In the beating, melting heat of the summer afternoons, there would be silence. The cattle were a sea of heaving hides, and the street dogs were passed out in the shade of trees and boundary walls, their tongues lolling as they dozed. Even the breeze came to a halt, afraid to rustle a leaf and awaken the creatures that nestled quietly within. And we, we would sleep with the rest of our families in the deepest room of the house on the cool floor where the heat couldn’t catch us. We would sleep unwillingly at first, as all children do, but relieved with the knowledge that there was no one outside to play with. We would sleep because we knew the streets of the village were dead in the peak afternoon hours. We would sleep because we knew he would be there when we awakened.
He would come dragging the sunset with him, his little cart wobbling over the cobbled streets as the ringing of his bell drifted gently on the near-silent breeze. He would come and chase away the heat. The cattle would shudder, the dogs would stretch, and the little birds would chitter as they flitted out from their canopies. And as he neared our street with his sweet bell tingling, we would emerge. We could crawl out of the cool rooms and coerced siestas, out of doors, windows, and courtyards. We could crawl down the steps and off the porches, emerging from every crack and corner like little spiders in someone’s nightmares. The street would go from empty to swarming in seconds as we all rushed out, half asleep, crowding around him as he drew to a halt.
I remember the last summer I saw him, it was as it had always been. With my eyes half open and sleep clinging to their inner corners, I wobbled out of bed like a prepubescent drunkard when I heard his bell. My grandmother lived in a large haveli back then – a mansion split into parts, with sections walled off for different families. That was where I had always spent my summers. I stumbled out of our door to see Sonam and Sumit emerging from their side of the building. We pushed past each other as we scrambled down the four steps to street level, the competition pulling us suddenly into a state of wakefulness. We would often line up with coins in our hands, one- and two-rupee coins that were worthless outside the village. But this year, he had promised us a deal. “A deal just for you,” he had said as he pulled out his scissors and snipped a little piece of hair off each of our heads. “A snippet of hair for a pack of cotton candy.” Budiya khata was what we called it back then, ‘old crone’s hair’ for those who came from the city. “Hair for hair. An equal exchange,” he had justified the trade. With sugar-filled bliss on the line, we had obliged.
He would come dragging the sunset with him, his little cart wobbling over the cobbled streets as the ringing of his bell drifted gently on the near-silent breeze.
That day we stood at first in a cluster, and then in a neat line upon his warning glare. We stood with empty hands, hearts beating at the prospect of what would soon be in them. There were about twelve of us in all the houses clustered on that little section of street, and we knew each other well from all the summers we had spent together. We chatted as we waited, about things that were irrelevant to all but us: the colour of our new shoes, the next meal at home of disgusting vegetables and pulses. We chatted and waited, keeping an eye on him as he prepared.
He pulled out a bag, a master bag filled with other tiny bags, each perfect for a single lock of hair. He unfurled a cloth, laying it over the counter of his little cart, along with a pair of jet-black scissors that looked like a crow turned to metal. He opened the other counter to display the riches we had waited for so eagerly. The greens and pinks and blues and yellows of coloured sugar spun into clouds that weighed nothing. It was like a rainbow without the rain, which each of us couldn’t look away from. All he asked for was a lock of hair, but we, being the short-sighted youngsters that we were, would have given our organs for a taste. As he finished setting up his display, we ooh-ed and aah-ed like a crowd at a magic show. He turned, and we saw the edge of his smile. At last, he was open for business.
Like obedient ants, we took turns marching up to him and stood with our eyes scrunched closed in mock fear as he chose a lock of hair to neatly snip. It was never too long, somewhere between two inches and three, and never wider than his smallest finger. Then he carefully put the lock into a little bag from the master bag as we chose our preferred colour of cotton candy. One point of the finger and it was done – the pack of candy was in our hands and the hair lost until it regrew upon our heads, forgotten in the wake of a sugar rush that lasted a few minutes.
The greens and pinks and blues and yellows of coloured sugar spun into clouds that weighed nothing.
Within a few weeks, our elders had dubbed it a disease. ‘The curse of the crone’ was what they called it, our grandmothers and grandfathers and great-aunts alike. “That is a mistrustful thing,” they would say. “Taking the hairs off of children’s heads.” But they were happy to save their stashes of one- and two-rupee coins, happy enough that they let the cotton candy man carry on his business without complaint. Our parents weren’t around to argue further, and so, by the second week of summer, we were all infected by the disease.
For anyone who chose to visit our street that summer, it would have been a surprise to see children sporting choppy haircuts that followed no pattern or aesthetic – just little snippets missing here and there, boys and girls alike. It would have been stranger still for those people to come again and see the hair even shorter in just a weeks’ time, with no improvement in style or cut. But to our elders, it was all the same. Hair was hair and children were children and the cotton candy man was suspicious but in a non-threatening way. “What would a man do with all that hair?” they often wondered as they sipped their tea in the evening over biscuits and fried sev. Sometimes they debated and discussed and argued, but they never reached a conclusion. It was just the way of the summer – the man came and went, it was none of their business what he did with the hair.
