Henna painting at your
The mobile beauticians
It’s a woman’s world. Men are strictly not allowed inside. The first floor of this downtown shopping mall, which is exclusively for females, is not cordoned-off: there are no signboards cautioning men to halt their footsteps, because “there is no need for such a thing. It’s always been like that,” said a young man who runs a paan shop a few yards from the stairs that leads to the private world. This section of the famous Meena Bazaar at Karimabad is the oldest and most famous place in the city for the services of ladies beauty care specialists.
Females of all ages, mostly from middle and lower middle-class localities, throng the market to keep pace with the latest beauty care ‘innovations’ and hair-dos. From ear and nose piercing of five to seven–year–old girls to regular skin care to complete wedding make-up for occasions when dolling up becomes a necessity of life – the first floor of Meena Bazaar is the place to be. It possesses an unrivalled squad of henna-artists known all over the city for their skills.
At midday, it’s hot outside. But the atmosphere gets hotter as women customers walk in through the stairs – at the peak business hours. It’s not surprising though. More than hundred beauty parlors offering every feminine service imaginable are lined-up in the floor alongside henna-artists and lingerie stores. The saleswomen shout at customers and even stand on their way to ask what they are looking for. The chants and pleas seem both erratic and comical. But it’s impossible not to feel the pressure, the cut-throat competition that these small woman entrepreneurs indulge in to grab business. “Yahan ayey sister, kya chayey apko (Come here sister, what are you looking for?),” is the most repeated phrase from the women who attempt to glue the shopper like bees on a bee-hive trying to win the client from her competitor.
“I come here to visit the parlour with my cousins every few months. It’s always a planned trip we make together,” said Maham, who goes to a local university. Girls like Maham, who lives nearby, make-up an important portion of clientele for the beauty experts inside. But according to Firdous, who has been running a parlour within the bazaar for the past 20 years, there was a time when women from all over the city (she added even Defence and Clifton) used to come to Meena Bazaar for their beauty care needs.
The parlours are small spaces with enough room for four to five seats at maximum. The interior of the shop is adorned with accessories that the place requires to function rather than being based on any aesthetic considerations. Even the posters pinned on the walls are presented as samples for bridal make-up to prospective clients to choose from. The pictures show fair-skinned girls with pink-cheeks and thick purple eyes, in bridal poses with every possible piece of jewellery. The table with a carved sink in front of each seat is crammed with all kinds of Swiss beauty-care products. Woman with tightly strewn strings and clips or faces painted white are waiting to be operated upon on the occupied seats.
Firdous has worked as a beautician most of her adult life here. She is short and stout and has a husky voice. She apparently comes to work in her most casual of dresses: a Kameez with western jogging-trousers. Firdous goes all nostalgic when asked to compare the time she started as a beautician with the current dynamics of her work here at Meena Bazaar.
She mourns the ‘scatteredness’ of the beauty industry and said that from being the biggest hub of beautians – offering all sorts of services – in the city, Meena Bazaar is now only known for its henna artists.
“I think people don’t believe in quality any more. Anybody with a small amount can open a parlour at home these days and run a beauty business. When I started in the 90s, this bazaar along with Tariq Road were the place women would choose to go for their facial and hair–dos, but now parlours have sprouted in all corners of residential areas of the city which, I think, has stripped hubs like Meena Bazaar of its bustle which is nothing but sad.”
Henna painting at your
In a quiet autumn afternoon Bela sits inside a dilapidated beauty salon at Meena Bazaar and tells her story. She works at a place that has been running for two decades now, and the place shows it. Two moth-eaten chairs face a mirror, which has cracks on it, a poster with Bollywood brides is pasted on a pillar with chunks of plaster peeling from it, above it are pictures of hairstyles from the 80s, and a few old but clean towels are stacked on a table, which also has a pair of scissors, water spray and tail combs. But the crowning glory of the place are posters with henna painted hands.
“Idhar ayey! Kya mehndi lagwani hai apko? (Come here! Are you looking for henna-painting?” comes the earsplitting noises when one enters the bazaar, reaching one’s eardrum from every side of the walkway. “We do all variety, Arabic, Indian, Rajasthani and the black glitter one,” explains Bela, a stout lady in her mid-twenties, covering herself with a wide black chaadar, with lilac lipstick put so that her lips looks bigger than they actually are and a little kajal in her eyes.
She started as a young girl, who was trained in the art of make-up and henna by her sister-in-law, but she had differences and got separated from her. Now she works under a ‘Baji’ who has employed three girls for the parlour for different services, including henna-painting, for 3,000 rupees a month.
“Baji trained us to do everything, from make-up to henna-painting, we handle the whole salon now. However, Baji joins us in the evenings,” she grins showing her betel-nut stained teeth.
But there is something which sets her apart from beauty salons around the city as all the salons in the bazaar offer henna-painting session at your doorstep. She has girls who she can send to a customer’s home. This Baji, a motherly figure, takes appointments for henna-painting from clients to book it for home and sends off the henna-painters according to the number of women to cater to. Baji should and must clear the client to provide the transport to the henna-painters at their residences if the time limit crosses over nine in the evening. Else they need to be dropped at the parlour to report back to the Baji.
Baji has guts to convince her clientele to book the bridal henna for Rs800 (including feet) whereas, other women will be charged Rs50 per side. At the end of the henna-painting session, these Baji’s kiddies do expect some tip from their clientele even after sipping a few cups of tea and enjoying the dinner.
