Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Art of Giving

40-50 years ago, beauty parlours were not as de rigeur as they are now.

Beauty parlours and other explicit admissions of trying to improve an original model, were really not part of our growing up

The sort of society we belonged to, we wore conservative traditional outfits on celebratory occasions, some very sensible clothes at all times, and uniforms when in school. Things had to be decently below the knees, unnaturally loose, and incapable of emphasizing any part of the anatomy. Sleeves were mandatory, and a lack of those was frowned upon, and considered "forward".

As far as your hair was concerned, (as well as all other females in the family), well, it grew; and that was that.

There weren't shampoos as such on the scene, and once a week, our mothers did their stuff, oiling, scrubbing, massaging, washing (with some special nuts), combing our hair, after which it was always solar dried , as you went about doing some family errands on
your bicycle, wisps of hair flying here and there, as you endeavoured to navigate through the throngs with one hand, your hair glinting in the noon day sun.

Almost everyone had to plait their hair, and sometimes turn it up and tie it, if it was in the school rules. Hairstyles, per se, were non existent. Our mothers put their hair up in buns, and our were plaited. No one wore lipstick in my house, or even in my friends houses. On school annual days, when staged plays demanded makeup, it used to be a secret wish that maybe we could sleep with all that wonderful makeup on; only to be dashed by having to scrub it off on reaching home.

No one peered into a mirror and shed tears over a pimple; it would go the way it had come. Facials were not part of the scene, though daily baths were incomplete without a face wash made of besan(garbanzo flour), fresh cream(skimmed off the top of just-boiled and cooled fresh milk), and turmeric powder.

Somewhere in the sixties, mothers became less strict, or more observant , depending on who was looking. Education was a happening thing, women had routinely started working, and appearances became important. The first beauty parlours were often oriented towards women of western sensibilities. Slowly , as the clientele increased , many more places opened up, and college girls and others started thronging there.

The same mothers who avidly plaited our hair, introduced us to places where tweaking of eyebrows resulted in an improvement of the original model, and hair was "styled" to suit your face. Beauticians doing their thing before wedding receptions was a mandatory thing now, and brides even went for a hairstyle and makeup rehearsal in some cases, a few days before the event.

And so when Meera announced the opening of her parlour in our vicinity, we were very pleased. A part of her apartment was cleverly altered to be useful as a parlour with a separate entrance. Her husband did interiors and he cleverly converted an extra room into a parlour, which at night, often doubled as a guest room , if you didnt mind mirrors on one entire side.....

Up a set of dark and cool stairs, you entered into a small set up, where hindi songs played on the radio, and pleasant smells pervaded amidst Meera and her assistants bustling around, a smile here, a reassurance there. A grateful goodbye nod to a departing lady, and Meera would close shut the cash drawer and get back to the work she was doing.

Little girls now came demanding "Princess Diana cuts" , and duly sat on a huge cushion on a chair, to see those happen. Their mothers stood around chatting about schools, and shopping, and left with a delirious child who was always given a chocolate candy from a container kept high up somewhere on the shelf. Teenagers, convinced about being shortchanged by the Maker, insisted on getting all kinds of transformations. Flips, curls, straightening, Perming, coloring, streaking, anything to look like those on , say TV.

Her mother stayed with her, and kind of ran the house so she could attend freely to her parlour. Of all the numerous languages spoken in India, we both spoke the same one, and it came to pass that I was able to get some old magazines in our language that her mother wanted. We'd discuss our children , their schools, their hobbies, their naughtiness. My daughter swam competitively, and she advised her on a nice cut, easy to maintain after 3 hours in the pool, and yet in fashion. At one time there was a bride getting intricate henna designs done on her palms and forearm, and my daughter, then 8, looked at the whole thing very wistfully and with great longing, followed by a nudge-nudge, and accusing look at me.

Peace was finally achieved after Meera guaranteed her there and then, a completely free, full arm henna design, the day she gets married !

