Watching my grandmother comb her hair every morning after her shower was like watching a small ceremony. She would emerge from a hot steamy bathroom, her hair wet and slippery like a black snake draped over her betowelled shoulders. In reverent silence, She would glide towards the terrace with myself close at her heels carrying her beauty bag. She would carefully flip her long hair over her shoulder where it hung fat, ripe and ropelike while she squeezed it dry. First the bottom then the middle, the water dripping and landing on the cement floor with a satisfying juicy splat. I would watch intently as my grandmother each morning combed her ankle length hair like a careless young maiden. It were as if the shower had shed thirty odd years from her existence.
My grandmother was an ethnic rapunzel. She had never cut her hair in her life. Even now when I see elderly Australian grandmas sporting short gaily colored razor cuts or poodle like perms, I cannot imagine my grandmother having her hair that short. Black as coal and long like a tail, her hair was a jasmine scented extension of her. My earliest memory of learning to walk involved holding on to her long plait like a safety rail. The four year old version of me, running small fat hands through my cropped curly hair as my grandmother carefully braided her hair whispering quraanic verses into each twist, weaving the words of her lord into long fingerlike tendrils of black smoke. I would dutifully pass her hairpins as she would coil her braids into a neat bun on the top of her head. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. The same 8 hairpins each and everytime. The same black pronged pins with a single pearl on each pinhead. They were given to her by her mother the day she was married. They matched her white and gold raw silk sari. All her friends had their hair cut and fingerwaved for their weddings to match their beautiful western wedding dresses.
My grandmother defied modernity, long black hair in a plait to her waist, white Saree clinging to her hips, the glistening gold embroidery of her pallu framing her moonlike face. She was proud of her ethnicity, something I wish I had inherited from her. But we are of the “burger” generation. ABCDs, Australian Born Confused Desis. We cower from our roots, our culture, our heritage. We toss our ethnicity aside as slave rags, our shame is a time travelling remnant from the colonial days.
Sometimes when I fold my laundry, I bury my face in my bedsheets to catch the scent of sunbeams, the smell of those early mornings on the terrace with my grandmother in the town of Rawalpindi. I wrap the cotton sheets around me pretending to be an Indian bride in the forties, pulling it over my head staring in the bedroom mirror, searching for my grandmother in my face, searching for a connection to the lost Afridi women, to the culture I threw away. I wanted a connection to her and the women of my clan that the physical world denied me. Anything that would make me feel wanted. Anything that would make me feel safe.
More than anything I wanted something that would make me forget that while I was growing older, my grandmother was simply growing old. Anything to forget that dementia now has her in its vise-like grip, to forget that she is slowly slipping away into that jasmine scented garden on the other side. My heart aches to know that every day she is breaking away from reality, that the rich tapestry of her mind and memory are unravelling.
What are her memories now but drops of rainwater through her callused fingers. She is old and losing her mind staring into some unseen place with myopic peanut eyes, perhaps recalling days of her youth, the smell of jasmine from her hedges, the sound of monsoon rain on the roof. And I join her in this strange oasis of thought when I step out of the shower on a Saturday afternoon, naked as Allah intended, transformed back to that four-year-old girl, handing hairpins to my grandmother. One day her bones will fertilise the earth from which she gained heavenly pleasure and I will fill my lungs with the scent of monsoon rain, jasmine flowers and her. And like the memories, she will stay with me always.