The lights came on in the park, and for some reason this heightened her sense of isolation. Shobhana felt like a speck of dirt floating in an ocean of warm yellow light. She imagined that each of the lamps inside the park contained a fragment of the sun and she was a moth that was being burned in the ferocious light.
She cast a glance yet again towards the long building on the other side of the street- to be more precise at the door into which the man in sweater had disappeared. The door was closed, and it was only now that she noticed the door was painted a bright yellow.
Warm and bright- just like the light from the lamps in the park. She felt invisible rays of light rising off the door and scorching her.
But instead of warming her, the rays made her cold. Shivering, she stood up.
As she did so, she cast one last glance at the tree with the purple flowers. For some reason, the sight of the tree made her feel more peaceful. Like the tree was a living sculpture that spelled a message of peace.
Shobhana quickly walked down towards the gate of the park. Another gust of wind made the branches of the tree sway behind her. The force of the wind was such that it detached the petal from one of the over-ripe flowers that clung to the tree desperately, not quite ready to part ways from its source of life.
The petal- thin and long, like the floral representation of an artist’s finger, floated downwards, carried by the wind as though with a destination in mind. And the destination was the back of Shobhana’s head, where it perched softly on her lush hair before, like a slug, the petal began to move, crawling on its belly and embedding itself between strands of hair, oozing further into the dark crevices offered by the rich flock of hair on the woman’s head.
At one point, the tip of the petal touched her scalp and Shobhana felt a cold shiver pass down the length of her body. This felt at the same time both eerie and oddly soothing.
Instinctively, she touched the back of her head, around the area where the shiver had originated. But all her fingers felt were her hair- lush and still wet from the bath she took just around half an hour back. The petal, by this time had comfortably made itself confine deep within her locks, staying securely away from the reach of her fingers, from out of anyone’s sight.
Like a spy who has managed to get inside an enemy fortress- unseen, unheard.
The next gust of wind that shook the lone tree in the park was more violent than before, as though it was a premonition of bad things to come.
Shobhana, at the moment was pushing open the iron gate of the park, didn’t notice this.
Returning home, Shobhana had a pretty decent time. For the next two hours, that was.
She fixed herself some pasta and coffee, watched part of a movie on Netflix. Ever since the breakup she was careful not to watch any romantic films, as they sometimes brought up bile in her throat,so this evening it was an old Chinese action film.
The action flick reminded her of his father- not because the man himself was a martial arts expert, but rather because he was a huge action film fan.
Many were the mornings when Shobhana used to come awake hearing the grunts and sound of pieces of wood and bricks and being broken on the television in the living room, back when she was still living with her parents.
And when she came out of her bedroom, bleary eyed, she would see her father sitting in the sofa watching an action flick- mostly the old Chinese films(“They are the only ones who understands what filmic action truly is!” he always said). More often than not, he would be drinking his morning cup of coffee while watching the film. Just as you may find other people his age in front of the television in the mornings watching the morning news, Shivdasan Krishnankutty began the day watching some old action films- especially if it was a holiday and he didn’t have to rush in the morning to get ready for “the one idea in the world that keeps the world running but which I hate the most- job!”
Remembering her father made her smile, but only weakly.
Shobhana paused the Netflix movie.
On screen an almost completely bald young man in a grey robe was in the process of flying-literally- towards his enemy so that he could kick the latter all the way to hell. As she hit the space bar on her laptop, the man became frozen in mid-flight, his arms raised above him in a threatening gesture, his face a veritable study on how to scowl angrily, his lips parted in a snarl.
But all that Shobhana could think of was how the man didn’t have any hair on his head and how sad that was.
“So, what if you are a man?” she said to the Chinaman in mid-flight. “You have no hair but I do- lots and lots, dark and lush, more beautiful than even the best martial arts move you could pull off!” She smirked at the man on screen.
Men, she has come to decide in the last few weeks, were never to be trusted. They may do and say a lot of impressive things, maybe even fly around so that they could kick their enemy’s ass, but at the end of the day, they were not to be trusted.
Unless, of course, if the man in question were her father.
She called Shivdasan on the phone. He picked up on the second ring.
They chatted for more than thirty minutes- mostly, Shivdasan filling her in on all the happenings in their small village. Shobhana felt peace settling in her as she listened to his words.
