My mother’s hair was like the Sunsilk ad on television: straight, jet-black and silky. Strong enough to haul up princes when plaited. Amma said that during their honeymoon, Appa would rub her hair with coconut oil, beginning at the scalp and slowly working his way down: from the roots to the curling tips of each waist-length lock. “Things changed after my pregnancy,” she said. “After we came here.”
After her first post-natal hair loss, Amma filled two of our four bathroom shelves with hair products: shampoos and conditioners with colloidal oatmeal, shampoos and conditioners without colloidal oatmeal, hair serums with henna extracts, hair serums with jojoba oil extracts, styling creams, volumisers, sprays, Dabur Amla hair oil – the products changing every time the pharmacy on Bani Malik Street had new stock. “I believe that my wife was a hairstylist in her previous birth,” Appa told any guest who had to use our bathroom.
Amma’s stylist, a Pakistani woman who ran a beauty parlour in a downstairs apartment, said that hair loss was common in places like Jeddah because of the high water density. Amma did not agree. She continued comparing herself to her own mother, who had had three children without losing as much hair or gaining as much weight. “It’s my own fault,” I heard her mutter once. “I didn’t take enough care of myself.”
My friend Alisha did not like it when I complained about my mother. She said that unlike other parents, my Amma rarely compensated for her own flaws by trying to fix me. “You’re so lucky and you don’t even know it. If you actually screwed up the courage to tell your mother you wanted to be a cartoonist instead of an engineer, I bet she wouldn’t even mind.”
Well, yes, Amma wouldn’t mind – or care. Over the past five years, my teachers were the ones who criticised the slouch in my posture, told me I needed to wear a petticoat under my white sports uniform, and scolded me for the few marks I lost on exams.
So you can’t really blame me for not responding when my mother suddenly approached me the evening before my Class X mock exams and demanded why I didn’t oil my hair.
“Look at all this dandruff!” she said. Her fingers wove through my shoulder-length black hair, undoing tangles, parting it better than any comb. “So many white strands! You’ll look like an old woman by the time you’re twenty.”
She brought back a small blue bottle from the bathroom and poured a little oil into her hand. “Stop scowling. It’ll give you premature wrinkles.”
She massaged the oil into my scalp and then, with a comb, pulled back my hair so tightly that it made my head ache.
“Isn’t hair colour hereditary?” I asked, wincing. “Appa said he had a few strands of white hair when he was fifteen, too.”
Amma said nothing. She stared at the framed photograph on the wall behind me – a faded Polaroid shot on a beach in Cochin, where my father’s hair was blacker and my mother’s longer.
He no longer oiled her hair.
That evening, like most days, he came back from the hospital at six and ate dinner with us in front of the television. He sat in his favourite rocking armchair and watched the local news on Saudi Channel 2, the Indian news on Zee TV and the world news on BBC. Then he went back to the bedroom, supposedly to sleep. My mother, who had grown bored of the Israel-Palestine conflict and “those chair-throwing, dhoti-wearing monkeys” in the Indian Parliament, switched channels to watch a Hindi soap opera about bitchy sari-clad women on Star Plus.
I went back to my room at eight to study. Amma watched soaps until ten and then came into my room to kiss me goodnight. Appa followed, wearing his old pinstriped maroon pyjamas – another sore point with my mother, who did not like maroon, and felt he wore them just to spite her.
He kissed my forehead. “Did you study today?”
“No, I watched Ninja Turtles.” I sighed. “Do I do anything besides study?”
“Susan.” Soo. Zun. Two syllables revealing the exasperation that always came with these conversations and the amusement he never quite managed to hide.
I sat up in bed. “Honestly, how important are these exams that I need to study so much for them? I mean, you already got the visa for Canada. Yvonne told me that no one gives a –,” he raised his eyebrows, “– sorry, no one cares about the Indian board exams there.”
“Nonsense! Of course they care. How else would they know where to place you?” he said. “In any case, your mother and I haven’t made a final decision on the migration. But, if we did move, that should give you even more reasons to maintain your grades.” He crossed his arms.
