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The Woman In The Gully Parlour

I hadn’t analyzed what possibly made her happy, or what her motivations might have been in what she said. Nor had I bothered to verify my suppositions about her life.

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I hadn’t analyzed what possibly made her happy, or what her motivations might have been in what she said. Nor had I bothered to verify my suppositions about her life.

Pushing open a cracked glass door covered with movie posters that limit any visibility into the other side in a poorly lit narrow lane should have required a significant amount of courage from someone like me. But as I pushed open the small glass door lined with silhouettes of Bollywood heroines; I had felt oddly calm. As if the gullys of old Raniganj, Delhi, weren’t foreign to me anymore.

The feeling however, was short-lived. As I bumped into the petite yet plump figure with my very first step in, I felt considerably rattled. But the bump seemed to have had an effect only on me. She was ready to support me with her rounded hard hands and steadied me right away, as if she had been expecting me to barge in and bump into her. Following that, she merely asked me to take a seat.

Her fingers moved with practiced ease, with soap and lather masking her skin up to her wrists as she continued to de-tangle one strand from another. The lady she was working on seemed to be have dozed off. She had her eyes closed and her hands moving only ever so slight over a phone she was still hanging onto. It was not long before the phone would slide off onto the cracked red cement floors, I was sure.

I tried to take in the whole room as I looked for a seat, wondering at the same time if soapy hands meant I have gotten some lather on myself too.

‘What would you like to get done?’ Her voice jolted me back. Raucous and raspy, it did fit her strong facial bones and dark lipstick in a clichéd way. Yet I had expected to hear a tone far more pleasing. Maybe the last few weeks in India had spoiled me with the subservience that had been offered all through to someone like me.

‘Do you get people ready for weddings?’ Despite having been asked to seat, I still hadn’t. Between the now mostly black velvet divan and the black pleather chair covered with a light colored towel that had reddish marks streaking on it, I hadn’t been able to decide where.

‘Sit on the divan.’ She had read my thoughts. ‘Bridal or party?’

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‘I am not sure I understand,’ I managed as I uneasily situated myself on the divan.

‘Are you the bride who needs to get ready?’ she didn’t have to pause or even look at me to ask.

‘No no… it’s my husband’s cousin’s wedding, I just need to attend.’

‘Yes, of course – I do everything from hair and make-up to saree draping – have you brought your outfit? I can look and suggest a look,’ she uttered in a single excited breath looking up at last and ended with: ‘and I am Rupa.’

‘Rupa.’ I repeated inaudibly, extending my hand for a shake only to realize she was looking elsewhere already. I didn’t follow with my name. Would I have if I was back in the US? I tried hard but couldn’t remember what the norm was there in similar situations.

*

Rupa stared into the blank space – the space outlined with light and darkness alike. She had wondered about women like her coming into her salon one day, wearing nice plain clothes and extending their hand for a shake. The fair skinned faraway women. She had wondered how their skin would feel, and if when looked at carefully, their hairlines would show signs of dandruff too.

‘Chalo na ma,’ Laila’s voice interrupted her trance. Sitting cross legged like she had been asked to, Laila was growing impatient for her promised goodies. Rupa picked her up, wondering at how much longer before she wouldn’t be able to anymore. Laila was five, but quite tall for her age.

The oil in the pitch black kadai looked even darker than it had the night before. Rupa wondered if someone else had already fried something in it. The possibility was slim – no one else in this house ever came into the kitchen. Rupa scanned the ceiling and corners and checked behind the doors – there were no house lizards in site. She should have remembered to cover the kadai. Her mother was right. She could never be a good homemaker. She looked at the dumplings she had made the night before, anyone in the neighborhood could have given them a better shape. But it didn’t matter, Laila would love them either way. And she would teach Laila how to use the hair dryer today which will top any treat to the taste buds available in this world for her child.  Laila had passed the tables test.

6X3 is 18, 12X3 is 36, and 3X9 is 27 – Laila had recited on prompt without having to think, a proud grin had lighted up her little face on seeing Rupa’s amazement. So Rupa had to keep her end of the bargain.

‘The lady who was here doesn’t know how to cook.’ Laila blurted as she watched her mother struggle with the dumplings. Breaking them in her palms before she could put them into the hot oil.

‘How do you know?’ Rupa was amused.