In fact, the words themselves were irrelevant, what mattered was that she was listening to his voice- the same voice that has placated her, and talked to her lovingly whenever she has felt down in life. Shobhana was always closer to her father than she was with mother.(Mother had a special affinity for her other child- her son, Shobhana’s younger brother). And it was to her father she ran whenever she felt some parental intervention was required to solve a crisis.
The sound of his voice felt so soothing, so reassuring. When the world felt like it was made of thin glass that was cracking beneath her feet, Shivdasan’s voice felt like the only stable point in a fluctuating environment.
‘Like my hair,’ she couldn’t help but think. ‘My hair is the same now as it was before the breakup. It’s still beautiful, unlike my soul that is getting tainted with misery.’
“Shobhana, are you alright?”
Her mind was divided between his voice(and not words) and her own thoughts that Shivdasan’s question felt like a rude awakening. “I am sorry, daddy, I was just thinking of something..my mind drifted off, sorry.”
“That’s alright,” said Shivdasan. “But what’s bothering you? Since we started this conversation, I could sense something was wrong. Or am I wrong in that assumption?”
Shobhana was surprised by her father’s words. It wasn’t, of course, the first time that she has talked with him after breaking up with Madhav.
But the thing was, maybe because of the short visit to the park or maybe because of the action film she has been watching that helped her take her mind off things, she was feeling much better, mentally much freer than she has in quite some time.
It was odd then that father would find something amiss now.
She assured him that nothing was amiss- the last thing she wanted to do was reminisce about her breakup. She asked him if mother was around, if he could put her on the call. But Shivdasan said she has gone out with Sanjay- Shobhana’s brother- to the local market to buy fish.
Sanjay turned eighteen this year and got his driver’s license just last month. Shivdasan had brought him a motorcycle the previous year, and ever since he has been itching to take it out without fearing for cops flagging him down as he rode without a license. “Ever since he got his license, he is only too enthusiastic about going anywhere on the bike- even if it’s to take his mother to the fish market,” Shivdasan laughed.
Shobhana laughed with him. She knew only too well how much Sanjay used to hate such tasks as going to the grocery store or the fish market. In fact, when Shobhana was still living at her parents’ home, it was she who accompanied her mother- who was the expert in the house in choosing the right vegetables and fish- to the market or the grocery store.
And now, the idea of Sanjay actually showing enthusiasm in such tasks tickled her funny bones.
She was feeling even better than before when she got off the call with Shivdasan.
But just then, she felt the same shiver that she had felt at the park pass through her body, originating from the same spot on her scalp as before.
She wondered if there was dandruff in her scalp- a scary thought for someone who cherished her hair as much as she did. ‘But then,’ she thought, ‘I always take care of my hair with ayurvedic oils and other essentials to prevent dandruff.’
Besides, getting chilly shivers down your spine wasn’t a symptom of dandruff, was it?
In the aftermath of the shivers, her body began to get warm, as though she just came from a short jog. And the heat escalated by the minute, so much so that when she resumed the movie on her laptop, she found it hard to concentrate on it anymore.
Though it’s not been long since she took a bath and the night was turning out to be reasonably cold- she has already turned off the ceiling fan since it was found to be unnecessary- she felt that another bath was in order.
This time, maybe she wouldn’t even turn on the geyser and just bathe in cold water.
While in the shower, just as she did whenever she bathed, she squirted a pop of shampoo in her palm and lathered it onto her hair. But this time, when she was rubbing the lather down the length of her hair, she found a clump of hair has come undone.
At first, looking at the hair wound around her hand, the reality didn’t register with her. It was simply too absurd for her hair to loosen like this?.After all, she took a bath just a couple of hours ago and it was all fine then! She has applied the shampoo then too and nothing like this happened!
But something told her that this wasn’t the shampoo’s doing. For one thing, the shampoo was ayurvedic, devoid of any chemical whatsoever, and it was meant to protect her hair, not damage it.
There was only so long that she could deny the obvious. Walking from the shower to the wash basin, she looked in the mirror.
She tentatively pulled on her hair, so gently that she might as well have been handling a child. But even so, another clump of hair came undone in her hand- the clump, which had detached from the scalp felt like bristles to the touch, even though they were wet.
It was as though her hair was consistently drying even as she held it in her hand, just as her body heated up before.
Feeling panic rising in her, Shobhana pulled on her hair again. And again. And again.
Each time, her fist didn’t come off empty. Hair- like a clutch of grass was in her fist every time.