To my father, my response was obvious, the way it would have been to any man who grew up the son of a poor South Indian farmer and became a cardiac surgeon after months of swotting for his finals under the light of a Kottayam streetlamp. Yet, as tempted as I was to roll my eyes or answer back smartly like my Canadian cousin Yvonne, the sight of my father’s expectant face and graying hair made me pause for a second before replying.
“Yes, you’re right, Appa. Good night.”
Appa smiled, satisfied, and directed the next comment to Amma. “Children these days, Aruna! How they argue.”
“Amma isn’t here.”
He didn’t need to look around to confirm my words; we both heard the rising volume of temple bells – background music to my mother’s favourite soap about a dysfunctional joint family. A line appeared between Appa’s grey eyebrows but the smile, thanks to ten years of giving patients bad news, didn’t slip.
“She said the commercial break was over,” I said quickly.
He patted my forehead. “Good night, Suzy.” He walked out of my room and shut the door.
When I was a child, my parents would go back to their room together after tucking me in. The bed would creak as they burrowed under the covers and I would often fall asleep to the sound of them whispering late into the night. Though this had changed five years ago – my mother returning to her soap in the living room and my father to his book and bedside lamp – at least until yesterday they’d continued this charade of togetherness.
That night, I dreamt of writing my maths exam to the depressing background aalaaps of my mother’s favourite ghazal singer, and the sound of my father’s snores.
As far as marriages went, my parents’ story was rather filmi: Love in First Electro-mechanics Lecture at University; Parental Interference Over Ineligibility of Boy Due to Boy’s Poverty; Boy Winning Over Girl’s District Magistrate Father After Topping Medical School Exams and Getting a Job in the Gulf.
“Appa said he was testing Rensil, you know,” Amma told me. “But I knew the truth. Your grandfather was simply angry that I wasn’t marrying someone of his own choosing – someone with a family background similar to ours and a perfectly matching horoscope. He made life really difficult for both of us those first few months of our courtship. But the minute Rensil got a job, everything changed. He was a cardiologist now, that too in the Middle East. The harbinger of petro-dollars, Appa called him. It was the kind of thing they all understood.”
When I was fourteen, I found a photograph from that time tucked away in an old album: a shot of my parents taken by a friend the day they arrived at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah. My father wore a grey safari suit, while my mother was cloaked in black: her scarf knotted neatly under her chin, a flap of pale yellow sari peeking from between the folds of her polyester abaya near the hem. They were not smiling, but there was something in their expressions – an innocence, I thought – that brought out the magic in that picture, elevating it in a way that made it a little more than ordinary.
Amma grimaced when I showed her the photograph. “I look like such a schoolgirl in that one. Well, I suppose I was one at the time. Everything looked wonderfully rosy. I didn’t even think of how limited my options would be once I got here. Even in our days a BSc meant nothing unless you wanted a teaching position.”
“What did you want to be, Amma?” I asked, my tone careful, casual. But, as always, she evaded the question, this time with the excuse of checking the milk boiling on the stove.
The folder containing her University of Kerala bachelor’s degree lay in the bottom drawer of their bedroom dresser – a faded rectangle of red plastic coated with a thin layer of dust, except for the centre, where a clean imprint had been left behind by the photo album I held in my hands.
Humidity in Jeddah sometimes began as early as January, and mingled with the heat that never went away even during winter. It made the air so thick that each breath felt like an inhalation of sweat. Eyes squinted in the sun. Noses and foreheads gleamed. Classrooms reeked after each lesson with the gym teachers, each group of girls trooping back to their respective floors and standing under the draft of the AC (set high) to cool their burning heads and wet patches under armpits.
Groans over the oppressive weather amplified with the added pressure of the mocks – practice exams for the dreaded Boards to be taken in March by all Class X students, determining admittance into Arts, Commerce or Science. Students at Qala Academy, by the school’s affiliation to the Central Board of Secondary Education in Delhi, wrote their board exams at the same time as students back in India. Papers, set by the Delhi board, were couriered over to Jeddah for the exams and then sent back to India to be marked by Indian examiners. The exams were the best way to assess if students in the diaspora were up to par with students in India, and this became especially important for students planning to enrol in junior colleges or IIT prep schools in India after Class X.