“During wedding season many people prefer to take a mehndi-wali home rather than bringing all their women here to the bazaar. Therefore, we offer sending our girls to their houses provided they offer pick and drop service.” They claim to charge the same amount even if they visit houses, “Pick and drop is given by the family, but the rates are the same,” shared Baji.
But since Baji is responsible for the safety of her staff, she checks and rechecks the family which asks for a girl. For that matter, she hardly sends off single henna-painter to the family, unless the client is a regular one. “Most of the time you can tell by the appearance of the family if they come from a decent background. “I never send a girl alone, always two or three are ganged up together to send to the family,” claimed Baji, who even facilitates her senior clients by booking their appointments on a call.
“I tell my girls not to talk too much to the families or reveal personal details, the idea is to work and come back as soon as the work is done.” Baji speaks her heart out. But some of the older ones have learnt the tricks of the trade. In counter to Baji’s statement, Bela chips in, “So what if the family is weird, we put henna and come back.”
Business has its booms and slumps. The ‘Shaadi and Eid season’ is what they wait for all year. “Eids are the best, the bazaar is alive all night long, and we charge a good price. Sometimes Baji calls extra girls to cater to the customer crowd.”
The first floor of Meena Bazaar is a women’s world, where men are not allowed unless prior permission is taken by the authorities, and here there are dozens of tales of strong entrepreneurship by women, learning year by year, expanding and dominating the business of ‘dolling up’.
Twelve-year-old *Binky is one of the many students who study at a school in Neelam Colony. She likes going to school for the most part; but some days are more difficult than others. This may have something to do with her religion, Hinduism, or it may simply be a case of growth pangs striking her very young - and still growing - group of classmates.
Fortunately, *B, who doesn’t always have friends in school, has strong older women to fall back on – women such as her grandmother, mother and aunts, who have, through a ceaseless process of sharing and caring for one another – even when it hurts – almost perfected the art of survival.
Theirs is a family business; skills and training are passed on from one generation to the next. They are Waalnikis and they say that their families lived in Sindh even before the lines differentiating India and Pakistan were drawn on world maps.
*B’s mother, *Pomal, is a busy woman. She cooks, cleans, takes care of her children, and when the phone rings she dons a chador, grabs her old black parachute bag and darts off to attend to her clients with whose help she supports the education of her nuclear and extended family – all of whom occupy the same two-storey building.
There is a bounce in her step as she breezes into homes. But even confident and happy *P doesn’t stand at bus stops alone. Her husband escorts her to the clients’ doorsteps on his bike and waits for her return; or one of her clients takes it upon herself to ensure she reaches home safely.
Once she’s reached the safety of another home, she relaxes, takes off the chador from around her rotund, smiling face, unzips her bag and gets to work. Jars of different shapes and sizes, and giving off various aromas come out of the bag. It’s amazing how much she is able to squeeze into a single bag, I observe; and she smiles mysteriously when asked about the exact nature of the contents.
These sweet, flowery smells – of lotions, creams, home-made wax and scrubs – are the stuff of some of her earliest childhood memories, she says: “Ammi bhee yehi kaam kartee thee; dekh dekh ke seekh liya” (my mother did the same work; I watched and learned).
Basic training began at age of 11 under her mother’s supervision; *P learned how to do facials first. Later she received training at a parlour and had to quit that job when she was getting married. Fortunately, Ammi’s clients worked out an arrangement that suited her new life as a wife and daughter-in-law. She began providing ‘home service’ and clients preferred calling her because they were already used to her.
Ask her what services she provides and she rattles off a long list in one impossibly long breath, “Waxing, threading, mani, pedi, hair massage, body massage, body ubtan, bleach, scrub, brides package for Rs4,000 – 5,000, bahar ke products ke sath”.
While the part about where the products are really from can only be settled using careful, unbiased research and lab facilities, the rest is fairly simple. Almost all the women in this Hindu family do the same work. They say there is a Rs 400-500 profit difference for each service provided when one goes solo and isn’t dependent on a monthly salary of around Rs 10,000.
*P knows a lot of things but when asked how old she is, she falters, and turns to her husband for assistance. “23 years?” (jhoot mat bolo, I tease), “26 years!” and then “27 years!” she exclaims - after her husband has checked her CNIC card to get the facts straight.
Ask her about her husband and children and she is back to her usual, spontaneous self. *P has been married for 14 years, has a son who studies at St. Anthony’s school and has recently given birth to a child that she is sharing with her infertile sister.
Her husband was laid off last year during a clash between union and management at a reputed company. She provides a range of salon services to meet her family’s needs but she is still a creative force waiting to be unleashed.
“Painting ka shauk hay,” she says shyly. *P likes to paint birds, mountains, flowers, and nice faces. As there are no paints and she is still a wife and mother on a budget, she paints hands with henna and shares jokes with her clients, all women, instead.
*P has no idea how much she has in common with other women in the world. She believes she is destined to do the work she does because she is uneducated and lacks any other ‘useful’ skills. She is industrious, cheerful and makes more money than her unemployed husband with whom she shares a loving and honest relationship, and yet she sometimes feels small in a room full of ‘parhay likhay log’.
Abida, on the other hand, much older than *P and a chain smoker, has no such inhibitions. She waxes with one hand, smokes with the other, and lectures all her clients about women’s and life issues simultaneously. She is stricter, has little patience for whiny ‘little girls’ (almost everyone is ‘little’ compared to her) and observes no rules. Abida is a fascinating woman but she is also every client’s biggest waxing-nightmare.
*P and *A battle over clients during the day. At night they often sleep beneath the same stars in the same colony.
Names have been changed to maintain privacy