shaving her head.
Babitha Marina Justin is a writer, an artist and Associate Professor in English . She has been published by Taylor and Francis, Marshall Cavendish, and Penguin. A Pushcart Prize nominee, 2018, her poems and short stories have appeared in international journals and anthologies. She has published five books, including two collections of poems, Of Fireflies, Guns and the Hills (2015) and I Cook my Own Feast (2019).