It never occurred to most of us that the mocks could be mocked, even though the marks themselves would not count towards our final grade. Our teachers expected perfection even in this practice round. In the attempt to make everything as “real” (read: difficult) as possible, teachers from the Academy’s boys’ section in Sharafiyah set papers for the girls while our teachers set papers for the boys. At the end of January, the top three ranking students and the best subject scores were displayed on the bulletin board in the school’s lobby for all to see. All other marks were revealed in the classrooms, the teachers lugging in armfuls of exam booklets, dropping them on their desks and, in my maths teacher Atiq Maqsood’s case, announcing every girl’s score out loud as praise and punishment.
“Susan Thomas!” He tossed the paper on my desk. “Eighty two!”
Quadratic Equations 29/30. Theorems 30/30. Mensuration 23/40. Final score 82/100.
Blood pounded to my face. It was the first time I got less than a 90 in maths, in any exam for that matter, which would have been bad enough without the teacher acting as though I’d sucked all the hope out of his life.
“Seventeen marks!” Maqsood Sir shouted at me. “Seventeen marks difference between your mark and the cut-off for a good IIT prep school!”
He glanced at the girls in the front row. “Stop whispering amongst yourselves, you idiots, and listen hard! You are being prepared to write exam papers set by teachers and first-year college professors from Delhi. Do you even know how competitive it is outside the four walls of this little school? Go to any office in India, even the peons there will have a BA. Most of you, however, barely scored a passing mark!” He turned back to look at me. “At this rate, you can forget about medicine or engineering; just go to the kitchen and ask Mummy to give you lessons in making idli-sambar!”
He spent the rest of the period reviewing the test problems, pausing intermittently to rant about the extra money IIT prep colleges charged Non-Resident Indian students for a single first-year seat.
“Even to students who meet the ninety-nine percent cut-off!” he yelled, which made several girls seated at the front turn around to catch my expression. I pressed my lips together and looked down at my graph book, where everything started to blur.
By the time Maqsood left the classroom, I was bawling.
Nawal Al-Abdulaziz paused by my desk on her way out of the class. “Don’t be stupid,” she said. “You know what a nut Maqsood can be. Yesterday he yelled at two girls who came late to class after volleyball practice, even though they had notes from the headmistress.”
“I’m not some bloody genius!” I burst out. “Why do people treat me like some sort of ninety-churning machine?”
“Because you let them, my dear Susan,” Nawal said. “You act like this perfect little child who does no wrong, in studies or in life. Obviously they’re going to be mad when you don’t live up to those expectations.”
Just like Nawal to sprinkle salt over an open wound! I dug into my bag for a tissue. Emerald Verghese was watching. She looked away when my gaze met hers.
Emerald – untouched by Maqsood Sir’s wrath despite having similar IIT aspirations and losing thirty-one marks on that stupid exam – would obviously tell her mother about this and she would tell all of our common friends, which would really make shit rain from the sky because there were few people my mother hated more than my physics teacher, Ruby Verghese.
Five years ago, Verghese Madam was the only woman my mother got along with in our social circle, made up of Keralite Syrian Christians whose children went to Qala Academy and attended the weekly prayer meetings Verghese Madam held in her apartment across the street. They sat together every Friday – my slender, fair-as-a-Brahmin mother in pumps and knee-length dresses she ordered through a Freemans catalogue from London, and the dark, pudding-bellied physics teacher in chappals and gold-bordered South Indian saris – and swapped dirt about people they knew back in India and here in the Gulf, giggling like best friends, until the topic switched to their children.
Who won the poetry recitation contest? Who played a better game of badminton? Who ate more vegetables? Who got better grades?
“It’s all in the genes,” I remember my mother saying one Friday. “Susan gets her smarts from her parents.”
“From her mother,” my father corrected, and my mother smiled. The affection between them was so palpable back then that I looked away, embarrassed.
Verghese Madam did not smile. The whites of her eyes were veined red and she chewed her lower lip in a way that would have made me – or any other ten-year-old – run in the opposite direction.