Meera and I soon became friends.

So it came to pass that the year my mother turned 80, she happened to be staying with us that month. She would observe my teenage daughter spend hours fiddling around with some creams and her hair and similar things. She would shake her head, but then indulgently smile as grandmothers do. She would encourage me to take off, while she was around to mind the house and family, and go visit the parlour and get things done.

I was mentioning this to Meera once and she called me a few days later asking if my mother and I would come by one morning. We agreed, and my mother looked forward to meeting Meera's mother too. I did not realize it was a Monday, and a slow day at the parlour. My mother fasted on Mondays and took only fruits and milk.

We reached , and Meera took my mother around to show her the tiny parlour and the facilities. She mentioned that her mother was performing some puja (Worship ritual), and would be with us presently.

Then she took me aside.

"You know, I have actually kept this hour free. I thought we'd give your mother a special 80th birthday facial. I am sure she hasn't had one.....Would you cajole her into trying one ?"

I was overcome. What a wonderful gesture.

I asked my mother, and she never had a chance in the face of Meera, and her assistants, all clamouring to give grandma a birthday facial. She went through the various steps and then lay down as Meera sat behind her with all her jars and stuff, a bowl of ice, and slowly and with a great amount of feeling, massaged her tired face and neck. Pads on her eyes, music in the air, and someone massaging her tired neck..... she slipped into dreamtime. Gently cleansing the face, Meera applied a herbal face pack and went to attend to some other stuff as it dried.

After some time,. I noticed that , other customers were coming. I noticed the time, and asked Meera, if it was time to check the face pack.

And we suddenly heard someone snore.

The eighty year old tired body, had been lulled into a deep sleep with all the wonderful massage and therapeutic finger touches. My mother was absolutely fast asleep, on the only couch in the parlour.

I opened my mouth to say something.

Meera held up her hand.

"Let grandma sleep. Its absolutely OK. It doesn't hurt if the face pack dries for for some more time. We'll wait"....

Saying so, she got started on some customers who had come for stuff NOT requiring use of that couch. She pulled the curtain to avoid troubling my mother with the lights.

When my mother actually woke up ten minutes later , with a start, she took a moment to figure out where she was. Then got all apologetic. Meera sat down to complete the facial, treating the old, tired ,thin skin, like she would a baby's new, thin skin.

Grandma stood up, adjusted her saree, took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Both she and Meera looked at each other. One after having given a facial to her oldest customer, and the other , in wonder at the young girl her daughter's age, who had such wonderful fingers, and attitude.....

We went in to meet Meera's mother, who was in on the whole plan, and was ready with a great cup of tea and fruits. The two Grandmas chatted, probably about their grandchildren, and the old days, and about Meera.

Not a single of Meera's customers , then waiting, complained about the delay. They thought this whole idea of an 80 year old grandma having a facial was brilliant. Meera's mother came to see us on our way out.

And Meera excused herself and returned to her work, but not before bending down and touching my mothers feet; something we all do when we meet elderly people our parents age.

My mother is no more, but she never forgot this wonderful gift. She came home that day, had a light meal, and nodded off into a deep nap that afternoon.

I am sure Meera will do well in life.

It's not about how good she is at her craft, it's not about how efficiently she manages her resources and her money, It's not even about how quickly she learns new technologies and methods in her field.

Its because Meera is a "giver"....

Its all about knowing how to give, when to give and where to give.


  1. Most of your posts start well in the past and slowly gets to the present. As usual, liked the post. Thanks for sharing!

  2. As usual, your post is so beautiful, touching on so many things, painting such a lovely and loving picture. Thank you!

  3. What a wonderful story!!!! Thank you for sharing it!

  4. Very touching. It would have been great to talk to your mother and hear her reaction! Sorry we can not do that now.

  5. Beautiful post!

    Just goes to show 'giving' need not be only about charity or helping out.

