You felt along the length of the strand from the root to the tip. Rough. Just the way you liked it. You felt it a few times, pulling gently to test the strength of the root. Did it hold? It did. It held well. One quick jerk, and the strand was in your hand.
The roughness was not as exciting now. The strand was dead. You piled it beside you on the bed with the others: a tiny stack of soft black against the freshly washed white sheets.
You went back to hunting with your fingers for another one, rifling through the mass on your head.
You know exactly when it started. You remember the exact moment, even. Not the pulling, but the beating of your heart. A Durga Puja dhak (a traditional Indian drum) thundering inside your head. The only thing that seemed to slow it down was the pulling, as if you could set the pace of your heart through your hair strands.
Scene: Sixth grade. A week after summer vacation. Shazia waited for you as the rest of the class emptied the classroom, trickling out for the next period. She turned and stared at you.
“What’s wrong?” she said.
“I am not sure.” You had your right hand over your chest, wondering why it was beating like that.
“Are you okay?” She had concern in her wide eyes.
“I am feeling scared, but I don’t know why. I mean … I am not scared, but I feel like I am.”
“Should we tell the teacher?” She was serious, this one.
“What!” you laughed, “No, it’s probably nothing.”
She relaxed and smiled.
You started the pulling because of the itching. Your scalp would itch and itch, and you would scratch till you drew blood. Your scalp became a minefield of scabs.
You tried not to scratch too much, or in the presence of others. You did not want anyone to think you had lice, even though your hair was too short for the pests.
You are not sure when you started the pulling, but once you did, the itching went away; the scabs healed.
The summer before it happened, you were 11. That July like clockwork, a day after the school shut down for the holidays, you flew to Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) from Dubai with your ma (mother) and sister, a four-hour journey by Emirates airlines. Your hair was shorn close to your head. Your chosen uniform at the time was a pair of bermuda shorts and a T-shirt. It was the last summer you would pass for a boy.
That summer, the two-bedroom apartment in south Calcutta seemed even more welcoming. You loved being there every year for two months of the monsoon. The stifling heat that built and built throughout the day, only to be broken by the rain: the pouring rain that could continue for hours, or the rain that came in bursts. You loved both, just as you loved your childhood friend, Ruby, with whom you played ranna-batti, your version of house-house.
Ruby lived in a semi-pukka house at the end of the gully you could see from the window of your living room. The window was grilled right before you and your parents moved to the building when you were four. Your head did not fit through the grille, but you could stick your arms out, and press your face into the thin metal bars. You were only on the second floor so Ruby could see you too, if she stood right below and stared up.
Every summer, the moment you entered the house, you would run to the grilled window, look down, and yell her name. You almost always saw someone who knew her. Her mother, a neighbour, or her older brother with whom you were not allowed to play. And they always found her for you. A few minutes later, a smiling Ruby would be there at your door, ready to head out and play.
You do not like thinking of that summer. It is the summer before you had your first boyfriend (the summer you turned 12), the summer before you almost failed the Arabic final exam (because of “silly mistakes”, your teacher would tell you), the summer before Shazia, your best friend in Dubai, moved to Canada (and you would only see her once when you moved too, at 18, but you would not be friends any more), the summer before your heart would start beating like a tin drum left out in the rain, and things would change.
Two days after you arrived in Calcutta, while you and Ruby played on the rooftop of your building, you met him. He asked you to call him dadu. Grandfather. He was tall, lean, and wore a white kurta and matching pyjamas. His hair was white and brushed back. He walked with a stoop from old age, leaning onto his wooden cane. He walked slowly, as if pacing himself, pausing to consider life right before death.
He came upon you both, suddenly, an apparition appearing in the evening light; a shadow, looming.
“Ranna-batti? Good, good,” he said, assessing the scene.
“Dadu, want to play?” you said, ever the collaborator.
“Na, keep at it. I am here to enjoy the fresh air,” he said, beginning to move away to the other end of the rooftop, walking the length of the parapet. Step, stop. Step, stop.
You wanted to ask him how old he was; he looked older than your own dadu. Your dadu could walk without a stick. Your dadu also moved much faster.
“How old are you, dadu?” Ruby said, reading your mind, when he came back after having examined the entire space.
“Me? Too old for this world,” he said, before beginning his tap-walk towards the stairs, leading to his son’s place one floor down.
You wish you could describe what he looked like, if his nose was blunt or sharp, his eyes still or darting.
You can only see him from the edges, his face blurred, as if your memory has censored how benign he was, or how commonplace his face.
Dadu became a part of your daily routine. Both of you saw him often. He narrated stories of his childhood, of mangoes he stole from village orchards with his friends as a little boy. He regaled you with myths and folklore, or dicta that he had grown up believing. For instance, when you see a plant growing through concrete – like the sturdy light green leaves peeking out through a crack on one of the parapet walls – you pull it out with all your might, as the plant will eventually become a tree, and destroy the wall.
He gifted you both notebooks with blank, unlined pages, notebooks he asked his maid to buy from the local market. He claimed he used to be an artist and a musician, painting both of your names in Bengali calligraphy on the cover of the notebooks. He used two colours for Ruby: crimson red and sky blue. For you, he used pale green, almost as restrained as the muted yellow of the notebook cover.
