Friday, July 24, 2020


Rama was a little girl from a Brahmin family in Rewa, then a small principality, and now a district in Central India. Her father Pandit Dwivedi was a priest, living off alms, that is the dakshina he was entitled to, for performing religious rituals. When the girl turned eight, the father found a match and married her off, as was the custom those days. The boy was also from a priestly Brahmin family, the Mishras, and was fourteen years of age. On the very second day of their marriage, calamity struck. Rama’s groom died of snake-bite, leaving her a child-widow at a tender age.

Since Rama was now part of another family, the so called gainers, the Mishra widow-sorority descended upon the loser-home and took Rama into their custody.

Rama had made such a pretty bride, in a red joda, red traditional bridal ghunghat, the henna on her palms and feet, the shimmering gold and silver bedecking her, forehead to toes. The Mishra-widows, three in number, claimed the distraught girl and whisked her away against the wishes of Dwivedi and his wife. One of the three wailed incessantly as if to the gallery, dwelling over the departed boy and the others joined her in cursing Rama at the misfortune she had brought upon the family. Once in the Mishras’ home, Rama’s little frame was hemmed into the centre of the courtyard by the wedding guests and curious onlookers. The trio first shattered her bangles, as if to illustrate her fractured future to her. She was shorn of her bridal finery and make-up and wrapped into the remnant of one of the senior widows’ tattered white dhoti. There was no blouse for her, as stitching one would take some time. Rama was in no state to respond in kind and was weeping away silently, now and then calling out to her mother. Unbeknown to her, by then, the village barber had arrived with his unpropitious implement-box, waiting to author the end of the Act, shearing the girl’s hair, that is.

Rama was understandably fond of her long golden tresses and the dreaded moment had arrived. She had not mourned sufficiently the departure of her groom for she was too young to contemplate the consequences yet, but the prospect of losing her hair was immediate, and meant the loss of all that she treasured of her persona, and she struggled to free herself from the clutches of the widows, grieving and sobbing, succumbing to the ritual at last.

The barber was a kind man, but the manner and technique of shearing the locks of such a small girl was quite repulsive. A child could not be expected to offer a stiff and steady pate to the shearer, and the only way out was for the child’s head to be held between the man’s knees, with the child’s face downcast. That was the socially accepted technique. The head, held thus in a vice-like grip could be shorn without much ado. The girl lost her hair, leaving a few bruises, on which the barber was considerate enough to apply some turmeric paste. The hair were cast on the pyre of the departed boy by none else than the barber.

The girl went through the trials and tribulations of being a Hindu child widow, but hair have a way of growing and Rama had to be relieved of the wretched stubble every fortnight, as per the custom. This meant a repetition of the obnoxious tonsure ordeal twice every month, till perhaps she should carry her own head.

Mercifully, though, the barber, who everyone called Thakur, was 65 years of age when the girl first underwent this abominable treatment. Though his hand was steady, he was wanting in hygiene and every fortnight Rama had to brace herself for this sweaty stench emanating from his privates. On his part, Thakur would drag his feet till the afternoon to arrive for the ritual, for tonsuring a child-widow was hardly a prospect a decent person would look forward to. For this he would get half-an-anna, and that too, at Panditji’s convenience. Rama though was quite comfortable with Thakur as a person, he was one of the few who would genuinely smile at her, and not consider her touch inauspicious like the others did.  

Life went on and Rama gradually adjusted to the fearsome regime. She took the starvation, the discrimination and the apathy in her stride. She was an intelligent girl, almost precocious, and taught herself the rudiments of arithmetic and language with the help of her late husband’s books. She made herself useful to the family, keeping accounts and even reading out the newspaper to her father-in-law who was losing his eye-sight with advancing age. The Trio of senior widows too lost its edge with the departure of the eldest, the most fiendish of the three. The next elder struggling against arthritis, became to an extent dependent on Rama.

But misfortune had not yet left alone of Rama. Around three years had passed when Thakur the barber died.

Thakur had five sons out of which the older four were away from Rewa seeking livelihood. The youngest was called Kanu and was eighteen. He was studying for his Matric and was a tall strapping lad, full of verve and ambition. He was also the sole inheritor of his father’s craft and the village counted on him. There was no way he could abdicate his responsibility, for he was now the sole bread-winner of the family. He was adept at his native job, having stood in for Thakur on occasion, and embraced the family calling without qualm or demur, certain that one day he and his family will move up the social ladder.

Even so, the death of an inconsequential barber had some grave consequences when it came to Rama. The technique of tonsuring her head was destined to survive the Thakur, so ingrained was it in the situation. Given the girl’s delicate physique, there was no other way it could have been done. Kanu had seen this hapless girl with the large liquid eyes when he had accompanied Thakur to the Mishra home now and then. Sensitive as he was, he had bolted from the scene when his father held Rama’s fine cranium so awkwardly.

On the appointed tonsure day, Kanu played truant. Rama too had prayed the whole day to Durga Maa for deliverance from such a mortification. Thakur was old enough to be her grandfather, but not Kanu! Rama, having crossed puberty by then, could not submit the way she did to Thakur. What was merely unhygienic in Thakur’s hand threatened to become an act of depravity in his son’s.

The next day saw the Pandit’s wife and daughter remonstrating over the crop of hair on Rama’s head and what it would do to the Brahmin family’s prestige. A messenger was dispatched to Thakur’s house who reminded Kanu of his filial and religious responsibilities, quoting extensively from the Bhagwad Gita. Kanu promised to be there by evening, and yes, before sunset.

Rama locked herself up in the tiny widows’ room and ate nothing the next day. I’d rather hang myself than submit to such lechery she promised herself. Evening brought with it Kanu and the unpropitious implement-box. The family left the two alone in the courtyard, lest they be distracted. Kanu decided to shear the head, carrying on in the way he would proceed with any adult. Spreading out his gamcha on the stone-paved yard, with his box to his right, he made the girl sit opposite him. Gingerly, his hands and body trembling, he held Rama’s face in his left hand by her cheeks, thumb to her left, four fingers to the right and placed the razor on the top of her head. This was the first time in his life he held a girl that way. He panicked and cut a gash on her crown, and there was blood everywhere! The turmeric paste of his however succeeded in stanching the blood-flow, but the mission had to be abandoned for the day.

Pandit Mishra was livid with what they had done to his court-yard. Your father was not a fool that he did it the way he did boy, he roared. Come early tomorrow and don’t disappoint your father again, he said pointing skywards.

The injury and the shower of blood had left the girl chastened and she lost all remnants of resistance, submitting tamely the next day. After what happened to the decorous courtyard the previous day, there was a change of venue. The ceremony was carried out in the widows’ room, door closed, only the two inside. The job was done quickly, observing utmost silence, skirting last evening’s gash, presumably following Thakur’s procedure. The girl sat sobbing inside and Kanu left hurriedly with his kit, without meeting anyone’s eye. The family sighed in relief, and the widows sitting on a cot outside simpered.

Nothing happened the next day, and the next, but what happened thereafter is recounted by people of the village to this day. Kanu and Rama eloped. For me that was poetic justice and I’m sure they lived an auspicious life at the good place that provided shelter to them.

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