As far as tales go, this was not a very interesting one. When Sumalatha decided to grow her hair out, it was already halfway down her back and the decision did not mean very much. She made the declaration halfway through eating a particularly oily uniappam. The coconut oil that coated her fingers might have been a reminder of the numerous wonderful properties of that sweet smelling oil- including long and lustrous hair. Now see, this wasn’t a particularly remarkable observation either because she had been using coconut oil twice a week all her life. There was coconut oil in the beans thoran she loved, in the deep-fried pappadams, in batter fried pazham pori, in the ground chilli and onion she had with tapioca. There was coconut oil in the banana chips she secretly hid inside her pillowcase, a handful stolen in the afternoons when amamma slept. Amamma loved her banana chips and she selfishly preserved the one tin she received thrice a year for occasional treats. They never lasted very long and a delicious crunch on a night of heavy rains revealed their secret hiding place underneath Sumalatha’s lustrous hair. The rains came in November, Sumalatha didn’t have the time or temerity to remember to move the banana chips when amamma terrified of the thunder snuggled in with her. She received a good beating and the tin of chips was moved to amamma’s locker of gold, Dubai sweets and now its newest oily occupant. Coming back to Sumalatha’s decision, the other thing we find perfectly unremarkable is that she continued eating the uniappam, the sweetness of the jaggery dissolving all resolutions. She wrapped one in the ends of her saree, to be safely tucked into the pillow cover later at night, and wiped her oil soaked hands on her long lustrous coconut-smelling hair.
That night Sumalatha remembered why she decided to grow her hair out. It was Silk really, Silk did it all. The previous occupant of the musty room she now slept in had left little clue of who he was until she found the stash. The stash was found in two parts like an exciting jigsaw puzzle that didn’t fit together perfectly even when both parts were found. Nari, amamma always said, was a quiet man who passed away just as quietly. He had left behind a transistor radio that didn’t work, and a mirror decorated with yellow, green and red paint marks. Sumalatha was not particularly attached to the room, she was only ever there at night. And the nights were brief, with room only for sleep and the occasional fantasy or two. Sumalatha did not fantasise very much. Until Silk of course. And then she fantasised about hair and strange mustachioed men and their large hands and broad shoulders, she dreamt of the burn of cigarette butts and pudgy fingers between her legs.
Sumalatha had ordinary eyes, ordinary lips, a small button nose and a child’s body. She was fifteen years old or maybe nineteen, she wasn’t sure anymore. But the man who climbed the coconut tree thought she was a woman, so she must be fifteen. Or nineteen. She had come to this house when she was not a woman and had lived with ammamma and a house with seven empty rooms since then. Not many people came to the house, and she didn’t remember anyone from Bangalore who she thought should have come and visited her. Amamma did not speak much until she spoke a lot, and then she was fascinating until she ran out of her cup of tea and pappadam. There was a monthly ice cream trip to the town- one cup of vanilla ice cream that she licked clean. On her birthday she got the pink vanilla ice cream. The groceries arrived in tins and packets that someone had already opened and filled and taken things out of and put things in. She didn’t know from where. Vegetables came from the man who climbed the coconut tree. Bananas came from the small field behind the house. Amamma had black hair but was old and she still did all the cooking. Sumalatha only swept and mopped the house, once at 4 in the morning and then again at 9 before she took bath and then again at 5 in the evening before she took bath. She oiled her hair only in the mornings when amamma could boil hot water. Before she found Silk, she combed her hair only once a day. Now she combs her hair twice, even thrice sometimes. Once she had dried her hair in the sun in the morning, she flipped her hair down and pulled at each knot till her hair grew bigger and bigger. When she flipped it back, it sat like a large black halo that flowed down her back. She got ten minutes to let her hair down and then she had to comb it and tie it for the rest of the day.
Before sleeping at night, she used to plait her hair. After Silk, she left it open spread across the pillow with coconut stains on them. Amamma said that if you left your hair untied at night, yakshis would get caught in it. Paru had a baby with the man who climbed the coconut tree because she left her hair open at night. But for Sumalatha, Silk had gotten into her hair. She found her behind the Godrej bureau two months ago when her little pot of kajal rolled under it. Cutouts of the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. Her first instinct was to look away, because Silk did not look like a good girl. But she couldn’t. Every picture was a revelation – of a thigh, of a waist, of the hollow the spine made in the middle of her back, of her large bosom and her strangely slim arms. This was the first discovery. The second piece of the puzzle required a lot more effort. After two weeks of staring at Silk under the kerosene lamp, Sumalatha wanted more. She rummaged every bit of the room until she found the stash of magazines Silk came from. Behind the red, green and yellow paint-stained mirror. The magazines had a lot of other women, but Sumalatha knew why Nari had cut Silk’s pictures out. She was exceptional. The second discovery revealed a very important detail the pictures left out. The stories that came with Silk’s pictures always described her hair. Her beautiful long lustrous black hair that fell over her face, covered her bosom, reached down to her waist and made men forget their moustaches. She did things Sumalatha had never heard or seen women do. The men did things she knew the man who climbed the coconut tree would never have done to Paru. Paru said afterall that it was all just a mistake and they just fell asleep together in Jacob achayan’s field. This was no mistake though, and night after glorious night Sumalatha imagined stories of Silk and the men, carefully trying to picture what ‘the mangoes were ripe for the plucking’ meant or what ‘his manly weapon drilled into her passion-filled flower’ might be in the ‘garden of youthful delights’. Amamma began to complain about her day beginning late because Sumalatha hadn’t woken up to sweep the house at four. Well how could she, when Silk had consumed her nights.
On Sunday, when the man who climbed the tree came to the house, Sumalatha went up to him and offered a mango. He took a bite and his face contorted into several degrees of sour, just like the mango. “Puli!” he said and threw it down. It fell down as he climbed up the tree. Sumalatha decided the mango was not ripe for the plucking after all. That night she read her favourite story of Silk’s yet. In this one, the mustachioed man drove a lorry. The lorry was called, ‘Chakkara’, whose gentle purrs were just as seductive as its roars. On TV, Sumalatha’s favourite actor also drove a lorry in a hit film. She imagined this man to be that man. Both were mustachioed and had arms as strong as an elephant. Lorry man meets Silk, a common servant girl working in a paddy field on a day when Chakkara the lorry gets a punctured tyre. The farmer who owns the paddy field sends Silk out to entertain the lorry man while he gets his men to fix the puncture. Silk feeds him crispy fried fish and freshly tapped toddy. “Chakkare, roar for me” he calls out to her. As she turns, her eyes wide in enquiry he smiles and points at his lorry, “I was talking to her.” Silk smiles and walks toward him, her hair magically coming undone in the wind just as the hooks of her blouse pop open, and offers him a mango for dessert. At this point Sumalatha realised that her blouse was much too loose and her hair was tied up when she offered the mango to coconut man.
The next day was the day Sumalatha ate the uniappam and thought about the coconut oil oozing out of it and made her decision. You see, right before she thought of her hair she also realised that even if her blouse did pop open the coconut man would find her mango sour. He had looked down at her from up in the tree many times and had disappointedly looked away. She didn’t have Silk’s eyes or her body or that waist or that bosom, but she did have her hair. So she decided to grow it out and wait till the next monsoons. The mangoes would be ripe then.