A ceremony of womanhood. Image by Flickr user Savara.

Three dozen freshly washed sheets hang over a zigzag of clothing lines. The row of monogrammed bed sheets and pillow covers occasionally drifts apart to reveal a background of moss-green hills and rolling clouds. It’s the most picturesque laundry room I’ve seen; yet a view like this is hardly novel around here.Once these sheets are dried, ironed and folded into a perfect geometry, they will be loaded into a minivan and sent twenty minutes south—through tea plantations, private school,s and red brick townhouses—to a three-star hotel in Ootacamund (Ooty) town. And when the hotel’s residents snuggle into their beds at night, they will breathe in the combined smells of detergent and eucalyptus, sublimely unaware of the place their sheets came from—a tiny hill town called Kandhal in the Niligiri mountain range in southern India.

While Ooty is the archetypal vacation town, Kandhal is a borough that rarely sees tourists. While Ooty’s lakes and sunset points are an invitation for honeymooners to cuddle without inhibition, Kandhal’s beauty is not celebrated by its permanent residents—for them, it’s just home.  In my several visits here, I’ve been invited for meals, afternoon teas, and birthday parties. So when an invitation to walk into a stranger’s home does come, I barely hesitate.

“You can take good photo inside,” the voice booms. It’s from a middle-aged man in a brown beanie and a sleeveless sweater.

In any other place, requests like this one are turned down, ignored, or promptly rejected. But in Kandhal, kindness to strangers seems like a community habit.

I follow the gentleman into the one-story rectangular structure.  A long corridor runs through the middle, with half a dozen rooms on either side.  We walk into the first one. It’s painted a bright blue. There are no partitions–just an open space with unmarked divisions.  Three shelves of aluminum vessels and seven paintings of Hindu gods flank one wall, a burner stove sits by a corner, and a plastic table topped with talcum powder and textbooks faces the other.

The man introduces his family—fourteen-year-old Priya, eight-year-old Meena, and his middle-aged wife, Shanti.

The girls seem visibly excited by my arrival—they fight over who I should sit next to; the solution leaves me squatted in the middle.

Meena runs to find her English workbook. She tells me she’s the best speaker in class.

“Show off,“ Priya whispers.

Meena gets wind of her sister’s remark and in a quick leap, jumps onto her lap.

“Get off your sister!” her mother hollers. “She’s a big girl now.”

As Meena hops back down, it all begins to make sense—the mixed sandalwood paste by the table; the ceremonial platter of bananas, vermillion, and sugar cubes; and a new sari.

This is a coming-of-age ceremony, and my camera got me invited.

The traditional Hindu ritual is a public acknowledgment of a girl’s physical maturity—a sign that she’s ready for marriage. The manner of this announcement varies in style. Some like it big—sending out printed invites, hosting vast buffet spreads, and ensuring multiple dress changes for the adolescent. Some like it small. But one thing stays pretty much the same—it’s a wholly public declaration of the private workings of one’s body.

I remember my ceremony; it was more an obligation than a celebration. I was a gangly twelve-year-old with a mushroom-style haircut (all the rage in the nineties) and an indelible resolve to become a boy. And owing to my unrelenting disobedience, I was spared from sporting a sari (the grown-up garment that screams “woman”) and instead fitted into a traditional checkered skirt. The proceedings were graced by a grand total of 4 guests and lasted roughly 10 minutes—but they still made me cringe.Years later, my six-year-old niece found the pictures from that day. She used an orange sharpie to draw clown cheeks on every single one. I had to applaud her artistic symbolism—I did look like a clown, and I finally had a reason to trash the photographs.

As I step outside for several minutes, Priya gets ready. When I come back, the girl in the pink shirt and blue blouse—who until a little while ago seemed so completely 12—looks grown up.

She’s in a white patterned sari and a floral necklace. A foot of neatly braided jasmine flowers stay tucked midway through her wavy braid.

Image of Priya courtesy of Sruthi Vijayan.

As guests begin to arrive, her father summons me to duty. I’ve gone from wandering guest to official photographer.

Priya’s hands are decorated to the wrists with bangles. The guests smear her face with sandal, stain her forehead with vermillion, and present her with gifts.

Several group shots later, the crowd dissolves.  But as I begin to put my camera away, there is a sudden commotion.

“Sister’s son. Sister’s son,“ the father repeats, staring right at me and more particularly at my camera.

I get it.  Maternal uncles are conventionally considered the best marital matches (barring the possibility of plentiful birth defects), and his arrival sends the room into a tizzy.

Priya’s uncle is barely 20. He hands her a jewelry box—a gift from the Thai maman.

“One more photo,” I’m told.

The most important one.

I call out to Priya. Her eyes are firmly directed downwards. She responds to my call with a demure upwards glance, a look of awareness—the one that conveys maturity you don’t see in a child.  It’s the most adult she’s looked all day.