Wisp and a flower
"Wisp and a flower" by Michael Schulte.
View Michael Schulte's photostream at flickr

Fat Hair

by Monica Kilian

I met Nita when we were both fourteen. I was new to the school, and pleased that she wanted to be my friend. "You have skinny hair," she said, "just like me. I think we will be good friends."

And we were.

We became inseparable, as teenage girls often do, living in each other's houses, giggling over our secrets, our loves and dislikes, the boys we had a crush on, the teachers we made fun of.

Nita and her family had come to Canada from India. For Nita, who had grown up in Vancouver, India had an allure and romance that she didn't see in her new home. She was constantly buried in books about India, poring over pictures of places she had never seen, people she didn't know. She talked enthusiastically about the country, as if she had left it only yesterday.

"But you left when you were two," I said. "You can't remember what it was like."

"It was like this," she said and took out her family albums to show me. "This is me." She pointed at a baby girl with a budding halo of curly hair. "Here's Pramesh. And this is Mom and Dad." Her parents always stared out of the pictures with the same expressions, her mother smiling, with her lips pressed together, her father glancing anxiously to his left. There were pictures of uncles and aunts, of cousins and neighbors she had long forgotten.

Nita's favorite photos were of girls and women wearing traditional dress. "Aren't they beautiful?" she said, smitten with the graceful drape of their saris. "All those colors. And just look at their hair."

Without exception, each woman sported a gleaming braid that curled around one side of her neck and rested heavily on her chest, flattening the folds of her sari. "When I grow up I'm going to have hair like that." She smiled and ran her fingers through her hair.

I looked at Nita's hair and couldn't imagine that her mop of frizzy curls would ever turn into the plump, weighty pillows that made up the fat braid she craved.

Sometimes Nita had the same misgivings when she twisted her hair into a long sausage. "Look how skinny it is." She peered down her nose at the scraggly ends of her hair. "Like a mouse tail."

"When you squeeze it like that it's always going to be skinny," I said.

She flung her hair over her shoulder in disgust. It unraveled and blossomed into its customary cloud of fly-away curls. "I wish I had fat hair. All Indian girls have fat hair. Except me."

I had never thought about hair being fat or skinny. But since meeting Nita, I divided girls into those who had fat hair and those who didn't. According to Nita, all the Indian girls she knew had glossy, fat braids that hung down their backs like overfed snakes, swinging lazily from side to side as they walked. Nita's hair didn't swing: it bounced, no matter how carefully she moved. She tried weighing it down with heavy barrettes, but they just stretched out the braid and made it look even thinner.

"Argh!" she complained, pulling off the barrettes, "With hair like this, I'll never get a husband."

"You don't need fat hair to get a husband," I said.

"Maybe you don't, but it's different for me. My mother said that it's important for an Indian girl to have fat hair. It makes you look more beautiful and rich, and then you can get a husband with a lot of money."

"Oh, pfff," I said. I never ceased to be intrigued by Nita's attitude. In my home, marriage was never spoken of. I was expected to learn a profession and earn my own money -- husbands never came into it. "And you know you're not supposed to marry for money."

Nita sighed. "I know." But she started worrying about her hair anyway, as if it held the key to her worth.

The first time she brought me to her home to meet her mother, she introduced me as Kimmy, the girl with skinny hair. She said it in a half whisper, as if thin hair were an affliction that required delicate treatment.

Mrs. Kumar smoothed my lank, blond hair into a ponytail, pulling it one way, then another, and clucked with disapproval. "You're right, Nita. She's got a mouse tail like you. You better give her some of that oil to put in her hair." To me she said, "Don't worry, we'll make your hair nice and fat. We'll get handsome, rich husbands for both of you."

I went home that day clutching the bottle of scented oil I was supposed to smear into my hair and leave in overnight, just as Nita had been doing for the past month. I religiously coated my hair with the sticky concoction every night for a week until my mother complained about the state of my pillows. It didn't help wrapping a towel around my head, for it always came loose. Or I'd shake it off, since I couldn't sleep on its hard folds.

Still, after one week my hair hadn't changed. Neither had Nita's, even though she'd been doing the cure longer than I.

"Must be in our genes to have skinny hair," I told her. "I don't think there's anything you can do about it."

But Nita wouldn't accept that. "It's not fair!" she complained. "Why does Pramesh have fat hair, and I don't? He doesn't even need it."

Nita's brother did indeed have hair to die for: lustrous and thick. Wasted on a boy, we both agreed. Pramesh was almost two years older than his sister. Good-looking and with a mischievous bent and a swagger, he was wildly popular with the girls at school. I'm sure I would have had a crush on him, too, but he was both too obnoxious and too familiar to me.

