Postcard from India: “Lady or boy, madam?”

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Father and boy (or lady)

The first time the question arose, I was too busy to anticipate it. Nilgiri’s, the grocery store, overwhelmed me. My basket was never not bumping someone. There was no I’m sorry or Excuse me to say as long as the bumps were gentle. In Nilgiri’s on Sunday night, there is no personal space.

The girls found the cookie aisle. Philo, my advisor from the College, grabbed bags of snacks and put them into my basket, saying, “Not too spicy.” She knew from having lunch with the girls that “not too spicy” is their thing.

Philo explained the new fruits: custard apple, a brown potato-looking fruit whose name I have forgotten, the special small grapes grown in Pondicherry. She told us about the pongal making kit that was available for the coming Pongal holiday.

Checking out, three girls worked together to ring us up. Since it was so crowded, my daughters and I stepped to the end of the aisle and waited. The bagging girls began to giggle and whisper behind their hands at us. Smiling at me, then giggling. Finally one nodded toward my younger daughter and asked, “Lady or boy, Madam.”

“Lady,” I said. The girls giggled and giggled more.

“So very pretty,” she said. I thanked her as I lifted the bags.

Our younger daughter, seven months post-chemo, has short hair, newly curly. It’s much longer than her nearly bald passport photo and her super short pixie cut visa photo, but so much shorter than almost every girl in Puducherry. In South India, girls wear long braids, so long they’re doubled over and tied up again. Girls here wear school uniforms, salwar-style with pinned on scarves. Boys’ uniforms are button down shirts and pants (or shorts). There’s not much ambiguity.

Our daughter also loves her tan shorts and t-shirts. Homesick, she’s clinging to her home clothes, Alaska-girrl style, which add to the ambiguity. Girls her age don’t wear shorts or t-shirts. Her flip-flops came from the boys’ section of Maxx (India’s Old Navy-esque chain). She didn’t like any of the sparkly flip-flops in the girls’ section.

We knew the question was coming in India. During chemo, people couldn’t tell if she was a boy or girl, but they were afraid to ask. The bald (down to the eyelashes), pale, skinny kid being pushed in a cart at the grocery comes with a pre-written backstory that people don’t want to confront.  It makes things more interesting when the chemo kid enjoys outfits made entirely of different kinds of plaid.  She learned to ignore people staring.

She even joked that in India we should call her “Griffin,” the name we told her we had chosen if she had been a boy. She was concerned about having to wear “girl clothes” because girls wear them in India. The question didn’t ruffle her at all. It did bother her older sister though. She told me she thought people were being rude.

I told her that people defined the appearance of boys and girls differently here. We talked about culture, gender, clothing, and how people ask questions of each other differently in different parts of the world. Big sister, lacking months of direct experience being an object of public fascination, wanted revenge. “I’m going to start taking pictures of people who stare,” she said.

The question kept coming. Sometimes directly. In the ice cream parlor, a man asked older sister whether she had a little brother or sister. Sometimes of necessity. In the clothing store, a sales woman directed me to more boy-appropriate shirts before I could tell her I had two daughters. Our children perplex bathroom attendants by insisting they go into the stall together. The girls have learned to say, “She’s a girl,” and go on without blinking.

Sometimes in friendship. Older men high five our younger daughter, shake her hand. Often they say, “Hello my brother,” and lean down to have a serious conversation about what country she is from. She gets pat after pat on her curly head. In those situations, she doesn’t bother telling them she’s a girl. She just smiles and shakes hands back.

And big sister is less angry at the gender-confused attention her sister’s getting these days. In fact she’s jealous. “How come no one pats me on the head?” she asks. “I want someone to shake my hand sometime.” She’s started talking about getting her almost-waist-length hair cut (the heat has something to do with that too). Our conversations have shifted from why people ask, to why little boys get so much attention and why it might not be ok for men to say hello to her or touch her hair. We talk again about culture, gender, and the expectations for young women in different parts of the world.

For me, it’s something different. There’s that moment when people say, “She has such short hair” with a question mark at the end waiting for me to explain. I get to decide whether to drop the pediatric cancer bomb. When she was bald and pale and skinny, there was no ambiguity. Everyone knew, even if they didn’t want to. I’m enjoying not talking about cancer, treatments, prognosis, and hospitals. Mostly, I just say, “Yes, it’s cut short,” and smile.



One thought on “Postcard from India: “Lady or boy, madam?”

  • My hair is now long. Over a year without cutting it. Not long like The older daughter’s, but longer that the younger’s. I will have it for six more days (St Baldrick’s), and then it will be shaved off. I’ve been one of the fortunate ones. I’ve not needed chemo for either of my cancers, and I know this is hard to believe, but I felt that I should have lost my hair like the others that had to endure their cancers. I have met many that have had their children or grandchildren experience various cancers, and I have felt helpless, but their gratitude for the little thing I’m about to do, seemed to help both of us. Hopefully what I am doing will help a lot more.



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