‘People don’t have to cook in America – they have machines there for cooking. And people eat only sandwiches anyways.’ Maybe Laila was right. No one could stay so slim feasting on fried dumplings. Machines can suck all the fat out of the food – like the air fryer’s selling so much this Diwali. Maybe foreign people had always had them. Rupa opened the cabinets to look for clean serving ware.

*

She had talked about dust. She had said she loved to create on them. Out of them. Letters and doodles that didn’t need to be permanent. Names of old lovers that could be wiped inconspicuously as soon as someone knocked on the salon door on otherwise idle afternoons. I couldn’t remember what had started the conversation. But I knew that in this land of talking about everything, conversations about loving dust had to be rarer than talking about sex-life with a fellow female you have just met. Yet, it hadn’t seemed strange to me at all.

As anyone familiar with Delhi would know, inside the narrow lanes in the old Raniganj bazaar, where neighbors on opposite sides could pass over items to each other reaching over their balconies and every possible item could be found just steps away, dust was all-pervading and omnipresent. So, I hadn’t judged Rupa, when she had mentioned that she found the dust comforting.  In a way I had found what she was saying to be refreshing. After hearing how impossible dust has made life here over the last few days – from allergies making my husband miserable to the constant wiping the housemaid was having to do – dust was the desperado of Delhi. But not to Rupa.

I had intended my visit to be brief, securing an appointment for hair and make-up, but had stayed for over an hour taking in the barely 200 sq ft room. The black sink (which was really a bowl innovatively fitted with a rubber pipe) placed right by the door, the huge mirror taking up almost the entire wall space and my reflection in it interrupted by orange rust outlines. I had obliviously listened to Rupa talk as she continued working on her client, barely nodding to acknowledge the changes in conversation topics. Yet, as I had walked back through the by then dark lanes of Raniganj, I remembered everything she had talked about.

*

‘I heard you are getting foreign clients now.’ The pride was obvious in Rupa’s father in law’s tone. Laila must have told him. Rupa glanced at her with an admonishing look.

‘She is Indian Baba, related to Shweta bhabi in the next lane. She moved to the US from here.’

‘Is she married to an American?’

‘No, of course not. Their child speaks perfect Hindi. She is married to Shweta Bhabi’s cousin.’ Rupa wondered why her father in law had assumed otherwise. ‘She has a really high degree. Doctor I think.’

‘But she can’t cook,’ Laila blurted again.

*

‘How did you like the salon?’ My husband’s cousin’s wife – Shweta – was asking as we continued munching on cucumbers post dinner. Shweta thought highly of every neighborhood establishment and there were innumerous ones within a few minutes’ walk. The lanes here created a maze. If one dared to explore, knowing without having to look to step over the dog poop and not minding and occasional drippings from above, the rewards could be amazing. Every service and goods considered necessary to humans existed in the gullys of Raniganj. Yet inside the walls, seated inside a dark room on a huge table, between the two of us – the last ones to eat – there was unmistakable isolation.

‘It was alright,’ I assured her.

‘Did Rupa say how much?’ Shweta spoke in a soft tone always, uttering her words so evenly paced that I had wondered if she had a mental algorithm worked out for speaking.

‘I didn’t ask. I will know anyway when I go back – I am not expecting it to be too much.’

Shweta looked at me with her familiar passive eyes. ‘You should go and show her the dress tomorrow first. You can’t take chances with readymade dresses.’

‘Do you ladies have anything to talk about other than clothes?’ I was startled to hear a voice other than hers, no one else except us stayed up so late. I realized immediately however that I had missed to recognize the voice of my own husband. Do new places make people unaccustomed to familiar things?

Shweta had already gotten up to offer Raj her chair. An action quite unnecessary and mostly customary given that six out of the eight chairs were available for him to take.

‘Mimi is up – I need your help,’ Raj interjected, quite unaware of Shweta’s gesture. Our three year old daughter was having trouble sleeping again on the hard Indian futon. And I was needed, at last, in the bedroom.

‘I will go tomorrow with the dress.’ I assured Shweta as I followed Raj up the stairs. I wasn’t sure why, but I felt sorry for Shweta – still standing, merely a silhouette now, leaning against the massive table waiting for her reason to go to their room.

