My grandmother had a list of things I couldn’t do. It was not a real list with faded ink on yellowed paper that she pulled out of an old, rusted briefcase, but a directory of interruptions, a bunch of dos and don’ts that, like speed bumps, stopped me from living freely.
The list had two subsections. The first applied to both my brother and me, and included mostly don’ts: stop if a black cat crosses your path, wait if you sneeze before you leave home (if you must leave, induce another sneeze), don’t drink milk after eating fish, don’t cut your nails after sundown or on Saturdays, don’t count your chapatis while eating, don’t eat meat on Tuesdays. These were easier to endure because I wasn’t alone in them, and my brother and I often laughed about them. Sometimes, when she was feeling slightly audacious, Dadi, my grandmother, made the adults in the household follow these rules, but she knew the grownups were beyond correction and the only ones she could truly control were the kids.
Subsection two of the list was for me alone. The first thing on that list was that I couldn’t leave my hair loose after sundown because my hair would catch something. Think of these as words of wisdom, from one woman to another, and pay attention to the syntax. It’s the hair that catches something, not the thing. It’s never the thing’s fault. This thing didn’t have a name or shape.
There was no malice in her voice when she told me this. She was just warning me of what young girls could fall victim to, and just one group of many were the dangers of the night, a time when you couldn’t see things, but they could see you.
I didn’t question these rules, because they had a consistency to them, and this consistency served as logic for their existence. Also, I trusted my grandmother because she was much older than I was and therefore, assumably, wise. But much later, I would realize that the wisdom that comes with age is really just a sad prize for growing older, for losing momentum and gaining caution like the slowing down of a car before it comes to a halt.
The list never stopped growing, and things I had never heard of crawled onto it: I wasn’t allowed to sit with my brother on the same side of the prayer area, I couldn’t tie the holy thread on the same hand (it was the left hand for me and the right for my brother). I was disappointed I had been given the less significant hand, the one you couldn’t write letters with.
As I grew older, I kept getting the bad parts of the list. One day, Dadi said I wasn’t allowed to go out in the night, with or without tied hair. I asked her why my brother could and I couldn’t. And she said, “Because he doesn’t have long hair like you,” and at that moment she smiled and touched my hair with her tissue-skinned hands. I asked her if I could go out at night if I cut my hair, and she didn’t like me asking all these questions because she was peeling garlic and if you have ever peeled garlic, you know that the skin is thin and dry and the body moist and slippery. She said no, you can’t, because then the thing in the night will turn you into a witch and no one will marry you. And when I said I didn’t want to marry, she said all girls say that and smiled again, but she didn’t look at me, her fingers skinning one clove after another. When they were peeled and ready, she chopped them fine and their smell engulfed us like the scent of inevitability.