01 January 1970
#WeekendReads

The Wigmaker

This short story first appeared in Telugu about a decade ago in the author’s short story collection bearing the name of this story itself.  It depicts the life of a traditional wigmaker.

The wigmaker
The wigmaker Artwork by Arti Varma

Telugu title:  సిక్కెంటిక/sikkeMTika (Tr: Tangled Hair), Translation by V.B.Sowmya

Translator’s Note: This short story first appeared in Telugu about a decade ago in the author’s short story collection bearing the name of this story itself. It depicts the life of a traditional wigmaker. Wigmakers in the part of South India where the story happens traditionally relied on the hair they collected from barbers and temples where devotees tonsured their hair. In addition to these, they also traded fallen hair strands from private householders offering small items such as combs in return. They made the wigs at home and sold them in the market to earn their livelihood. However, changing lifestyles changed this traditional setup, and hair became a valuable commodity traded for large amounts of money. Selling hair is now a lucrative business and some larger temples even hold auctions to sell such hair, with bidders from other countries willing to pay millions of rupees. This competition for leftover hair made the life of the traditional wigmakers difficult, as they couldn't afford to pay such large amounts to buy the hair needed to make the wigs. This story depicts one such wigmaker, who contemplates on the unsustainable nature of their trade in the present-day world, and takes a step towards self-reliance to support her small family.  

While translating, kinship terms, forms of address, and a few other culture-specific words are left untranslated, adding a brief explanation where needed. With the author’s permission, I made the part where he explains the wig-making process longer, for clarity in the translated version.
 
“We will buy your hair! Hundred rupees for a hundred grams of hair!” Devani walked into a street announcing her arrival.
 
Devani is perhaps around thirty-five years old. She is thin, with a thinner face and sunken eyes. Her gait shows how tired she was, having eaten nothing since morning. It has been three weeks since she had three meals a day.  She was widowed at a young age. Her husband had died unable to handle the deceit of his business partner, not out of any disease.
 
Her mother-in-law, who was good to Devani when her husband was alive, blamed her for his death. So, Devani faces some harassment every day and her mother-in-law always taunts her.  Looking at Devani reminds her of her son, perhaps.
 
Realizing that earning money is the only way to silence her mother-in-law, Devani took to the roads on an empty stomach early in the morning, soon after finishing her daily ablutions. She has two hundred rupees with her to give to people who would sell their hair to her. Since spending any amount from that money would mean not having enough to pay those sellers, she has chosen to starve instead of buying something to eat.
 
A strong wind blew Devani’s front hair away, covering her face with it. How long has it been since she applied some hair oil? The hair strands are too dry and are just flying in the air. She started at home after tying her long hair together. But, the dry hair is clearly unable to withstand the wind now.
 
Pushing the hair aside, she looked into her shoulder bag, which also functioned as a portable crib. Her two-year-old is lying without movement in the bag, with eyes closed. He looked tired and famished. She touched him and realized he still had a fever. She had been giving him the medicine they gave at the Government hospital thrice a day, but the fever hasn’t reduced. Devani is clueless on what to do.
 
“We will buy hair. We will buy hair from you!” she shouts once again. Devani also makes and sells beautiful, long wigs for women apart from buying hair. Along with the wigs, several small decorative items such as hair ribbons, kohl, various kinds of combs, stickers women put on their foreheads, and jadagantalu, the bells that hang from long, plaited hair, are all on sale, displayed on a wooden rack she carried with her. She sells all these while looking to buy hair. This street business is her livelihood.

 ****
 As long as her husband was alive, Devani lived without any trouble. He was a village barber who shaved men’s beards, and he was paid once a year in return for his services. His customers gave him a part of the annual produce on their fields, which provided the couple with enough rice, lentils and oil to last for the whole year. In addition to this, he went around collecting leftover hair from professional barber shops, and from temples where people tonsured their hair as an offering to God. Devani took the collected hair, separated it into strands, boiled it, and finally entwined the strands together to make long wigs for women. They sold these wigs and made some money. Apart from these, her husband also sold some of the hair he collected, separately. This business of selling and buying hair in various forms ran smoothly for a while. Her mother-in-law managed the household and took care of Devani’s and her husband’s daily needs, while they worked.
 
But she did not expect her husband would leave her so soon. This man, who left her and her two-year-old to fend for themselves, is still a part of her everyday thoughts. 
 
