Padma Patel gripped her steering wheel as she drove past her house. In his home office, Rohan would be waiting for the reassuring sounds of dinner being started. Hopefully, Beti would be studying geometry or at least staying out of sight in her room. Either way, their daughter would be grateful for the silence.
If Padma had followed the route that took her from her Banner Insurance cubicle back to her family’s kitchen five days a week, then the loneliness lurking there would have curled around her, seizing the office memo hidden in her lunch tote to strengthen its hold.
Padma’s routine had already been disrupted that afternoon with a message from Banner’s human resources manager, Cynthia, asking Padma to “join a quick meeting” in her office. On a typical day, Padma kept her place outside the orbits of her fellow Banner claims adjusters who left together for lunch, loudly discussing restaurant choices. Cynthia reigned over these circles with her own mix of executives revolving around her, while Padma gravitated toward the staff kitchen, sitting with other Indian women as they ate the lunches they had prepared at home.
Today’s invitation had beckoned Padma to step closer, to picture herself among those who plan office parties and form teams for charity walks at Cynthia’s bidding. Cloaking her nervous hopes with eager obedience, she had left her desk for the warmly lit second-floor office suite. Cynthia’s assistant, a young woman named Talia with hair dyed saffron yellow and a short plaid skirt to match, escorted Padma past the empty conference room to Cynthia’s office.
Talia entered ahead of Padma and took a seat at the side of Cynthia’s desk, leaving Padma standing alone. Facing them both, Padma realized that she had not been invited but summoned.
Cynthia’s smile did not reach beyond her bejeweled wrist as she waved Padma into a chair and asked if Padma had enjoyed the Fitness Fun event hosted at Banner the previous afternoon. Padma recalled Cynthia waiting impatiently behind her at the organic juice booth.
Behind that cold smile, Cynthia launched her attack with a self-effacing comedy routine.
“Now that we are all back in the office after working from home for over a year, we have to refresh our memories about professional appearance. I know that I enjoyed wearing my yoga pants and fuzzy socks with my pearls to online meetings, but I can’t get away with that in person,” she said, brushing the shoulders of her spotless black cashmere cardigan as she looked over at Talia, who eagerly nodded and chuckled as expected.
Restricting her gaze and bemused smirk to Talia, Cynthia touched her perfectly coifed short hair. “I still kept the gray hair, much to my hairdresser’s dismay̶, and here I am!” Cynthia chortled.
Talia quickly responded: “It looks good on you, though,” earning her a slight frown from her boss, who now turned toward Padma.
Padma’s humiliation tried to pull her to safety, to stand up and run out the door, but Cynthia’s onslaught of icy phrases like “neat appearance” and “professional-looking hair” froze like a spider’s venom.
“Is there any religious significance to your braid?”
Like the other girls her age in India, Padma had her hair braided by her mother each morning into a simple strand, sometimes tied with brightly colored ribbons. As a college student, she had experimented with letting her hair fly free past her shoulders, but she braided it for exams or other times when she felt less rebellious. On her wedding day, shortly before she and Rohan immigrated to Los Angeles, her long braid coiled around a flower garland. In the 15 years that had followed, Padma had worn her glossy black hair in the traditional single braid of her youth, tied only with a black elastic band in the middle of her back.
Cynthia’s patronizing question sent a shock through Padma that made her jump forward in her seat. “It’s not a matter of religion, but my braid is part of me.” Widening her smile at Padma’s answer, Cynthia leaned across her desk as she spoke slowly, as if to a child. “I meant no offense, but we need you to abide by the Banner appearance policy. If there was a religious reason for wearing your hair like this, then we would explore how to accommodate it. Do what you want with your hair after hours, but at the office, please keep it neatly groomed and choose a professional style.”
“It’s all explained in this memo,” Cynthia continued, sliding a paper on her desk toward Talia, who stood and handed it to Padma. From her dangling office badge, Padma saw that Talia had waited to change her hair color from its natural brown until sometime after she completed the Banner new employee orientation.
After urging Padma to “read, consider and sign” the memo “at home tonight, and then bring it back tomorrow,” Cynthia awkwardly apologized for not creating a digital document that could be electronically signed. She then added: “I am sure you are much better with computers than I am, Padma.”
