It was hot! Really hot. I was sitting on the side seat of a passenger train. I was on an eleventh hour work assignment. So the last minute booking. And needless to say I failed to get reservation in the AC coach. Every passing second was a torture. I tried to think of the last bad thing I had done…stuck a chewing gum on the side mirror of my boss’ car. Well that was not such a bad thing. He deserved it after making me slog for 48 hours and then taking away my moment of glory by presenting it to the clients himself. I know it’s getting boring here. But wait. This story is not about office stress, not about a sadistic, mean boss, not about employee exploitation. It is a fairytale. It is about someone I would like to call Rapunzel.
So going back to the stuffy, ugly, and tormenting train…I had to travel for another three hours. My back was wet with my dripping perspiration. The makeup had come off. The thick black kohl I wore was smudged, thanks to the sweat. The people around were speaking incessantly in a tongue I did not understand. It added to the overpowering frustration I was feeling. The women were clad in cotton sarees and had no care whether their bellies (read: storehouse of cellulose) folding and flapping, were visible to the world or not. It was totally disgusting!
The wind outside was harsh. I was sure it was God’s way of punishing me for the chewing gum scam. But the train was at least moving and that was the only saving grace! No sooner had I started getting used to the harsh hot wind than the train came to a halt. I looked out and saw a little station. Daspura. The name and the place both seemed down market. Reserving my comments for myself I thought of closing my eyes for some time. There was a lot of chaos about seat numbers, luggage space occupancy etc. I was training my mind to ignore all that and finding some peace…
“What? You forgot to bring my wooden comb? I had carefully kept it beside the bed so that you could pack it safely,” I heard a girl’s voice cry out.
I opened my eyes to see who was complaining about a comb of all things. She was a girl, probably in her late teens. She was dark and wore a cheap looking synthetic pink salwar suit. She was thin. Her face was ordinary but at that moment her eyes looked teary with grief.
So much sorrow for a wooden comb? How vain kids are these days! I thought to myself.
Her mother looked apologetic. “I am sorry Mampi. I was busy getting the medicines packed and completely forgot about the comb. I will get you one as soon as we reach the city.”
Medicines. Well the mother did look frail and tired, as if she was suffering. I felt bad for the mother and angry at the girl for making the mother feel apologetic just because she forgot to pack some comb. And then my eyes went to ‘Mampi’s’ hair. It was gorgeous. Had she not been so lower middle class looking, she could have easily been mistaken for some hair ad model. It was jet black and shiny. Long and thick. She had two thin braids from the sides joined at the center with pink clips. The rest of the hair was let loose. She sat down quietly. Her mom offered her water and she declined the offer. Then she bent down and took out a worn out bag. From the side pocket she took out a white plastic carry bag. It read Ma Manosha Variety Stores. She took out a brown hair brush from it and then kept the plastic bag in its place and pushed in the big worn out bag. She was on the aisle seat. Her eyes were looking out of my window. While everyone kept complaining about the severe weather, this girl opened her braid and began brushing her hair. She brought her hair to one side over her shoulder and delicately brushed them over and over.
“Is she mad? She is treating her hair as if it was a baby or something. What’s wrong with her? I am feeling so hot even with my hair tied like a top knot, and this girl with her long thick hair has left it loose?” I was feeling hot looking at her, but she had no care. She seemed oblivious to everything. It looked as though it was just about her and her tresses. I agree that they were beautiful, but obsessing over them like this? It was a little too much. I couldn’t help but look at her activities. She wasn’t doing much. Except of course neatly brush her hair. I don’t know if my mind was playing games with me or if it was reality but after a while the hair seemed to emanate a certain glow. It was smooth and shiny. Like straight out of a Sunsilk or Pantene Advertisement. The girl kept gazing out through my window and kept brushing her hair…
I do not remember when I had fallen into a sweet slumber. The selling phrase of a chaiwalla woke me up (‘Chai chai bole, chai chai’). The train was almost empty now. The heat seemed to have reduced a little, or maybe I was used to it by then. The girl Mampi had also fallen asleep on her mother’s lap. Her lips were chapped and suddenly she looked pale. The brown comb had fallen out from her hand and was lying on the floor. I looked at the mother, and our eyes met. She smiled at me and I reciprocated. Then my eyes went back to the fallen comb. The mother’s sight followed me and she tried to bend down to pick it up. Immediately I got up and signaled to her that I will pick it up. For some reason unknown I did not feel like disturbing Mampi’s sleep. As I picked up the comb and handed it to the mother, she asked me where I was going. A little chit chat followed…
“Oh so you are from Siliguri? Yeah I know the Bazaar area. My friend’s father has a shop there.” I said. “Aunty your daughter has the most beautiful hair I have ever seen. How do you maintain it? You should take her to modeling auditions for shampoo advertisements. Anyways you are going to Kolkata, there are many ad agencies there.” I suggested.
The mother suddenly had a look of pain on her face. “Her hair is her most prized treasure and she loves every strand of them. But the hair will not last for long dear. I am going to Kolkata for her first chemotherapy session to BP Poddar Cancer hospital. She is suffering from lymphoma!”
I was aghast. I did not know how to respond. And the mother went on “She was blessed with such good hair since her birth. Her father named her Alaka which means beautiful lock of hair. Though our financial condition has not been very good, we always took good care of her. But after her father passed away a couple of years ago, it has been very hard. Soon after her father’s demise Mampi’s health began to deteriorate. Initially I thought it was stress and grief. But then the fever became persistent and she developed a lump under the skin on her arm that refused to go away. Recently she was diagnosed with some kind of lymphoma cancer called Hodgekin Disease.”
I felt goosebumps on my skin and had tears in my eyes. How wrong I was to think that she was vain. She was trying to cherish fond moments with her treasure that will soon be gone. The heat, the discomfort, the humidity, the harsh wind, the manager, work, everything looked so trivial in front of Mampi. She was Rapunzel…a princess who had to let go of what she loved for the sake of survival. I looked at the sleeping Rapunzel and my heart went out to her. I opened my handbag and took out the new Vega hairbrush that my hairstylist had given me yesterday for easy brushing of frizzy hair. I put it in Mampi’s palms and told her mother that I will pray for her recovery and good health. I wish I could cast a spell on the hairbrush so that it would detangle the problems in her life as well!