Rohma’s Story – Vam
I had just returned to my office when my phone rang.
“Dr. Donner?, this is Rohma Banerjee from your 101 class.”
I thought for a moment trying to identify the name and voice, 101 was one of my largest classes, but there were only a few young women and I could only remember one Indian-Canadian woman. I replied, “Oh yes Miss Banerjee, what can I do for you,” as I thumbed through my rollbook trying to picture this student.
She said, “Dr. Donner I will be dropping your course because of family problems back in India.”
I was stunned because I didn’t think of that student as being “really Indian”: she had no discernible accent, did not hang out with the Indian students on campus and was always seen with the “coolest” white guys on campus. “Really, that is really too bad. I am looking at your grades now and you have a very good chance of getting an A in the course, if you could just hang on and take the final examination.”
She said her family was returning to India to help her relatives in Gujarat because the earthquake had devastated the region. I asked her to come and meet with me before she left. She said that she would be able to come into my office and discuss her situation next Friday morning after class. I agreed that would be a good time, hoping that I could convince her to take the final, after all, an earthquake certainly qualified Rohma for compassionate leave. Rohma was a very intelligent girl and I really hated to see her miss the semester.
After class Rohma met me outside of my office. I almost didn’t recognize her. She was wearing a white sari and shawl and I noticed she had a red tikka on her forehead. “Dr. Donner,” she said as she came into my office, “you see, my grandfather died in Bhug and my parents and I must return to support the rest of the family. My father says that I can come back to Canada in a month, but I must go with them, it is our Hindu tradition.”
“Well I think that I can arrange for a compassionate leave and you won’t lose this credit, but I want you to promise that you will keep in touch with me and that you will let me know when you will be back because the department head will only grant the leave for 30 days. Will that be acceptable?”
Rohma agreed and I gave her my e-mail address. She said, “I have never been to India, I was born in Vancouver, I don’t even speak Gujurati. Dr. Donner, I have to admit that it all scares me,” and she started to cry. I gave her a hug as she cried uncontrollably for about 10 minutes. I gave her a Kleenex and she composed herself. She said, “Dr. Donner, I don’t know why I did that. I guess I just need to let out my feelings.” She tucked her thick black hair, that she had in the traditional plait halfway down her back, into her shawl and said, I have to go now, but thank you, thank you very much. I told her that I understood the gravity of the catastrophe and why she was afraid. I reminded her of our arrangement before she left.
A month to the day later, I was walking to my office before my lecture. The department secretary called me and said, “Dr.Donner, I have a message for you from a student of yours, Rohma Banerjee.”
She handed me a note. I read the note: “Dr. Donner, I am back and would like to take the final however I would like to meet with you privately first. I don’t want to come back to class, so please call me at 555-9599 and let me know when I can meet you at your office.”
I called as soon as I had finished reading the note. “Rohma, how are you and how can I help you?”
She replied, “Oh thank you for calling, I just can’t come to campus now. I can’t explain on the phone because my grandmother is right here.”
“Well Rohma, I can give you the examination as a take home examination. I trust you, but you have to come in to pick up the exam as soon as possible. In any event, can you come in to my office to pick up the exam and we can talk then.”
Rohma said, “Yes tomorrow after your class O.K.?”
“Yes, I’ll be looking for you.”
“You are the only professor who cares about what has been happening in my life.”
I could hear her voice starting to crack, clearly she wanted to tell me more but was not comfortable. I said, “Rohma, tell me all about it tomorrow, you can tell me anything if will make you feel better. See you tomorrow, O.K.?”
The next morning after class, I made a copy of the exam at the department office went to my office and waited for Rohma. As I poured myself a cup of coffee and settled in marking termpapers, my phone rang. “Dr. Donner, Rohma. can I meet you at your office in 15 minutes?”
I replied, “Yes, I am waiting for you.”
She said, “I really need to talk in private about what happened in India.” I could tell that she was very upset by the quiver in her voice.
Rohma came to the office about 15 minutes later. She was wearing a white sari and her head was covered with veil like a Shia Muslim – only her big almond black eyes were visible. She hardly looked like the sexy young coed who was in my office 4 weeks earlier, she looked like a woman 3 times her age. “Rohma, come in, let’s talk,” I said as she came into the office. “Can I get you a coffee?”