Padma had sat numbly in her car long enough to spot Talia passing through the parking lot, flanked by other Banner employees leaving work behind them. The woman’s hair color looked even more unnatural in the late afternoon California sun.
The cold shame weighing on Padma melted into outrage, carrying her on a quest to be heard, to be defended. Padma knew the way.
Leaving her car on the curb outside the house of her neighbors, the Monroes, just out of view from Rohan’s home office window, Padma looked down, focusing on the familiar walkway. The Monroes and the Patels lived in identical houses, blending in with the other two-story stucco homes that surrounded them. Just like the school uniforms of Padma’s New Delhi childhood, the planned community’s home designs offered the comfort of commonality, with distinctiveness restricted to incidental matters.
The Monroes’ patio cheerfully demanded Padma’s attention before she could press the doorbell. Blooming flowers spilled over iron water cans, and stones carved with words like “believe” and “smile” were tucked into flowerpots. Padma left her own patio empty except for a small shoe rack, a silent entreaty to visitors to remove their shoes before entering.
Padma sat on the patio’s wood bench and took off her shoes, following Indian custom rather than the sign leaning against the wall: “Please leave your worries—and your shoes—at the doorstep.” Padma would once again ignore the first direction, hoping to be forgiven.
In lettering that matched the office memo that Padma was clutching, the Monroes’ gray doormat read: “Don’t judge us. We are lawyers.”
Asha Kathpal Monroe didn’t answer the doorbell, but the soft knock that followed demanded her attention like a nagging child. As of counsel to her husband Ben’s law practice and a legal writing instructor, Asha commuted downtown with Ben three days a week, with dinner picked up or delivered just as their children, Josh and Maya, got back from their own busy routines.
Today, Asha had worked from home, putting only a small dent in her students’ legal memos that were waiting to be corrected, and dumping ingredients for lentil chili in a slow cooker in the morning with conflicting twinges of satisfaction and guilt. It took more effort than ordering food, but far less than the three-course meals Asha’s mother had managed to make each night after returning from her medical practice to her husband and children.
Sliding off the kitchen island barstool and shutting her laptop with exasperation, Asha went to answer the front door. At the sight of her neighbor, Asha wished Ben was home; Padma surely joined her disappointment.
As an Indian-American born and raised in New York, Asha seemed more unreachable to Padma than blond, blue-eyed Ben. Years ago, shortly after the Patels moved into their home, Ben and Asha had welcomed them with a basket of lemons from their tree. Padma’s mother, visiting from New Delhi, had spoken in Hindi to Asha, who apologized for speaking only English.
When their paths crossed at neighborhood children’s birthday parties or the playground, Asha, dressed in matching zipped jackets and leggings, her sleek black hair pulled in a high ponytail through a baseball cap, would offer Padma a friendly greeting while their daughters played together. Then, Asha would move toward the women who shared her American accent and style and who laughed loudly at each other’s jokes.
Meanwhile, Ben Monroe would sit on a folding chair or a park bench, wearing khakis and a button-down shirt, looking like one of the handsome legal commentators on cable news, chatting amicably with Padma or Rohan.
In Ben’s reassuring presence, Padma and Rohan spilled their worries about home repair contracts, retirement plans and utilities agreements, the hidden language of middle-class American life that Rohan too often had tried to speak without understanding.
To undo the resulting harm, Ben would draft letters or occasionally make phone calls, for which Padma was grateful. Rohan, who Ben knew as Ron, would accept the help with a simpering smile that hid his resentment, until he began to keep his worries a secret. Padma knew to go to Ben at the first sign of trouble, but without Rohan.
As their children grew, the Monroes became less visible, but Padma continued to seek out Ben’s guidance. Short questions could be texted, while more complicated matters brought her to the Monroes’ cheerful doorstep. In all these years, Asha’s legal advice had not been sought.
After beckoning Padma inside, explaining that Ben would be home soon, Asha noticed that Padma was not wearing shoes. She chastised herself for keeping the whimsical sign on their front porch, a gift from a well-meaning acquaintance who assumed that Indian customs were followed in this home.
