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Shahla sat at her dressing table, running a brush through her long, lush mane, slowly, deep in thought. The party had been a success. She was complimented on the way she ran an immaculate home, how well brought-up her children were, how, even after 18 years of marriage, she retained her elfin looks and a gorgeous head of hair. She had graciously nodded, murmured her thanks, and, as always, found ways to credit others for her attributes.
Her hair. Deep mahogany with copper highlights, it tumbled in loose waves past her shoulders, framing her face on its way. Unshaved in infancy, it retained the softness and buoyancy of babyhood, and shone gently under the crystal chandeliers that graced their home. Many long hours of her childhood were sacrificed to Khaala’s ministrations, dedicated rituals of oil massages and egg-coffee-yogurt masques that required her to sit just so and wipe that wrinkly-nosed look off her face. Then you’ll have hair like your ammi, Khaala would say, her hands working briskly, deeply, with the firmness of one who hasn’t had a Sunday off in years.
Ammi’s hair. Thicker, longer, and two shades darker, it was what Abba frequently declared had made him want to marry her. Even braided and under a sheer dupatta, it had caught his eye as she breezed through her childhood home, unaware that her brother’s friend hadn’t turned the page of his Economics textbook for the better part of an hour. When she was born, the dai had consoled Ammi about her darker skin by saying “At least she has your hair.” And Ammi, the picture of dainty charm even after an 18-hour labor, had smiled, somewhat pacified.
She grew up quietly, in the shadow of incessant comparisons with her mother’s striking looks, learning to ignore that glance of pity when first-time visitors clumsily avoided references to her color by beginning and ending with her hair. Her mother’s hair. So much like her mother’s hair. Only lighter, glossier, and more buoyant, it drew admiring glances as the years passed, and Shahla grew used to compliments about what she knew was her lone asset. Thank you, she’d say shyly, I got it from my mother. Ammi remained the repository of all things good and beautiful.
It was Ajay who had failed to see any similarity. Who first told her it was hers alone, it crowned her thick-lashed eyes and upturned nose and swung past her full, soft mouth. Lying in her lap between lectures on petrology and the evolution of the Rockies, he’d curl strands around his finger, then watch them escape and bounce back with a life of their own. With his fingers, he’d etch “whirlpools” in her scalp, circling slowly and evenly, letting her tresses caress his hand, marveling at the contrast of dark hair and lighter skin.
It was Ajay who looked past her wheat-toned skin, past her newfound cheekbones and pert breasts, and bored right into her passion for ghazals. It was he who noticed her compassion for maimed animals and encouraged her to volunteer at the local SPCA, never mind that her family thought it was haraam to fawn over filthy dogs. It was he who claimed there was none like her, and who would later stroke her pounding head to sleep when her family abandoned her for marrying a kafir.
It was he who came up from behind her, and smiled proudly as she continued brushing her hair. She watched him from the mirror. And her face lit up in a smile only he would understand. Earlier that evening, she had been complimented on her hair. The compliment wasn’t novel, and the giver was a familiar face. But for the first time in forty years, Shahla smiled widely, tilted her chin, and said no more than “Thank you”. She tossed the waves back, hers and hers alone, and elegantly walked to the next group of guests, looking curiously taller in her usual kitten heels. Ajay looked on, a peculiar gleam in his eye, as the party milled about them.
Pic credit: StoryMary (Used under a Creative Commons license)
Dilnavaz Bamboat manages communications and social media for a Silicon Valley non-profit. She is
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