*

I wasn’t sure if Rupa had any inkling of my discomfort. Standing in her bedroom with merely a curtain between me and the courtyard of the house from where voices could be heard, in only salwar pants, I was beyond uncomfortable. I had disrobed, removing even my bra on Rupa’s insistence and had put on the dress for her to take a look. She wasn’t happy with what she saw. I was almost immediately made to remove the dress by a visibly unpleased Rupa. She had disappeared then with the dress before I could interject, leaving me in this precarious situation.

‘Here, try it on now,’ Rupa barged in just like she had barged out – flinging the curtain quite open in the process as I instinctively reached towards the bed sheet, ‘I have re-stitched the padding.’

‘You look so scared,’ she followed, becoming cognizant suddenly the tightness in my muscles. But she didn’t continue to state the obvious – I was too foreign now to the Indian dress trial process. Instead, she proceeded to put the improved dress on me, as if she was used to dressing zombies who have lost control of their bodies. I could feel her hands tucking and pulling on the dress until the pads fell right into place cupping my breasts perfectly as I stared sheepishly at her bent head. Her hair strands, orange from repeated henna applications, and small droplets of sweat on her neck – all glistening.

‘You look good – slim figure is good for such dresses’, she looked up with a proud smile. I was used to appreciation of my physique – more by women these days than by men. How slim I had managed to remain even after marriage was something I had been hearing on this trip since day one. Yet I suddenly felt a tingling – as if a smooth finger stroke was being run – on my arms and my back.

Growing up, I didn’t have the option to be attracted to the same sex. I hadn’t even been aware of that as a possibility until a movie on same sex relationships was released during my college years. We didn’t get to see the movie. It had been banned before anyone could. But that is when I had learnt about women who loved women. It was too late however by then – I had grown up as a heterosexual adult – seeking only male adulation. In my years in the US, I had remained heterosexual. Yet, as I felt Rupa’s hands on my neck pulling slightly at my hair as her lips locked onto mine, I found my eyes closing.

*

‘You need to leave again?’ Raj was audibly irritated. I knew why. Mimi didn’t need to be looked after thanks to extended family members ebullient at the opportunity to do so, but I knew Raj wanted me to be around. He wanted to believe I was assimilating well with his family.

‘You have been mostly away. Shweta could use some and help – if nothing else you could chat with Grandma – she doesn’t get much company…’ I could hear his now brokering tone as I stepped down the stairs. I was late already.

I had been away, Raj was right. For the last few days – five to be exact – I was mostly gone in the afternoons. That is when everyone in the household retreated for after meal respite. This is when Rupa too had the most free time.

I found her every day waiting with her cigarette in her hand, her dark lipstick perfectly reapplied. She lit one as a routine after finishing her last client and turning the salon sign to close. The sign was barely visible from outside through the gaps in the movie posters. But Rupa probably didn’t care. I had imagined her walking around in the house, passing by her father-in-law fast asleep in the courtyard, going into her bedroom to check on her daughter. I had imagined her daughter fast asleep too – spreading her arms and legs right over the sprawl of her school books and note pads as Rupa pulled out an open pen from underneath her and searched for the cap, dismayed at the long ink mark already made from where the pen had been pressed into the bedding. I didn’t know if she really had ever done that, or if her father-in-law really fell asleep in the courtyard, or if she just lit her cigarette, with her salon closed for afternoon break and waited for me to knock.

It didn’t matter – what she did before I arrived or after. She waited for me, and our involvements never had to be initiated. I don’t know how, but as I breathed in her embrace, I finished her sentences and she started sentences as we finished. The dark room, the dust, the dirt – smeared onto us as if we wore them – and each other.

The streaking of the wheels on the cement floors must have been slight, I hadn’t heard a thing. But I felt Rupa’s hands tense on my neck. I still didn’t open my eyes, wanting to linger for as long as possible in the sensation leftover and breathing hard to catch another sniff of the now faint eucalyptus oil.

‘I need some help,’ the voice was unfamiliar.

My reluctant eyes opened barely on time to catch a glimpse of the already retreating speaker, whose face was turned to the side as he looked behind him as he maneuvered a steel wheelchair. His once white shirt and light blue pajamas registered onto my brain more than the limited view I was able to catch of his face.

‘I will be back in a min,’ Rupa was saying to me, ‘he possibly needs to use the bathroom.’ She was gone before I could respond.