****

 

Devani is tired from walking all day, and is searching for a place to rest. All she sees are houses with their doors closed. In the past, people built small, but spacious benches in front of their houses, to offer a resting place for passersby. Things look different now. Iron gates are erected in front of the houses, to avoid uninvited guests. So, we neither see those benches of the past nor those women who sit in front of their houses dressing their hair. In those days, women from neighboring houses gathered together on these benches, joked with each other, and combed each other’s hair sitting in a row, using special lice combs to catch and kill the lice. They collected all the hair strands that stuck to their combs together and gave all these collected tangled hair to people like her, in exchange for ornamental items such as kohl for their eyes or stickers to apply on their foreheads.
 
Everything has changed now. You don’t have those benches and houses. Women don’t have so much time for themselves and that sort of long hair anymore. What can we do? This is the law of Kaliyuga, the age of degeneration.
 
Taking a long breath, she shouted again, “We will buy your hair. We will buy the hair tangles!”
 
“It has been so long. There is no buyer for these wigs and there is no one willing to sell their hair either. What shall I do now?” she wondered.
 
Her mother-in-law treated her well when her husband was alive. When she traveled with her husband for a few days to procure hair, her mother-in-law helped them with getting things ready for the trip. Making long wigs by hand is not an easy job. The maker has to sit on the floor, keeping a large, round object like a bike tire around one of the legs (to wind the hair). Hence, they cannot move around much in the process and would need a helper for support. Devani’s mother-in-law played that role while Devani made the wigs, by performing tasks such as applying ash on the hairs so that they wound smoothly over the tire, hanging the hairs on an iron rod to ensure proper shape of the wig etc. But after losing a son, when daily life became a struggle, perhaps it is natural to change the way her mother-in-law did. After all, without money, who can support whom?
 
Devani saw an Indian Beech tree nearby and decided to rest for a while under its shade. She let her wooden rack stand against the tree, and hung the wigs she held in her hand on the rack. Spreading a cloth mat on the floor under the tree, and taking her sleeping son to breastfeed him, she lied down. 
 
She felt a churning feeling in her stomach as she looked at her son’s face. He is about to finish two years in this world, but he hardly looks his age. He is too thin, and eagerly comes to breastfeeding. But what is left in a dried-up breast? He refuses to eat rice and spits everything out. He points to her many different food items he sees in the shops, but who has the money? Poor kid, he clearly wants to eat them, but does not insist or throw tantrums when he is refused. He is pure gold! She caressed him and pushed back some of the hair that was falling on his face.
 
Taking a deep breath, she took out her tin bowl, to beg for food in the neighborhood. She stopped in front of a house and asked imploringly, “Amma! (mother), please give me any leftover food”. Not seeing any response, she moved to the next house. After asking at a couple of houses like this, one generous woman shared some leftover food and rice water with Devani. She returned to the tree shade and ate it, adding some salt, and felt energetic afterwards. Her son spat out the rice water when she tried feeding him. She rested for a while, put him back to sleep in her shoulder bag, and held the wooden rack and the wigs in her hand again. “We will buy hair from you. Hundred rupees for hundred grams of hair,” with this, she got back to work.
 
After walking in a few streets, she reached Balija street. There was a sudden surge of energy and hope in Devani as she entered the street. Here is the reason - Devani knows an old woman called Papamma who lives on this street. Her house was always the place where they stopped to rest when she came along with her husband. Papamma was kind to them and always offered them some water and shared any leftover food packed in large leaves. Devani shares her woes with her regularly, thanks to this relationship.
 
She remembered an incident from three months ago. 

*******

Papamma’s son and daughter-in-law were visiting her when Devani went to see her on that day. As Papamma’s five-year-old granddaughter played with her kid, Devani asked her, “Didn’t you shave her birth hair yet?”

“No. I have no idea when my son would do that. Why would I stop him once he decides?” Papamma complained about her son.

“How old is she now?” Devani asked.

“This is her fifth year. I think I waited for too long, leaving the decision to my son. Once the month of Ashada passes, I would arrange for the head shaving ceremony myself, in the month of Shravana,” Papamma announced, visibly frustrated.

A moment later, she enquired, “Tell me Devani, do you only make and sell the wigs, or are you also trained in your traditional occupation of being a barber?”

Worried about missing an opportunity to earn money if she said no, Devani lied, saying she knows how to shave hair.