Amma laughed with delight when I told her about the look on Verghese Madam’s face. “Devil eyes? Oh God, the things you children come up with! No, dear, it’s nothing like that. Your Verghese Madam is just a little under the weather. She told me about it earlier.”
Amma had lost weight back then thanks to a new vegetarian diet, and wore her old college jeans like a second skin. She and Appa acted like it was their second honeymoon – every little thing was a matter of celebration. Until Amma’s special diet caught up with her and we began to find strand after strand of her straight black hair matting the beige carpet of the living room and clogging the bathroom sink. End of honeymoon.
“If I don’t diet, I’ll become as fat as Ruby Verghese,” Amma yelled at Appa, five years later, on the night of my lower than expected maths exam score.
I was sitting on my bed, history book in lap, fingers plugged in ears. The First World War began on 28 June 1914 with the assassination of…
“What foolishness is this?” Appa demanded. “A little weight gain is normal with age.”
…the assassination of… did my father have to showcase his elocution skills now?
“A little weight gain?” Amma turned her laugh into a cough. “You think carrying all those fat-filled tires on your body is normal?”
…Archduke Franz Ferdinand…
“Ruby’s not the one who fainted in her own kitchen! Ruby didn’t lose her hair!”
“It would do her good to lose that awful hair! Bloody coconut-husk, that’s what it is!”
I got up and slammed the door to my room. Silence from the other side.
I settled back into the warm hollow of my mattress, hoping it would stay like this for a few hours. I still had to rote-learn the reasons for World War II, write a Hindi essay on famine, and study for a quiz set by my fat, coir-haired physics teacher.
“Hi,” Emerald Verghese smiled at me.
“Hi.” I did not smile back.
“I just wanted to let you know that we’ll be study partners next month. Our mothers talked about it and they both decided that it was a very good idea.”
I stared at her; did not even blink.
My friend Alisha likened the Class X Board Exams to the head-crushers used during the Spanish Inquisition. The idea, Alisha said, was to place intense pressure on students’ heads through the year and then use the exams as a process of elimination to find the hardest and brightest ones. “The Aladdins. The diamonds. The heeras in the rough,” Alisha called them. Now Emerald was no gem, but she wasn’t stupid enough to believe that our mothers were on talking terms unless the conversation involved insults.
“Maybe your mother forgot to tell you?” Emerald said, reading into my silence. She struggled to keep her smile in place.
“Maybe,” I said.
Amma hadn’t, I found out later that evening. “Verghese Madam approached your father directly,” she said. There were tooth marks on her bottom lip. “He said yes.”
“What gave him the right to say yes?” I demanded. “How could he say yes without asking me?”
“You think I didn’t tell him that? He said that it would be good for you, that you needed more friends. The truth is that he’s just doing it in exchange for a favour from that woman’s husband. Mr Verghese has a good friend in Canada who is head of cardiology at a major hospital in Toronto. He’s coming to Jeddah next month and Rensil has been promised a meeting with him. A successful meeting might help your father get a job there.” Amma grimaced. “As if he doesn’t already have a perfectly good job here.”
Amma made no secret of the fact that immigrating to Canada was Appa’s idea – an idea she had disapproved of from the very beginning. I’d heard them fight about immigrating so many times that I could recite most of their arguments word for word.
“Must we go to Canada?” Amma would begin. “The colleges in Kottayam are just as good. With her marks Suzy will not have any trouble getting admission there. If we do run into any problems, my father can put in a word—”
“I don’t want her to grow up in a country where she needs to pay a ‘donation’ or rely on your father’s government connections for a college seat,” Appa would argue back. “We went through enough of that nonsense ourselves. I want the best for our daughter – and that is only possible in a country that rewards its students
Disagreements about my future were only one part of the problem. The bigger issue, from what I could tell, had everything to do with Amma’s fear about moving thousands of miles away to an entirely different continent, even further away from her family in India. “Your mother wasn’t like this before,” Appa had confided in me with a frown. “She was outgoing and vivacious, always ready for a new adventure.”