I could feel the eucalyptus oil trickling down my back. Rupa had the habit of starting her massages with excess and rub it all into the skin. I tried to go over the room with my eyes – to find a feature I might have previously missed. Something that would be intriguing enough to keep my mind busy until Rupa returned. The mind Rupa had gotten to stop racing. But my eyes scanned in vain the room that was darkened with effort, and the streak of light still coming in from underneath the door with its play of ochre and gold in it, was the only fascination I could find.

‘He doesn’t come in here unless it is really important,’ Rupa’s voice startled me back into darkness. Her silhouette, standing by the door, somehow looked aged suddenly.

‘Your husband?’ I asked, struggling to remember the word for disabled in Hindi.

‘He fell from the roof; the lights had gotten tangled onto his leg.’ Rupa’s voice seemed to have a queer undertone of excitement as she spoke! Or was I imagining things? ‘He used to be an electrician – he did wedding lights. Your cousin’s wedding would have had his lights too if he was still in business.’

I remembered the men I had seen earlier in the day, climbing on to the roof on bamboo scaffolds with strings of lights on their shoulders, and string of lights falling down the roof, bringing a smile to Shweta’s face. ‘His spine is gone,’ Rupa finished her sentence.

She hadn’t started the massage again. Instead, she had taken a seat on the divan, with her hands folded in her lap.

Apahij – the Hindi word suddenly came to me – when I didn’t need it anymore.

*

Raj wanted love today. I could tell from the moment I had walked into our room. He was not on his phone scrolling, neither was he asleep. His face had softened, like it did at times like this.

‘I don’t think it’s a good idea.’ I said. ‘This is a house full of people, and the rooms are close.’ He pulled me into the bed, gently hugging my shoulders as I fell.

‘The parlor trips are working I can see.’ Does compliments stop working after a certain stage? After you have stopped expecting them? I could feel his cheek on my back, his day old beard leaving soft scratches on my massage perfected back. I scooted down, sinking into the hard futon only to be rejected by it. But the musty comforter provided me with the softness the futon had refused.

‘The girl who runs the parlor… her husband is disabled.’ I found myself sharing. ‘She opened the parlor in her home to support her family after his accident.’

‘Good for her,’ Raj said, hugging me tight as he scooted too – we were cuddling, like we used to. ‘That is the one thing Indian women know how to do – open a parlor. Its easy business if you have a house. Just buy a few bottles of shampoo and all the housewives with no work will flock to you to be scammed.’

I searched for a response. I needed to. I was the one who always craved conversations. I was the one who demanded responses and participations… but the feeling of his body hair against my skin – had it always felt so foreign? I tried to concentrate on finding a response to do justice to the anger inside me.

*

‘Mehendi is no matter of joke.’ Rupa continued as she skillfully stroked the brush onto long strands, coating them with the puke green material. I had hurt her feelings – by refusing a mehendi application on my hair. ‘Henna is known to dry out hair and scalp – and benefits claimed are myths,’ I had told her.

My comments had raised eyebrows of both ladies. The one in the chair, laying with her head back hadn’t bothered to counter. But Rupa had taken serious offense.

‘Mehendi is what makes hair soft. And my mehendi is different. Even your big parlors – they add only water to it – but I mix henna in rose water. I will not put something not good onto anyone’s hair. I have my god watching me.’  I felt amused instead of worried. Rupa’s pride for her work is not something I was unaware of, but her tantrum had a childlike innocence that fascinated me.

‘It is the science, not what God thinks, that decides if a product is good or bad.’ I wasn’t in the mood to back down. Rupa looked at me as if she would start crying and stopped defending her stance. Abruptly, she started washing the mehendi off the lady’s hair instead.

‘What are you doing? We need to leave it on for at least an hour!’ the poor lady exclaimed. Rupa was relentless. She scrubbed hard to make sure every bit was washed off as her victim tried free her head. She finished washing and grabbed a towel – working fast even by Rupa’s standards. I looked at the woman – now with a towel wrapped around her head and water still trickling down her forehead – alternating her glance from Rupa to me and possibly searching for words.

‘No charge today Masi.’ Rupa said in calmly, speaking at last as she helped the woman up from the chair. The woman – referred to as Masi by Rupa which is Hindi for Aunty – slowly looked around.

The purse she had laid down on the divan, was right by me. I grabbed it to handover to her without thinking and she snatched it out of my hand. I was to be blamed undoubtedly for her afternoon wasted. Her glance as she left made it clear.