“Why don’t you shave her hair then? I will pay you well!” Papamma said, smiling.“Okay, I'll give you my word on that,” Devani replied.

On that evening, soon after returning home, Devani applied limestone on a pot and started learning to shave it off with a knife. It took only a couple of  days for her to be able to shave skillfully. When peddavva, a woman in their neighborhood, complained of headache, Devani convinced her that a clean shaven head will give her relief, and shaved her head very well, surprising everyone around her. All her well-wishers appreciated her for learning to shave despite being a woman. 

Soon, Devani became more skilled at it, and since then, she had been reminding Papamma that she would shave her granddaughter’s hair. Papamma had been nodding in agreement in response for some time now.  Devani had high hopes for this job. She wanted to sell the hair obtained by shaving Papamma’s granddaughter’s head at a good rate, so that her family could eat proper food for at least a few days. She hoped her mother-in-law would treat her well afterwards. 

******

With these thoughts, she walked towards Papamma’s house and called for her. 

She was shocked to see her granddaughter come out, with a fully shaven head. Papamma came out behind her granddaughter. Before Devani could say anything, Papamma fired a question. “Where did you vanish? I haven’t seen you in this area in the past few days.”

“Amma, who shaved off your granddaughter’s hair?”

“I have no idea who he is. But apparently there is a huge demand for hair now. So, instead of charging us a fee for his service, he actually paid us two thousand rupees to collect the hair!” Papamma is visibly happy.

“Papamma got tempted by that offer and ditched me,” Devani couldn’t stay there any longer with this thought. This is not the first time such a thing happened, though. Her husband lost his life after one such act of treachery.

****
He always sold the hair he bought to a man from Madras. That man always paid for the hair straight away in cash and never postponed the payment. After a while, her husband made an arrangement with this man to wait for a lump sum payment of fifty thousand rupees instead of collecting money after each transaction. He wanted to convert his thatched roof hut, which leaked each time it rained, into one with a tiled roof.

Devani’s husband counted days and soon after the payments reached the required amount, he asked the man from Madras for his bulk payment. That man promised to pay the money on the coming Wednesday. Both the wife and husband waited for Wednesday, and waited all day on Wednesday. There was no sign of this man on that Wednesday or the next. Finally, they went to Madras, found the address of the man, and visited his house. The man’s wife was hospitable and treated them well. She went out looking for someone who can call her husband home. The couple waited all day, and he did not come home. They had to return to their native village.

The man from Madras never came back to their village. Others who did business with him were clueless about his whereabouts too. Devani’s husband realized he was cheated. Fifty thousand is a lot of money. His hard-earned money. This man from Madras cheated them. Devani’s husband passed away worrying about his family’s future.

******

Each time someone cheats her, Devani resolves to not get cheated the next time. Yet, a new cheater cheats in a new way again.

Devani just walked along without bothering to wipe the tears that rolled out of her eyes. As she entered the street with the public tap, she heard someone calling her name and walked towards that house.

“Eme!”, the woman called Devani.  “Are you deaf? Can’t you hear me calling you?” she asked.

“Sorry Amma, I was lost in thoughts” Devani replied, turning aside to wipe her tears.

“Did you find the long wig I asked for?” the woman asked with anticipation.

“No, all these are the same old models. I am yet to find the kind of hair you want.”

“How long will it take? It seems like I will enter old age while waiting for my ideal wig” she sounded dejected.

“No, Amma. I will find it for you.” Devani promised her to escape the situation, and managed to reach home that evening.

Putting her son to sleep, and eating some scraped leftovers from the utensils at home, she drank water, and slept.

But it was a sleepless night. “How long can I survive like this? World has changed. Despite walking all day till legs wear away, this business of buying and selling hair is not viable anymore. Even the temples started auctioning tonsured hair. Buyers pour in lakhs of money. At this rate, I can hardly find a strand of hair. How long can my life’s struggle focus on strands of hair?” Devani thought for a long time and reached a decision that night.

The next morning, she went to her Pedananna, her father’s older brother. This is the time he sits under a Banyan tree daily with all his barber tools, seeking customers. He looked at Devani and asked, “What is the matter, child? What brings you here?”

“Pedananna, I want my head shaved.” Devani came straight to the point.

“Oh, no! Why do you want to do that? You have such nice hair!” he asked.

“I am a widow. What will I do with this hair even if it is nice and beautiful?” Devani responded nonchalantly.