I didn’t particularly care about moving to India or Canada. But by default, I had become the deciding vote in the matter – a vote that I always refused to cast, unwilling to be caught in a tug of war between my parents.
Now, however, any unbiased view I had about the matter (and Appa) was quickly diminishing.
“Why does he have to make me a scapegoat?” I asked Amma. “And what does he mean that I need more friends? I have a friend already! Alisha is my friend!”
A real friend, unlike the people my parents surrounded themselves with at our weekly prayer meetings and then grumbled about when we got back home. Alisha was the only girl in class who didn’t always talk to me about schoolwork or exams, who cared about who I was as a person.
I knew that Emerald was curious about my study methods. My classmates often asked me the number of hours I put into a subject, if almonds really did improve one’s memory, if I learnt chapters in a certain sequence to retain them better. Initially, I told them the truth – there was no secret except a deep interest in the subject and simple, hard work. Since they didn’t believe me, I started making up answers to suit their needs.
For example, if a duffer like Maha Chowdhury wanted to know how many hours I put into maths daily, I said a minimum of four. I also said that I ate fourteen almonds a day, soaked in turmeric-milk. If it was someone a tad smarter, like Nawal Al-Abdulaziz, I’d reduce the maths study-time to two hours, the almonds to seven, and mention that I put in an hour reading geography.
And for pests like Emerald Verghese, I always used my mother’s answer – “it’s all in the genes.” Alisha said I was being arrogant. I said I didn’t care. I didn’t need to impress a bunch of girls who never talked to me except when they wanted to borrow my notes. As for Emerald – I knew she didn’t like me. A couple of years ago, I’d heard her grousing about me to her friends: “Susan this, Susan that. All the teachers, including my mother, act like she farts rainbows or something. I swear, no one would even talk to her if she wasn’t so smart.”
I had been shocked by her comments, especially since back then, despite the rivalry between our mothers, I’d always been polite – if not friendly – to Emerald, showing her my notes whenever she asked, even solving a couple of maths problems for her.
“I’m not studying with that leech,” I told Amma now. “I’m calling Appa.”
Amma placed a hand on my arm. “No, don’t.”
Was she crazy? “But I don’t want to study with her!” I insisted. I didn’t care about what Verghese Madam thought – she would not be the one marking my final board exam paper.
Amma shook her head and gave me the old Malayalam proverb: “You don’t need to set the house on fire to kill the rat.”
My mother’s plan was quite simple. The only person who could break this arrangement was Emerald Verghese. To make Emerald do that, I had to make the study environment at our house as distracting and disruptive as possible, without making Appa suspicious.
“Do you want to study with Emerald?” Amma asked when I expressed my unease about the plan. “I don’t like going behind your father’s back either, but we wouldn’t have to resort to this if he just listened to us. Tell me Suzy, does he listen?”
My silence was answer enough.
Ignoring the voice in my head that said that I was once again stuck in the middle of a parental power struggle, I focused on the situation at hand. There were still several weeks left before the Boards – several weeks of putting up with Emerald’s nosy questions and oily smiles. Operation Eject Emerald would be difficult, but not entirely impossible considering the ways Emerald and I studied.
Emerald was the kind of girl who sat in one place for three hours straight, her forehead lined with concentration, her nose buried in a book.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t sit still for more than an hour unless I was writing or drawing caricatures, or unless my parents were having a fight in another room.
Rote-learning for me was easier if I walked from one corner of the room to another, reading the textbook out loud. I set boring textbook passages to the tune of nursery rhymes to make the material more interesting. In the past, Amma had called my techniques kindergarten-ish and had made me stop the recitations. She asked me to resume them again when my cumulative average dropped from 99 to 90 percent. I read comics during breaks or watched TV when I got bored of quadratic equations. This, I knew, would be an obvious distraction to Emerald, whose mother unplugged both the television and the computer during exam time.
Emerald, however, proved to be surprisingly resilient, until I started reciting the entire periodic table in a sing-songy voice.
“Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Ber-eee-lium, Bor-ooo-n…”
“Will you just shut up?” Emerald’s fat face was red with effort. A chemistry book lay open on her lap – she’d been stuck on page forty-two for an hour. “I can’t concentrate!”
