Pride and Pedicures


Pride and Pedicures

Illustration: Akshita Monga

The hairs on my hand were standing in perfect attention. I was shivering and breathing deeply, in through the nose, out through the mouth. I’d been told by a lot of well-meaning adults that the first time is the hardest. But as Lakshmi Didi slathered hot wax on my arm and turned my skin into a veneer of human marmalade, she told me to look at the busted television set in the corner and count the number of backup dancers in Karisma Kapoor’s Hero No 1.

Years later, I still feel that the way I lost my waxing virginity, is better than how I lost my real one. The gentle, experienced touch that parted the curtain on one of the bigger mysteries of adulthood, was one of the most formative experiences of my life. And it didn’t come from any established pillars of my childhood; it came from my friendly neighbourhood parlour didi.

Small-town India is replete with these little mom-and-pop beauty parlours, bedecked with photos of Madhuri Dixit in her prime, with a few dusty bottles of long-expired Shahnaz Husain beauty products lining the fluorescently lit shelves. Inside, you’d see a slew of ordinary women, clad in the archetypal north Indian cottony salwar kurtas with garish prints, sweating in the heavy, sickly-sweet perfumed air of their tiny haven. Housewives from conservative households would throw their pallas back in defiance and sit with their legs apart, bangles clinking, as they gossiped about the secret liaisons of the mohalla that usually relegated them to the sidelines. Pre-pubescent girls would twirl their armpit hair and ask questions about the birds and the bees that their mothers wouldn‘t answer, teenagers would skulk in the corner, reading sexual advice in raunchy Hindi magazines. It was a bubble where women could walk in and shed everything, from their clothes to centuries of inhibition they’d been burdened with.

In the Allahabad of the ’90s, feminism was nowhere to be found. It would emerge many years later in its hip and trendy avatar and sweep women along. But even without the word in play, the stories were all there. Stories of the eldest daughter in the house with no male breadwinners, stories of an escaped child bride, who wanted to start afresh in a new city. And all of them lived inside the neighbourhood beauty parlour, a place where all women were created equal.

For my mother and I, it was the small capsule we could escape to and turn from a mother and daughter to two women who’d giggle over nail paint and girlstaches.

As a child, I was introduced to many of these ecosystems by my mother. Lakshmi Didi was my mother’s longest standing confidant, the first legacy she bequeathed to me, girl-to-girl, when I came of age. My eyebrows are still shaped the way they were done the first time; Lakshmi Didi taught me that an arched eyebrow could change a diminutive face to a haughty one. She told me body hair does not bother men as much as it bothers us, so if we must subject ourselves to the pains of hot wax and ice packs, we should know that we’re doing it for ourselves. She always blow-dried my hair, even if I just went in to be threaded, because she saw a small-town Raveena Tandon where I only saw an awkward teenage mess.

It wasn’t hard to see why these parlours were a refuge for all the women who walked in. These spaces were replete with positive reinforcement for everyone who was a part of them, because there was an unspoken understanding that the world wasn’t going to make us feel good about ourselves, if we don’t reiterate that sentiment repeatedly within closed walls. For my mother and I, it was the small capsule we could escape to and turn from a mother and daughter to two women who’d giggle over nail paint and girlstaches.

When my mother was too busy tending to her children to go to a parlour, the parlour came to her, in a duffel bag carried by a smiling woman, who would sit with us for hours, primping our mother and babysitting us. I remember watching her, entranced as she daubed my mother’s face with creams and lotions with near-surgical precision. Over the din of the television and my screaming siblings, I saw my mother being transported to her happy place.

Now, a lot of these small parlours have been replaced by big, branded salons, where you walk in knowing that the relationship is transactional, and its sole output will be shiny hair and manicured nails. In these cold, unfeeling walls, there is no place to vent or hide, there is no question of cutting loose. But that may be because we don’t need to vent or hide anymore. Feminism has been found, as have our voices, and my mother and I have new places to rage in, about the imperfections of life and trade stories.

But sometimes, when I flip through channels and see Karisma Kapoor in her finest ’90s form, or I walk into a room laden with the scent of bleach and talcum, I still miss the quiet refuge of the beauty parlours I have left behind.