The old man did not say anything. He just made Devani sit in front of him and poured some water on her head to get started with the process.

Devani remembered an incident that happened ten days ago.
 
****

Devani was  walking in the streets, shouting about buying hair, when the woman from the street with the public tap called her. When Devani responded the lady asked her to show some good, long wigs for her hair. Devani showed the wigs she had, combing them all in front of the woman. But the woman was not satisfied.

Suddenly, her eyes turned towards Devani’s head.

“Tell me, what do you use for your hair? It is so long and thick, and looks so beautiful!” she asked, patting on Devani’s head with curiosity.

“What special care can a poor woman like me give to her hair?” Devani said, sadly.

“How did your hair grow so well, then?” The woman was surprised with Devani’s answer.

“I don’t do anything, except applying coconut oil on the hair once in a while”

“Is that all?!”

“Once a week, I wash my hair with soap nuts.”

“Is that your secret?” the woman asked, smiling.

“Yes, that is pretty much it. What secrets will we have?” Devani replied, casually.

“I love your hair. If you find a wig like your hair, sell it to me. I am willing to pay any asking price!” the woman assured Devani.

“Will you really pay me what I ask for?” Devani asked expectantly.

“Yes. Remember, it should be as long, thick and curvy as your hair” the woman replied, with her eyes still on Devani’s hair.

Devani agreed to that proposal and returned home that day.
 
****
She has been enquiring in her circles to procure such hair and make a wig for the woman. But she was unsuccessful. Each time Devani walked into that street, the woman enquired about the wig. She asked yesterday too with a lot of hope. But Devani has been delaying this.

In this scenario, something happened three days ago, the memory of which brought tears into Devani’s eyes.

****

Devani sat to comb her hair with a wooden comb as her head hurt, when she noticed a bunch of lice falling off her hair. She killed the lice, applied some hair oil, and started combing her hair with care. Her mother-in-law arrived at that moment and started abusing her. 

“Hey, you are a widow. For whose sake are you getting ready, showing off your beautiful hair now?”  As soon as she heard this, Devani stopped combing the hair and wound it into a big knot, wiping off the tears that rolled down. Devani did not take the knot off or comb her hair since that day.  

****
Finally, her hair has found its cause. So, she asked her Pedananna to shave it off!

Three days later, she started her trading trips again. She went to the town she usually goes to, and went straight to the street with the public tap. Without making her usual announcement that she is selling and buying hair in the street, she went straight to the woman’s house and knocked on the door.

The woman opened the door and did not recognize Devani at first. However, the wigs in her hand gave her away.

“Amma, Here is the wig you asked for”, Devani gave her the long wig she held in her hands.

“Oh, wow, did you really get the kind of wig I asked for? Is this a wig made of hair like yours?” the woman asked, examining the wig carefully.

“Yes. It is not any wig like my hair. It is the wig made out of my hair, which you liked and admired. I shaved my head off, made a wig out of my own hair, and brought it for you, as you agreed to pay me any amount I quoted” Devani replied.

The woman stared at Devani’s head, as Devani removed the hem of the saree she wrapped around her head. The sight of Devani’s bald, shiny head surprised the woman for a moment, but soon, her expression changed to an unexplainable joy, and she caressed the wig with admiration.

She asked Devani to quote an amount, immediately went inside and returned with the money Devani asked for. Devani’s face was lit with happiness seeing the money. The woman went inside imagining how beautiful she would look with that wig. Devani stared at the woman who had a thin hairline and a thinner plait which looked like a mouse’s tail. She then walked back into the street, wrapping her saree hem around her head.

A month later, Devani gained expertise with barbering and started a men’s hair-cutting saloon in the town.

********

(Author: Jillella Balaji (b. 1961) has been writing in Telugu since 1983 and has published five collections of short stories and a memoir in Telugu. He is also an acclaimed translator and translated over fifteen books including novels and short stories from Tamil to Telugu. The Sahitya Akademi (Indian academy of letters) awarded him for his work as a translator in 2010. He lives in Tirupathi, India.

Translator: V.B.Sowmya (b. 1984) translates in Telugu and English, and has published two translated books in the past, including “The Sharp Knife of Memory” (Zubaan Books, 2015), the translation of a Telugu autobiography “Nirjana Varadhi” by Kondapalli Koteswaramma. Her translations of Telugu short stories appeared in Indian and international webzines and journals over the past one year. Her translated work is listed here.)