“Well it’s my house!” I shouted. “Just because your mother bullied her way in, doesn’t mean I’ll stop preparing for the Boards or change my learning methods.”
Emerald’s face lost some of its colour.
“Enough,” Appa said, his voice mild. Though he didn’t look at either one of us, I knew he was talking to me.
I’d had enough too. I threw the book on the sofa, glared at him and walked out of the room.
“She has a temper, doesn’t she?” I heard him tell Emerald in that tone of loud overcompensating solicitousness he used for the kind of relatives and house guests Amma hated. “Just like her mother.”
Appa, however, had underestimated my mother’s temper this time. Whenever Emerald came over to our house, Amma was the perfect hostess. “Would you like something to drink, Emerald dear? Orange juice? Of course. How about a snack? How about my special grilled chicken sandwiches? Of course I’ll make them for you, dear. No trouble at all!”
She was so convincing that for a time, I wondered if she had forgotten our plan. Yet, the days Appa didn’t supervise us, Amma began to “work Emerald”, and she did it so subtly that at first I didn’t even notice.
“Have you ever thought of getting your hair straightened, Emerald dear?” Amma said the first week.
“No, Aruna Aunty. My mom said it makes your hair fall out in the long run.”
“Oh, I see. Well your mom’s right of course. But it must be difficult combing it, isn’t it?”
Emerald coughed. “Sometimes.”
“Well, try oiling it a bit then. Susan’s hair used to be like yours when she was younger. God! The trouble I had with it!”
“Really?” Emerald said.
I could feel her staring at my straight, perfectly groomed ponytail and hoped she wouldn’t question Amma’s lie.
The second week, Amma talked about Emerald’s career options.
“Software engineering? Are you sure there’s enough demand for the profession, dear?”
“I think so, Aunty.” Emerald no longer looked up from her book.
“Software engineering, hmm. A ninety-nine percent average is the minimum cut-off for IIT, isn’t it Suzy?”
“Yes, Amma,” I said. “That’s what Maqsood Sir said.”
“Now,” Amma turned back to Emerald, smiling. “Not that I’m saying you can’t do it, dear, but… you know, just in case… you should always be prepared for another alternative. You know, like marriage.”
“I don’t want to get married right after school,” Emerald’s eyes moved from side to side, as if looking for an escape route.
Amma laughed. “Don’t be silly, my child. Of course you want to get married! You girls always say that you want to focus on your careers, but the truth is that you feel you can find a job quicker than you can find a man. What you don’t realise is that it is not an impossible task if you begin taking care of yourselves. Losing weight would help loads, of course, but with your physique, it could take ages. Till then, little things can help. Wearing more flattering salwar-kurtas, waxing your facial hair and arms, threading your eyebrows – you have such large, lovely eyes, Emerald.”
Eyes that, I noticed, were quickly turning a wet red.
“Stop it, Amma.”
Emerald closed her books and said that she needed to go home early that day. Neither Amma nor I stopped her when she barrelled out of the room.
“Was that necessary? I mean, did you have to humiliate her like that?” I asked in a tight voice.
Amma said nothing. She sat down in Appa’s leather armchair and rocked back and forth, her lips pressed into a thin line.
The morning after the Emerald fiasco, I tossed my mother’s hair products in the trash.
As predicted, all hell broke loose. I did not go to school that day and Appa did not go to the hospital. Amma thought Appa had done it.
“Why don’t you just get it over with and divorce me?” Her knees buckled and she sat on the carpet, a weeping blue figure on a field of beige. When I came back into the room an hour later, I found my Appa kneeling too, his arms around Amma.
“I did it,” I whispered. “I threw out the hair products.”
But my parents didn’t seem to notice my presence.
I left them there, clinging to each other under the framed picture on the wall – a young man and woman smiling shyly for the camera at a beach in Cochin.
~Tanaz Bhathena was born in India and raised in Saudi Arabia and Canada. Her work has appeared in Great Lakes Review, Blackbird, Witness, Room Magazine and Asia Literary Review. She blogs at tanazb.wordpress.com and tweets at @bhathenatanaz.