One week, just before he turned eighteen, Pramesh took to strutting around the school corridors with a backpack and a secretive smirk on his face. The backpack never left his side, and he never let anyone near it.

"What have you got there? Let me see," Nita finally demanded, but he wouldn't show her. Instead he walked off, surrounded by a gaggle of boys. When he was at a safe distance, he'd open his backpack and show them whatever it was he was carrying around, taking care that no one else could see. The boys giggled and made lewd noises.

"If that's a dirty magazine, I'm telling Mom on you," Nita said, her chin jutting out.

Pramesh raised his eyebrows in feigned horror. "A dirty magazine? What do you think I am? This is a genuine piece of Indian culture. Mom should be proud I'm taking an interest."

His friends laughed and jostled each other.

Nita narrowed her eyes. I could tell she was of two minds. Her mother was always trying to instill the old culture into her children, playing Indian music, renting Bollywood movies, giving parties for which she made mounds of samosas and where Nita had the chance to wear her beloved saris.

While Nita absorbed her parents' traditions eagerly, Pramesh was the opposite. He flatly refused to participate in the parties and made a point of answering his mother in English whenever she spoke to him in her native tongue. His churlishness prodded his mother into shrieking fits, which in turn forced Mr. Kumar to emerge from the garage and banish his son to his room for the rest of the day.

"Genuine Indian literature," Pramesh said, winking at his friends.

"I don't believe you." Like a streak of lightning, Nita rushed at her brother, grabbed the backpack and tore down the corridor towards the girls' washrooms. I raced after her, and we didn't stop until we had locked ourselves into the last stall, the oversized one reserved for wheelchair access.

"Hey, give it back! You're going to be in so much trouble if you don't!" We heard Pramesh bang against the outer door. But we were sure he wouldn't dare enter. After all, this place was hardly ever empty. And, cocky as he was, he always made sure never to get into the principal's bad books.

Nita plunged her hand into the backpack and extracted a paperback book. The cover had classical Indian motifs, along with a stylized Indian dandy with a long, straight nose and kohl-rimmed eyes.

Her brow furrowed suspiciously, Nita opened the book to a page near the middle. "Oh my God! I knew it!"

The book was the Kama Sutra, the ancient manual of sexual techniques. We pored over the pictures, alternatively giggling with embarrassment and drawing in our breaths as the stylized lovers engaged in activities we would never have dreamed were possible.

"Pramesh is going to be in so much trouble," Nita said with satisfaction. "Mom's going to go ballistic."

But still we turned the pages slowly.

"Oh no! I can't believe this!" Nita wailed suddenly, pointing at an illustration where the man entwined his fingers in the luxuriant long locks of his lover. "Even for this you need fat hair!"

****

Nita couldn't bring herself to tell her mother about Pramesh's escapade with the Kama Sutra. After all, she would have to admit she'd looked at it herself rather thoroughly, and she wasn't the kind of girl to prevaricate -- at least not when interrogated by her mother.

But Pramesh lost no time teasing his sister about having leafed through the book, especially after he had managed to worm out of her the confession that she envied the long, thick tresses of the lady in the illustration.

A few days later, he caught Nita running her fingers through her hair in the entrance hall mirror, her face contorted into what she imagined passionate abandon looked like. Pramesh laughed. Then he grabbed her ponytail and twisted it so tight it looked as thin as a match stick. "Look at this mouse tail! Lover boy could never run his fingers through it like in that picture you like so much."

"I hate you!" Nita screamed, growing dark with fury as he pulled at her scalp. She slapped and kicked at her brother, but he held on, laughing, as he dodged her feet.

"Pramesh! Stop teasing your sister and go up to your room at once." Mrs. Kumar had abandoned her kitchen at the first sign of trouble. "And don't come out until you've done all your homework."

"I already finished it," Pramesh said with infuriating smugness.

"Then do it again! And don't think you're too old for me to give you a good hiding." Mrs. Kumar took a few steps towards the staircase, her hand raised, and Pramesh fled to his room.

"I hate him, I hate him!" Nita started to sob. "It's not fair. Why can't I have hair like him? He doesn't need it." And she sank onto the bottom step, sheets of tears cascading down her face.

"What have I done to deserve this?"

Mrs. Kumar said, rolling her eyes heavenward. "A son who talks back to his mother! And a daughter who will never find a decent husband!" She shook her head. "Nita, you better get yourself some extensions, so you will not embarrass me at your cousin's reception. Everyone looking at you thinking, that girl is not going to get a good marriage. And what will they say about me? Here's a mother, they will say, who doesn't care about her daughter's future. How do you expect me to put up with that kind of gossip?"