“You really don’t have to take your shoes off!”
Padma’s heart squeezed at this. The hearty aroma filling the house, Asha’s blue jeans and athletic shoes, her own obvious, hapless dependence on this woman’s husband, all made Padma feel foolishly out of place.
The anger that had brought her to this spot, standing on another family’s slippery hardwood floor, cooled to its original form: shame. With a wince, Padma said she should go home.
A few moments before, Asha would have stifled a sigh of relief with a promise that Ben would text her later. Now, Padma’s pain belonged here, with Asha, who was born in a country where her parents were foreign. In her neighbor’s slumping shoulders beneath a tan blazer and the braid which she kept tugging with one hand, Asha recognized the awkward discomfort of those lost in a place they wanted to claim as home.
Asha pointed to the paper in Padma’s hand. The letterhead memo differed from the boilerplate contracts or pastel-colored bills usually brought to Ben to interpret and fix. A forgotten memory poked at Asha.
“Did something happen at work?”
While Asha read the memo’s restatement of the Banner’s appearance policy, a description of Padma’s supposed violation, and a promise to “maintain neatly groomed hair in a professional style” awaiting Padma’s signature, Padma kept looking anxiously at the door, waiting for Ben and worrying about the scene unfolding in her own home.
Looking up from the memo, Asha paused to share her own story. Twenty years ago, she had left the large law firm where she had practiced employment and labor law for six years after being told that she was an “excellent attorney” who was “not partnership material,” without further explanation.
This perpetually cheerful American-born neighbor carried her own burden—making it easier for Padma to trust her with today’s humiliation.
“What did Rohan say?”
Shaking her head, Padma explained that she did not want her husband to know about the memo or this visit; he would advise her to do as she had been told and not argue.
Padma’s phone buzzed with a text message; Rohan was telling her she is late, and her daughter is hungry. Asha remembered her childhood’s silent dinners, her mother’s gourmet meals eaten without gratitude as each family member kept their days to themselves.
“Tell him I need you to help me cook lentils. I will give you the leftover chili to take home—there will be plenty—and you can say that it is the best you could get from me.” For the first time that day, Padma laughed, although not as loudly as Asha.
By the time Ben, Josh and Maya came home, the two women sat huddled over Asha’s laptop and the Banner memo, a cup of tea and a bowl of chili growing cold in front of Padma.
As Ben ladled his family’s dinner into four bowls, Asha trained her focus on Padma, who was describing an unpleasant meeting with a woman named Cynthia. Ben cast an amusing, sidelong glance at his wife, who had often warned him to stop taking on their neighbors’ travails. “They treat you like their own personal complaint desk.” In helping the Patels, Indian immigrants with a tentative foothold in this suburban tract, Ben could reach that part of Asha’s vulnerability she shielded from view, even from him. He would join Asha in silently enduring the sting of the restaurant hosts who asked. “Are you together?” as they stood holding hands waiting for their date-night dinner table, or the grocery store clerk who quickly put a divider in front of the items Asha had run back and added to the conveyor belt they had loaded together.
These were the indignities that Asha did not carve into words, but which dimmed her smile like a temporary electrical outage.
Now, she was on fire, ready to go to battle over Padma’s latest cause.
“Padma, do you remember if this ‘appearance policy’ was explained to you before today?”
“I do not remember, but is it legal for Banner to do this—to tell their employees how to look?”
“Employers are allowed to have dress codes and grooming policies, but employment law places limits on the way they can be written and applied.”
“I know this has been a long day, but there are several issues I want to raise in the letter I am going to write to Cynthia for you, and I need to gather some more facts with you here, Padma.”
“Just know this.” Asha paused and looked over her shoulder at her children in the adjoining room, both wearing earbuds and staring at their cellphones as they ate dinner.
“These laws protect the American values of fairness and equity: your work conditions, the employer’s expectations and the environment in which you fulfill your responsibilities should not place more burdens on you than anyone else without a good reason. Think of these legal protections as a shield, protecting you from unfair treatment—from feeling the way you felt after that meeting today.”