Somewhere between one month and two was when little Simmie noticed something that the rest of us didn’t. She wasn’t exactly little, in fact she was hardly an inch shorter than me, but we had dubbed her little because of her high-pitched voice and her tendency to drink milk with every meal. “He never cuts off more from the same lock,” she said one afternoon as we sat licking the remnants of sugar off our fingers. We had been sitting on the ledge that bordered the mansion, four feet from street level, and she immediately jumped down. “It’s always a new lock. He avoids the already cut ones each time!”
It took a while before the realisation settled in all our minds, and, as one, we started to touch our hair to confirm her claim. “Why do you think that is?” I asked as I ran my fingers through my locks. My hair had once been shoulder length but now the majority of it fell just below my earlobe. “Do you think it’s the curse?” Nikku spoke up as he jumped down to street level and joined Simmie in front of us. “What if the locks he cut will never grow back?”
And of course, our hair was shorter.
I could see the panic rising in the children sitting beside me – in Sumit, Sonam, Nikku, and Simmie, and even myself. I couldn’t go on with hair that fell just below my ears. What a laughing stock I would be when I went back to school! That evening, we all returned to our homes with worried expressions, but somehow, by the time afternoon came the next day and the cotton candy man returned with his jingling cart, all our worries were gone.
In retrospect, that wasn’t the only thing that should have made us suspicious. There was something else about him that would have seemed off had we paid it any mind. There was something about the taste of that candy – it wasn’t like the cotton candy we had tasted anywhere else. It was different, it was sweeter, lighter, fluffier, and much much more addictive. It had us raving mad, willing to give up anything for a taste. The other thing was the man himself. If someone were to ask me what he looked like, I would not be able to conjure up any details of his appearance. The sound of his voice, the shape of his face, or even the cut of his hair still evades my memory. I can’t recall the clothes on his back or the shoes on his feet or even whether he wore any shoes at all. The only thing that comes to mind is his array of splendour, of the colours and hues of his confections.
Come the last week of summer, as the heat subsided infinitesimally to give way to what city folk called autumn, we were still as eager as ever to line up in front of his cart when he came along. The summer had changed us. Our skin was darker, some two shades or three, and the fairer of us had hints of sunburn from playing in the street. Our bodies were leaner from the diet of vegetables and pulses and a whole season where the nearest source of potato chips and cream-filled cookies was kilometres away. And of course, our hair was shorter. Like we had every afternoon before then, we lined up and let our hair be cut, another lock lost to the crow scissors. We picked up our candy and sat down on the ledge by the house, waiting for the others to join so we could share the moment the sugar hit our tongues. Nikku was the last in line that day. So it was that the rest of us were seated on the ledge when he finally sat down on the warm brick with a pack of lime-green cotton candy in his hands. Without direction, we opened our packs in unison, completely synchronised.
I had picked a pack of lavender-shaded candy that day; the colour reminded me of a flower from my dreams that I wasn’t certain existed in the real world. I bit into the candy and felt a stream of sugary bliss. It was wonderful, exquisite and delectable. I would have thought of more adjectives to describe the taste had Simmie’s scream not brought me back into the present.
The cotton candy man was suspicious but in a non-threatening way.
She sat with her eyes wide as she pulled the candy out from her mouth, her sticky index finger and thumb pinching it from between her lips. She pulled out a string, dark and far from appetising, and looked down at the pack of candy in her hands. We looked down with her at the tiny pink cloud, nowhere near the colour of what she had just pulled out of their mouth with her fingers. It didn’t take us long to reach the conclusion that perhaps we had all reached somewhere deep in our dreams. We checked our own packs for signs of loose hair. There were a few strands in some, none in others. My candy was clean, completely lavender through and through, but the sick feeling in my stomach stopped me from eating the rest. And, in the way that kids sometimes know things that defy rhyme or reason, we knew that the cotton candy man wouldn’t come back to our street the next day.
It has been so many years since then that I now wonder whether my memory of that day was simply childhood fabrication. Had we played a game of make-believe, knowing that summer was over and the cotton candy man wouldn’t be returning anyway, or had he known through some supernatural ability that we had discovered his secret? Perhaps it was just a story I created afterwards to explain in a more digestible way why I no longer visited my grandmother’s house after she died later that year. Perhaps it was a little flourish I added to make my childhood summers more interesting than mere dusty streets and village kids. But the fact is, I’ll never truly know whether it was the way I remember it. Even if the man didn’t exist, what would explain the choppy haircut I came back with when my parents took me home? My hair has grown well past my earlobes now, the choppy edges lost over the years, along with the fear of it never growing back. Even so, just to be safe, I stay away from the colourful stalls of cotton candy at fairs and festivals. The crone’s curse isn’t something I’d risk being infected with again.