‘Remember to come back tomorrow Masi – we need to finish the threading,’ Rupa said to her back as she slowly closed the door. The business sign was now going to be turned to ‘closed’.

*

My steps were faltering as I slowly pushed open the door, trying to catch a glimpse of the inside before I stepped in. I knew Kashish had run ahead of me, much ahead, and Shweta by now knew. I didn’t know Shweta enough to possibly anticipate what laid ahead and I didn’t want to worry more than I needed to by speculating on possibilities. Like Kashish running into a full house and blurting out things instead of just telling her mother…

The family room was deserted. As I climbed up the stairs, I strained my ears to hear any conversation that might be happening behind the walls of the rooms I couldn’t see into. My effort didn’t yield any result, but just as I was about to believe I wouldn’t be facing anyone – at least not immediately – her voice startled me.

‘Rupa is known for her lack of character Bhabi,’ Shweta spoke in a voice too strong – too uncharacteristic of her. ‘She has been that way always.’

I didn’t answer. My mind kept wondering about her voice, and where everyone else might be.

‘Everyone has left already. I told them I will come with you.’ I realized Shweta was already dressed for the engagement ceremony. The event hall was quite a drive, so understandably people had left.

‘I need to get ready Shweta, you go ahead. I will take a taxi.’

‘I don’t understand these things Bhabi, but I know Kashish wasn’t lying…’

‘She wasn’t,’ I interrupted. ‘And there is nothing to understand.’ I gathered the clothes I needed and walked out, pulling the door shut behind me.

Did I need to be so rude? So abrupt? Shweta had reacted to what she had heard with outmost dignity and intelligence. How I had responded didn’t honor her effort. What did she mean though? When she said what she did about Rupa’s character?

Since when did relationships with other females become taboo, or even of concern, in this country?

Was Rupa known to have been involved with males too?

Or other females?

I remembered the instances – of her showing her clients out – her hand on their backs, her gentle words of advice to everyone…how easily she mingled…how much she cared…

But did I care? Why? Why not? What exactly was I doing?

I looked at the mirror of the quiet, huge bathroom. A blue gown, perfectly fitted, awaiting some jewelry was all I could see.

*

I delighted my proud husband through the evening. Attending to the guests, as if I wasn’t visiting myself, and conversing with the grandmothers and aunts. I fed and danced with my darling child – the only adult on the dance floor with all the kids. And after a long time, I fell asleep with my head on Raj’s shoulder on our drive back.

‘Bhabi we have an early puja today and ma wants you in it,’ Kashish uttered verbatim what Shweta had asked her to pass on. I drew her close in a hug, and Mimi came running from across the room, almost tripping over her still asleep father. We were barely up – yet the day – the very important day of marriage – had started long back. I could tell from the commotion downstairs and a fully dolled up Kashish who had rushed into the room to wake us.

‘I also want to wear a lehenga like Kashish-di,’, Mimi insisted, admiring with her little hands the lehenga Kashish was sporting. ‘Will you take me to the parlor too Mommy? To make me pretty too?’

Kashish freed herself from my embrace. I wasn’t sure if her little body tried to communicate what she couldn’t in words. She didn’t approve of me.

My imagination quite possibly – a child of Kashish’s age couldn’t possibly understand or judge.

‘We are not going to the parlor anymore baby,’ I responded, picking Mimi up in my lap.

*

From the undersized oval window further opaque-d with rain droplets, Delhi looked no more than a muddled maze of yellow lights, and Raniganj was possibly just a yellow dot in the muddle. As I tried to figure out in panic which exact dot it might be before the flight climbed too high, I realized I hadn’t tried at all to understand Rupa. Like I had – as a good girlfriend first and a wife later – tried to understand the men.

I hadn’t analyzed what possibly made her happy, or what her motivations might have been in what she said. Nor had I bothered to verify my suppositions about her life. Not when I had started seeing her, nor when I stopped. As our flight climbed higher and higher, I started to scramble frantically through the moments – sorting through the kisses, the conversations, the face packs and hair-dos – to find the moment in which I had decided I didn’t need to.


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About the Author

Tanushree Ghosh

Manages supply chain teams in Intel Corp. Blogger, writer and poet. Founder and Director Her Rights (www.herrights.website). Contributor Huffington Post US, The Logical read more...

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