And even as she watched her panic stricken face in the mirror, she saw a purple finger rising from within the hair in the head. No, not a finger, it was too thin and almost one-dimensional to be a finger.
But Shobhana couldn’t make a closer inspection as the thing-whatever it was, pulled itself back and hid itself away shortly.
Uttering a yelp of fear, Shobhana clutched at her hair around the spot where she saw the thing rearing its head.
But her fingers were immediately burned, so that wincing in pain, she took her hand off her head.
Soon, thin wisps of smoke began to emerge from the water being evaporated in her hair. Feeling a little dizzy, she leaned against the wall of the bathroom for support.
Just a couple of feet away, the jet of water from the shower continued to hit the bare floor; it sounded too loud in her ear- like a viciously thunderous laughter.
And as she watched out of her eyes which kept going in and out of focus, she saw tricking towards the drain, along with the water from the shower that touched no body, black tendrils of hair- long and lush, beautiful an majestic, if only the hair was still attached to her head.
Now, the hair was falling off her head on its own! Falling all around her, touching, teasingly caressing her curves and her legs on their way down, like feathers breaking from wings, like an angel falling from grace.
Shobhana opened her mouth to scream. But all that came out was a gentle whoosh- like the distant sound of the ocean after a storm. She felt the whirl of dizziness rotating faster inside her brain, going round and round and round, faster, faster, faster, like a hyperactive merry-go-round, like a perpetual motion machine keyed up to its maximum potential, ready to burst and break apart into a thousand different pieces.
She hit the ground unconscious.
When she came to, Shobhana felt the world to be the same.
The wet and slimy ground, a chillness which clung to her body like a vaporous embrace, the sound of mocking laughter rising from behind her. The sound of fate making fun of her, saying, “And you thought he was the love of your life, didn’t you, silly girl?”
But no, it wasn’t the sound of fate, In fact, it wasn’t laughter at all, but the sound of water hitting the tiled floor from the shower head. This realization occurred to her as she recalled where she was- and what had happened to her.
Sitting up on the wet white floor, she touched her hair, an act which dispelled any hope that she had imagined the whole episode involving the loss of hair and the dizziness and the finger that poked from her scalp.
She shuddered at the thought of the purple worm like figure. She instinctively raised her hand to her hair but stopped at the last moment-remembering what had happened the last time she touched her head.
The scalding had left angry looking red marks on her palm , which she presently looked at. Her hand smarted, and she bit down on her lip to stifle a cry. Standing up, she gazed at her face in the mirror.
And this time, she couldn’t help but scream.
For she saw that she had lost more than half her hair, so that what was once long and flowing now stopped short just beneath her shoulders. Also, it wasn’t as though some barber has cut it with precision. It was more like a host of cockroaches had a field day on her head, scratching and taking off pieces and entire clumps of hair from her head as they pleased.
The result was far from pretty.
And even as she watched, she felt a trickle of blood coming down the forehead, originating from her scalp.
In fact, she felt a burning sensation on her scalp, and she couldn’t help but reach her hand and touch the spot, caress her head even, though she wasn’t sure what exactly that would accomplish. But just as she touched her hair, she felt a hand- a human hand, strong and masculine, taking a strong grip of her fingers.
The hand had reached up from the thick velvety hair, and now it had clamped around her fingers, clutching like an anaconda trying to chock the life out of its prey.
The hand with the long fingers was purple in color.
Notwithstanding the chill in the atmosphere, Shobhana began to sweat, the beads of perspiration mingling with the drops of water on her naked body. She wanted very much to scream, but the sight of the purple hand protruding from her scalp like a horn unsettled her so much that she was having trouble finding her breath, let alone screaming.
She heard a scrunching sound as the hand clamped down even harder on her fingers, like a coil of rope being tightened around dry twigs. As an explosion of pain broke from her fingers, she felt sure that the bones in her fingers must surely have broken, at least in two places.
But just as the red hot pain began to blind her consciousness, creeping up from the edges of her mind towards its centre like a virus consuming a blood cell, the grip on her fingers was abruptly released.
The pain in her bones retreated by gradients. She pulled back her hand from over her head. Looking in the mirror, she saw that the purple hand was no more to be seen.
She still couldn’t bring herself to touch her head though, and not just because of the pain in her hand.
She tentatively stretched the three fingers which had come under the firm grip of the purple hand(just thinking the phrase made her laugh out loud)- the strongest grip she had experienced in her life.