Ben, who had been lingering near the kitchen sink, brought his wife a bowl of chili and kissed the top of her head. Padma smiled through tears of renewed anger, fighting against the exhaustion and pain-filled fear rising in her.
Beckoning Ben to sit, Asha quickly explained that Padma had been told to stop wearing her hair in a braid and to “neatly groom” her hair into a “professional hairstyle” under the Banner personal appearance policy. Ben shook his head sympathetically.
Asha looked at her laptop, opened it to Banner’s website. “So, let’s see what ‘neatly groomed’ and ‘professional hairstyles’ mean at Banner.” Clicking on the links to social media, Asha began to scroll.
“Here’s Talia.” Padma pointed to a young woman standing at a table draped in Banner’s blue logo: “Banner Team Wins Walk for Charity!” Ben read aloud the photo’s caption and quipped: “How does a company win a charity walk, exactly?”
Asha grabbed his arm and said: “Look at her hair! She is the assistant who was at the meeting with Padma today!” “It’s neatly cut, but if hair dyed a neon shade of yellow is considered professional enough to be on display in social media and the human resources office, then why does an ordinary black-haired braid violate the policy?” Joining as a team now, Asha threw her hands up in the air to punctuate Ben’s question, before turning again to their neighbor, encouraging her to eat as they talked.
“There are two problems with this, Padma—problems for Banner, that is. Arguably, the appearance policy is not being uniformly applied to all employees. That’s a breach of the implied contract Banner created with its employees in making the ‘appearance policy’ part of the employment relationship.”
Ben asked if they were sure that such a policy exists outside the memo Cynthia gave Padma. Padma pointed to the employment policies bar on the side of the webpage, and Asha navigated to the appearance policy; the memo had accurately quoted from it.
“OK, but what makes your braid not ‘neat’ or ‘professional’ while Talia’s hairstyle is implicitly made an example for you by having her at today’s meeting? This brings us to the second problem.”
“Have your dinner, honey,” Ben said to Asha, making Padma apologize for the intrusion.
“Yeah, eat your dinner, Mom!” Maya teased, having entered the kitchen unnoticed.
Now it was Asha’s turn to apologize. “Maya, sweetie, can you please give us some privacy?”
“It’s fine, really!” interjected Padma. Despite this assurance, Maya’s presence framed the kitchen scene with Padma’s regret and envy.
Before they grew apart on their own, Padma had slowly inched Beti away from her childhood friend, Maya, wary of the American girl’s bubbly freedom that her daughter could not safely imitate. Now, she wished she had helped Beti be more like Maya: comfortable in her own home, in her own life.
As Maya served herself a second helping of chili while humming along to a song slightly audible through her earbuds, Asha ate a few bites from her own bowl. Ben asked: “Asha can explain this better, but are you familiar with equal employment opportunity laws, Padma?”
In her supervisory role as a senior claims adjuster, Padma had completed trainings on workplace discrimination and harassment, watching videos and answering questions on the Banner “zero tolerance” policies and the Banner complaint procedures.
“Putting aside harassment for now and focusing on discrimination, an employer like Banner cannot intentionally treat employees less favorably because of their race, color, national origin,” Padma added, “or gender.”
“Or religion,” Asha said, dabbing her mouth with a napkin.
“Sorry, I forgot to tell you what Cynthia asked me.” Padma shared Cynthia’s question about whether the braid had religious significance and Padma’s response. Asha gasped.
“Wasn’t she just trying to find out whether she needed to provide a reasonable accommodation?” Ben asked.
Asha began explaining that employers can ask such a question in assessing an employee’s request for accommodation, but in this context, Cynthia’s question was improper. Asha interrupted herself, her eyes widening as she put a napkin to her mouth once again.
“Tell me about your braid, Padma. Why is it important to you? I will explain in a moment.” Ben shifted in the kitchen barstool and listened intently, relieved that he had stopped himself from suggesting that Padma try a new hairstyle to resolve the conflict.
Padma explained that the braid she had worn for most of her life was in keeping with veni, an Indian tradition of braiding hair. “Veni means ‘braided hair,’ actually.” Padma gently pulled her braid over her shoulder. This morning, she had braided her hair reflexively, unaware of its significance.