You wondered why. You were jealous. You also wanted the crimson and the sky.
You do not pull often. You do not pull at random. Most of it is strategic. You pull from the nape area, so you can hide if your hair starts thinning too much in one place. You pull when you need to slow time down, just for a few moments. You pull to feel in control, however fleeting. And you pull only when you cannot ignore the beat inside your chest.
The day it happened, it was like any other day. You and Ruby were on the rooftop. The sun was restrained, and it had not rained all day. There was a slight breeze, and nothing more. Dadu came looking for you both. He came, like he usually did. Silent and steady.
“Ruby,” he said to his favourite, “can you go downstairs, and ask the security guard if a parcel has arrived for me?”
Ruby glanced at you. Your building did not have an elevator, and she would have to descend four flights of stairs, and then four flights up again.
She did not want to go. She was in her favourite dress, a pale blue, almost as pale as her skin. You knew she did not like running around much in this dress.
“I can go, dadu,” you volunteered.
“No,” he said, “I want her to go. She is a good girl. She can run down quickly and find out.” He looked at her, “Can’t you?”
“Yes, dadu,” Ruby sighed, and left.
You did not think of that day for many years.
You thought you were fine. You thought you were rather strong for a child, because even at 11, you knew you were still a child.
It was nothing. It was nothing.
You stared at dadu’s receding back, his step-stop moving at its usual speed. You kept staring even as he was halfway down the stairs, his figure slowly disappearing from view.
Ruby had just returned and said, “No parcel, dadu.” He had nodded and stepped away.
“What happened?” she said, when you did not speak for a few minutes.
“He kissed me.” Your eyes were still fixed upon the exit door, the stairs now empty.
Ruby’s eyes widened and she blinked rapidly in succession. She did not disbelieve you; there was no need for that. She believed you all right, but this was outside of both of your expertise.
You looked at her, “On my lips.”
Ruby took in a deep breath, and exhaled, “After I left?”
She paused, her hands clasped against her chest, staring at you. Considering.
“We can’t tell anyone,” she decided, “we won’t tell anyone.”
“And we won’t talk to dadu any more. Anytime we see him coming, we will run the other way,” she gazed into your eyes and held your hands tight. Even though she was a year younger than you, you believed in her wisdom.
“Yes,” you said, and nodded.
You would always wonder why it was that a kiss had the power to incapacitate you for many years since. How did a kiss lead to a drum beating inside your chest?
That this drum would then beat louder any time you felt threatened, any time your world seemed alien, eventually leading to panic attacks. That as you grew older, as you looked less like a boy, you would wonder what it was about you that made that monster do what he did, and with such ease.
That your first kiss would forever be tainted with that memory. That you would lie to yourself that your “real” first kiss happened much later, when you were older, when you wanted it to. When you said yes.
You told your sister three years after the incident, your sister who is five and a half years younger than you. She would help you tell your mother about dadu.
On that day, ma would be in the kitchen, sitting on the floor, cutting veggies on the boti; a piece of wood that held a vertical rounded blade, a common kitchen contraption in Bengali households.
She would not look up at first, and when she did, she would not believe.
“Are you joking? Is this a joke?”
Your sister would shake her head, corroborating your story; your sister who always believed you.
Finally, ma would accept that these are not stories borne out of teenage fantasies meant to seek attention. She would say, “Listen, don’t tell anyone. Please don’t tell anyone. Your father will be angry if he finds out. Just don’t tell.”
She would tell you both to keep it to yourselves.
The last time you saw him, it was on the rooftop, a few days after the incident. You and Ruby sat cross-legged on the ground, facing each other, a Ludo board open with a game in progress.
“What are you doing?” he came upon you, as he usually did.
Ruby scowled, then looked at you and shook her head.
“Too busy for your dadu today?” he said.
“We are doing nothing,” Ruby peered up at him, before going back to the game.
“Yes, nothing,” you said, without looking at him.
You heard him shuffle away. Step-stop. Step-stop. You side-eyed him as he walked the length of the parapet, before heading downstairs.
The man died when you were in your early 20s. His final days had him bedridden, stuck to a dialysis machine. You heard from your ma who heard from a former neighbour back in Calcutta. “It’s over now,” your mother said. And you nodded.
For the longest time, you would make yourself forget. For the longest time, you would pull often. When you do occasionally remember, you would remind yourself of how he must have been in his last days. A spent matchstick, discarded. Unable to harm anyone else.
For the longest time, you would nurture anger against your mother for not letting you speak. It would be years before you dispelled your anger, in tiny gasps, sectioned over time. It would be years and many sessions of counselling before you forgave her.
You still pull sometimes, but not as much, and not as often. Your mother knows. Your partner knows. You are also part of an online support group for people with trichotillomania, your community in arms. You understand you are on a spectrum and everyone’s reasons for pulling are a combination of cause and effect. You understand enough to recognise your anxiety as a trigger.
You understand why you pull, but not how to stop completely.
For you, there are no more secrets. No more tricks. Just the occasional hunt and pull, followed by relief.