“Dr. Donner,” she said, and she started to cry. “I am so glad to be back. I hate India, I hate it, I hate it.” Then she said, “Look what they did to me,” and with that she slowly pulled back the shawl that covered her head revealing her shaven scalp. “Look what they did to me. Look, look.” Then she ran her hand over her shaven scalp and said, “They shaved my head the first day I was there and shaved it once a week until I left. Let me tell you, that is why I won’t come back to campus, look at me.”
Rohma sat at my desk and told me what happened. “My grandmother had us meet her at the temple. Lashimi, my little sister and I had no idea what was happening since neither of us spoke any Gujurati. When we got to the temple my mother and grandmother said that we had to be prepared for mourning. We had no idea what that meant, but we knew that our mother did. She at first tried to argue with grandmother who would not accept any argument. Mother told us to stand behind her and to do exactly what we were told. My grandmother went into the temple first and was met by a priest. She sat cross-legged on the floor, the priest chanted for a few moments then another woman came into the room carrying a bowl and a cloth bag. Grandmother sat chanting her eyes closed, the room filled with the sounds of chanting women, the air was filled with incense. The woman sat behind grandmother and removed her veil, loosened her black plait and with a straight razor cut off her plait with one stoke. Then the woman took a pair of handclippers out of her bag and clipped the loose hanging stands that were freed from her head. When she had finished clipping her hair down to a black stubble she shaved her scalp bald with the razor. My grandmother was motionless, still chanting as her head was shaven bald. The priest put the thikka on her forehead when the woman was finished. The hair was gathered up and bundled together. Grandmother looked like a newborn baby.
“Then I looked in shock as my mother took a seat in front of the woman. She too was chanting as the woman held her head down. My mother wore hair in a shoulder length bob, having long ago given up the traditional plait. With no ceremony the woman starting clipping all the hair from her neck to the top of her head. My mother’s hair was so beautiful, I started crying as the woman slowly clipped the hair from the side of her head revealing her brown scalp. Mother was still chanting, her eyes clenched shut, tears were visible in the corners of her eyes, but she did not want to show us her weakness. The hair built up on her lap as the woman began to rub her scalp before shaving away the last black stubble. After about 10 minutes my mother was as bald as my grandmother.
“Then I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard a voice in Gujarati. When I tried to run I was grabbed by my grandmother. My mother said, ‘It is our custom, your hair will grow back, this is a matter of respect.’ Then I knew that resistance was useless. The woman held my shoulder so that I could not move, my grandmother held my other shoulder as the woman took off my shawl. I screamed, ‘No, Mother, No!’ but it was no use. I watched as the woman pulled my plait and held it up. With a stroke of the razor, she laid the plait aside with my grandmother’s. Then I could feel the cool breeze on the back of my neck that I had never felt before. The grip grew stronger and I felt the clippers moving slowly up my neck and across my head. Back and forth all across my head for what seemed like an eternity. My eyes were blinded by the falling hair and tears. I still tried to wrestle myself loose from the woman’s grip. I could see my hair piling up on the floor and in my lap when I heard the clippers stop. My mother said, ‘It’s almost over, be still, be still so you don’t get cut.’ Then I felt short rasping razor strokes and I knew that soon I would be as bald as my mother and grandmother. The shaving took only a few minutes as the bowl filled up with the last black strands of my hair.
“I opened my eyes to see my sister Lashimi, she was already being clipped by another woman. Lashimi’s hair was shoulder length like my mother’s was. The woman had to have help holding her down, she was screaming at the top of her lungs, NO! NO! NO! NO! The other woman, herself recently shaved, had to hold her face down to be shaven, she was writhing all over the floor, completely hysterical. They did finally get the shaving completed but Lashimi had been cut by the razor in her struggle. The priest chanted with my mother and grandmother for my grandfather’s soul and we left for home. When we got home Lashimi and I were still in tears and we cried for the rest of the day. Grandmother and mother brought us these white shawls and mother explained the reason for our haircuts.
“‘Respect for all those who died, we make a sacrifice, like widows in our tradition the shaved head marks our mourning.’ Then she rubbed her hand over my head and Lashimi and told us, that after we got back to Canada we could grow our hair again, but in India we would have to be bald. Grandmother showed us the razor that she had bought to maintain our “mourning”. Every Saturday she would shave all of our heads before prayers. That’s why I don’t want to be seen,” she said as she rubbed her hand across her smooth scalp. Then Rohma started to cry again. “I can’t believe what they did, I can’t believe it.”
I found her shave head to be very sexy in an unusual way. She put her bald head on my shoulder and cried. I said, “Rohma, you may not believe this but bald on you is beautiful. Besides no haircut is fatal. Now when can you get this exam back to me?”