“To me, like many Indian women, the braid holds great meaning. If a woman stops wearing her hair in a braid, it is a sign of grief or discontent.”
Looking at Maya’s chestnut brown waves, so much like Ben’s, Asha grew quiet, thinking of the battle she waged with her mother who insisted on sending her to school with a long braid, even though she kept her own hair in a chin-length bob.
On her first day of seventh grade, wanting desperately to match her friends’ hairstyles, Asha had woken early and piled her hair on top of her head, wrapping it with a borrowed neon pink scrunchie. Mom had silently served her breakfast, Asha remembered, and the childhood ritual that had drawn them close each morning was lost.
Asha’s heart ached from that memory; her mother’s pain was now laid bare too late.
“So, your braid is a part of your—our—ethnicity, right?” Instinctively, Ben put his arm around Asha’s shoulders as Padma nodded wearily.
Envisioning herself in a courtroom drama, Padma’s resolve was slipping away, just as Asha’s eyes shined with renewed fervor.
“If your employer is subjecting you to disparate—or different—–treatment because of your ethnic hairstyle, then you may have a claim for national origin discrimination.” On Asha’s laptop, the Banner Insurance’s social media images gently rolled in a slideshow. “Wait, is that you, Padma?” Asha asked, pausing an image of several Indian women seated at a table, some wearing their hair in a single braid like Padma.
Nodding again, Padma added: “These are my friends from the IT—information technology—department.”
The photo was taken at the Fitness Fun event, soon after Cynthia had grown impatient waiting to be served by the friendly woman running the organic juice booth who had complimented Padma’s “authentic hairstyle” and chatted with Padma about her travels around India. Padma was about to confide this, but she was distracted by her buzzing cellphone.
Asha continued: “Even if forbidding you to wear your hair in a braid is not based on discriminatory bias, Indian women who work at Banner are still more negatively impacted by Cynthia’s application of the personal appearance policy than other ethnicities.”
Ben clapped his hand on the island like he was hitting a drum. “Yes—disparate impact.”
Startled into attention, Padma found herself asking a question. “What about this. Cynthia said I must be good at computers, or better at computers then she is.”
It was Asha’s turn to play drums on the kitchen island. Neither Asha nor Ben looked at Padma; they kept their knowing glances between themselves.
Ben explained that Cynthia’s comment could manifest a discriminatory bias because it seems based on an ethnic stereotype. Shaking his head, Ben quietly added: “She would likely claim that she was just referring to her own ineptitude with computers compared to everyone else.” After a moment, Asha sighed and said: “It could be called a ‘microaggression’—we know what she meant; it’s hurtful, but if isolated, it does not in itself hold much legal weight.”
“I am sorry,” Asha whispered. Padma knew that Asha was offering sympathy from her own wounds.
Despite the deep warmth being extended to her, Padma shivered as if a blanket had been pulled off her. Her problem could be analyzed here but not resolved. In tomorrow’s daylight, the safety of this kitchen would evaporate, and she would have to return to work.
Stepping gingerly off the kitchen island stool and quietly placing her bowl next to the sink, Padma apologized for wasting their time. “I don’t want to lose my job. I don’t want to sue Banner.”
In unison, Ben and Asha protested. “You won’t have to file a complaint. Banner won’t let it come to that.”
“Let me write a letter to Cynthia, explaining our position.” Asha was now standing, and talking fast, but she stopped herself before delivering a lecture on the state and federal employment discrimination complaint processes that leaned heavily toward resolution.
“I know you have to go, so I won’t keep you. But I just want to tell you that last month, I attended a seminar on recent changes to California employment law. There is a new law called the CROWN Act that specifically protects against hair discrimination. I will research it and raise it in the letter.”
Ben turned in his seat and added with a comforting smile: “Believe me, Cynthia does not want her boss to know that she apparently missed the training on this new law. You have power here.”
“And I am sure Cynthia will know that Banner cannot retaliate against you for asserting your rights to be protected against illegal discrimination by your employer.”