    This was such a innovative idea on your friend's part. Very often, folks like me want to 'give' but have no idea how to, especially when it comes to the elderly.

  6. I loved that post so. You have a way with words and can paint a detailed story for the reader. Strangely when you were describing your childhood it could have been mine. I didnt know beauty parlours existed until I was grown up. I only got my first facial probably two years ago. My mother has never had one. Are you going to write a book because I would buy it - there is a certain magical quality to your writing - something special. I sincerely hope things are calmer there now. Are you ok?

  7. Babu Bhaskaran Thank you. See, almost 60 years ago, things changed very slowly, and our childhood had a different quality compared to today. Looking back, one tends to wallow in its richness of quality...

    Sylvia K, Kay Dennison Thank you . I appreciate your comments....

    Vivek Thank you. ( I cant explain her reaction in English properly ..) She always had a special place in her heart for Meera...

    Devaki Thank you. Gift giving has become a science today. Its actually an art. And the best always comes from the heart, not the wallet...

    Lilly Thanks so much for your comments. And your comments about parlours in your part was interesting. I guess at the end of the day, family attitudes really count more.

    The recent Mumbai Carnage continues to trouble the mind, but one has to get on with the business of living. One simply hopes this doesnt happen again to anyone.

    My respectful regards to Des. I am sure he must have worried about all the Thailand stuff with you stuck there.....

  8. Thank you for such a lovely post...

  9. i had tears in my eyes after this post, and i am not at all the sentimental types :)
    thank you

  10. Meera will be very successful in her occupation due to the wonderful heart and soul she has within her. Just as your mother never forgot her kindness, there will be many others when treated by Meera will return time after time. I enjoyed this very much. You have a wonderful friend in Meera also.

  11. Indeed wonderful ! Such sharing and such giving is a rarity in modern times. And it is refreshing to see it in action in the modern day industry to a lady who belonged to another generation !!

    Hope and its audacity sometimes get a filip with stories such as these !

    Thanks for sharing !

  12. What a treat. And what fun to get a surprise facial for 80th birthday. (I want to go to meera too and get a facial and fall asleep:))

    I couldn't stop laughing..:"Things had to be unnaturally loose adn incapable of emphasizing any part of the anatomy>" hee hee Lack of sleeves was considered "forward" hee hee absolutely

    (ani tyach veles tya tv varchya droupadi, seeta wagere byka kaichyakai tichke kapde ghalaychya tey saglyanna chalaycha..heehee)

  13. Lovely post, so much in tune with the spirit of and loving. Many a time have I wanted to take my mom to a beauty parlour to give her a special treat. Let's see, maybe on her next vivit, due late this've inspired me with this post. Thanks!

  14. You are an excellent weaver of stories, and they always have a purpose!
    I would have a similar story to tell growing up (oh, I hated those aprons we girls had to wear ;-) My mother never even owned a lipstick (and she’s only 75). But that facial your mother received from your beautiful friend just gave me an idea! Thank you!

  15. you wrote this so beautifully...

    that was such a wonderful wonderful gift...

  16. You have such a beautiful way with words. I wish I could weave a story like you do. You make me smile this rainy afternoon.

  17. Sukku, Harini Calamur Thank you .

    Judy Thank you. One feels so lucky to have known people like Meera....

    Kavi Thank you. There is "service" and there is "service". That which comes straight from the heart , stays, doesnt it ? Only your parents can teach you that, I think....

    Vinita Ashya kiti tari Meera astaat ... jitkya "posh" titki hi quality kami....pan nashibane ashi loka mala bhetaat ali....

    Sucharita and Fida Thank you, and wish your Moms a great Christmas and New year from me, when you take them for their surprise facials....:-)

    Suma Thank you

    One womans' journey Thank you. And here is some "virtual" warmth from India (almost no winter in Mumbai), to counter the cold rain in your part of the world....season's greetings to you.