Nita started to howl again. I squatted next to her. "It's not the end of the world. It really isn't. Lots of people with skinny hair get married in the end."

Nita sniffed and wiped her hand across her nose. She nodded. "I guess so."

Just then, the front door opened, and Mr. Kumar peered in cautiously before committing himself to entering. He worked as a tax lawyer, which should have, but failed to, prepare him for any kind of hostile environment, including his home. His glance fell on us girls sitting on the stairs, and when he saw Nita wiping away tears, he dropped his briefcase and rushed to her.

"What's the bloody matter now?" he said, but his voice was gentle.

Nita stared at the floor and sniffed.

"She had a fight with Pramesh," I told him. "He was pulling her hair and --"

"Oh not that bloody hair business again. I swear it would be better if the lot of you were bald."

A loud wail came from the kitchen. "How can you say this about your own daughter? Instead of helping fatten up her hair and make it presentable, you say it's better if she is bald. How will she ever find a husband then?"

"She doesn't need to find a bloody husband. She is only sixteen."

"And stop using language like that! We are a respectable family." Mrs. Kumar sailed out of the kitchen, trailing the scent of cinnamon. "And you never have concerns for my feelings! How will I look at my niece's wedding reception, with Nita the only one with a mouse tail and no prospects! All the other girls have some nice young man lined up, and she hasn't."

Mr. Kumar sighed. "She has plenty of time to get married if she wants to."

"Oh, do you think so? But who is going to marry her later on, can you tell me that? Some pimply boy with no money and no teeth? Maybe someone who's not from a good family? Or not even Indian?"

Nita looked up, her eyes dry. "I'm not going to marry anyone at all. Ever!" She stood up abruptly and rushed up the stairs. The door to her room slammed shut.

Mrs. Kumar raised her hands to the ceiling chandelier in supplication. "What have I done to deserve this? Tell me: what? Did I not give enough offerings? Have I not been a good and loving wife, even though I could have had a better husband? Why have I been given a daughter like that?"

Mr. Kumar looked at me and shrugged. "I'll be in the garage," he mumbled and let himself quietly out the front door. Soon we heard the sound of static from the garage. Mr. Kumar's hobby was restoring old radios, the ones that were fitted into polished wood commodes.

Nita's mother sighed. "Kimmy, why don't you go talk some sense into that girl; maybe she'll listen to you." She watched me climb the stairs all the way to the top before she turned to go back into her kitchen.

***

Nita's door was locked. I knocked. "It's only me. Open up!"

Something clanked onto her dressing table. Nita unlocked the door and quickly stood aside to let me in.

The room was in darkness. "What's the matter? Why don't you have the lights on?"

"Ta-da!" she said as she flicked the light back on. She twirled in front of me like a fashion model.

I stared at her, open-mouthed. She had cut off her hair, leaving only a short fuzz of wiry curls.

"You missed a spot," I said, tugging at the thin strand that curled halfway down her back.

And then we fell onto her bed, bouncing on our backs, and laughed and laughed.

***

Nine years later I was sitting among the Kumars in the university auditorium, watching Nita graduate from law school.

Mrs. Kumar was wearing a gold-infused sari for the occasion and had taken care to apply an enormous bindi to her forehead. As she settled back into her seat she looked around with satisfaction.

"None of my friends are here," she said, poking first Mr. Kumar, then me, in the arm. "Their daughters are all married to horrible husbands who drink and go on business trips for weeks on end, neglecting their families."

That wasn't entirely true, but I nodded, knowing it would please her.

"It was a good day, after all, when Nita decided she wanted to look like a poodle."

Next to me, Pramesh snorted.

"And what have you got to say for yourself?"

Mrs. Kumar leaned over censoriously.

"I never thought I would have a son who would lose his hair before he is thirty. It was really a waste for you to have it."

Pramesh's chair was shaking with his suppressed laughter, making the baby girl on his knees bounce up and down.

"Oh, give her to me. You cannot even be trusted with your own child." Mrs. Kumar reached for the baby.

I took my daughter from Pramesh and handed her to Mrs. Kumar.

"There you are, my little precious," she cooed. "Can you see your auntie Nita up there? Doesn't she look beautiful today? But not as pretty as you." She stroked the baby's thick, shiny hair. "Just look at your little one's hair," she whispered to me. "Nice and fat. She'll get a handsome, rich husband when she grows up. You know the Patels who own all those car dealerships and have that big house in Point Grey? I hear they have a very nice grandson."

"Over my dead body," Pramesh mumbled.

Thankfully, Mrs. Kumar didn't hear him.

Monica Kilian lives in Colorado Springs with her husband and son. Her short stories have been published in various online and print literary journals. She is currently working on a new novel.

For more information please visit www.monicakilian.net/


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