Padma thanked them and awkwardly accepted Asha’s hug and offer of leftovers. As Ben filled a glass container with chili, Padma flattened the memo with her hand. “I am going to wear my hair in a bun tomorrow.” Padma gently raised her hand and tilted her head to the side, blocking a counterargument, a gesture that echoed deeply within Asha.
“Can I at least draft an email for you to send to Cynthia tomorrow?” Asha pleaded. “Let me keep the memo; I can scan it for you. You don’t have to sign anything. If Cynthia asks you for a signed memo, tell her your attorney will be in touch.”
Handing Padma the chili container, Ben quipped: “Tell her if she wants to see the memo again, she will have to learn how to download an email attachment.”
“Oh, and of course, Padma and I can help her with that because we are ‘good at computers’!” Asha sarcastically asserted, gesturing with quotation marks. The two women laughed together, each with their own momentary relief.
After Padma left, having gratefully accepted Asha’s assurance that she was happy to draft the email message for Padma’s signature, Maya entered the kitchen to help her parents wash the dishes as they discussed the CROWN Act. “Oh, are you talking about the natural hair movement?”
Maya quickly dried her hands and deftly opened a social media page on her cellphone. Photos of Black women wearing their hair in braids, twists and other hairstyles appeared, along with a video of a woman describing how she had lost her job because of her braided hair, which she described as part of her racial heritage.
Clicking on another link, Maya read aloud: “The CROWN Act, or ‘Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair’ Act, prohibits discrimination based on hairstyle and hair texture. California was the first state to adopt it, and several states have followed.”
“Does it apply to national origin or ethnicity?” Ben asked.
“That question was raised in that seminar I attended.” Asha paused, and Maya continued reading: “California’s CROWN Act expanded the definition of race under the Fair Employment and Housing Act to include traits historically associated with race, such as hair texture and ‘protective hairstyles,’ which include but are not limited to such hairstyles as braids.”
Putting her arm around Maya’s shoulder, Asha shared that an argument could be made to apply the CROWN Act’s protection of all employees of color who wear hairstyles associated with their ethnicity.
“But that’s an argument you won’t have to make right now,” said Ben.
Asha knew the purpose of the email she would draft for Padma was to alert Cynthia to the potential liability she had created this afternoon, and Padma’s acquiescence to Cynthia’s demand by changing her hairstyle was made “in the spirit of conciliation.” This phrase would hint at the formal complaint both Padma and Cynthia wanted to avoid. Padma let Rohan yell by himself, not answering his harsh reprimands for being late and taking a neighbor’s “charity” for dinner. Carrying a bowl and spoon upstairs for her daughter, Padma entered Beti’s room and sat on the edge of the bed.
“Can I borrow some of your hair clips?” Padma asked. She then explained why she would be wearing her hair “up in a bun” tomorrow.
Putting her bowl of chili aside on her nightstand, Beti reached for her mother, hoping a hug could say “sorry” and “thank you” at the same time.
The next morning, Padma brushed her hair, still wavy from yesterday’s braid, protesting the change Padma was making. After rolling and clipping her hair into place at the back of her head, Padma whispered fiercely: “A sign of discontent.”
Arriving at her cubicle, she copied and sent Asha’s email to Cynthia, under her own signature, adding a final line: “If you have any questions, please contact my attorney, Asha K. Monroe.” Asha was copied on the email.
An hour later, Cynthia would hurriedly cross the office courtyard, clutching a thin manila folder and nervously scratching her head until reaching the double wooden doors that led to the corporate officers’ suite.
That afternoon, Padma would eat at her desk, not wanting to answer questions at her usual lunch table.
On Saturday morning, Padma will leave a tin of Indian sweets at the Monroes’ door without ringing the doorbell.
Upon coming home from a walk around the neighborhood, Asha will see the surprise gift and smile. Before walking into her home, Asha will sit on the porch bench and take off her shoes.
• Kiren Dosanjh Zucker, winner of the 2023 Ross Writing Contest for Legal Short Fiction, is a professor of accounting with California State University at Northridge. Learn more about her and the backstory of “Memory of a Braid” in this ABA Journal interview. The 2024 Ross Writing Contest is now accepting entries. Read the submission rules here.