Indira dips a nangini, a thin sliver of iron used to cut, shape and clean toenails, into a delicate silver water bowl. She is a nangini too, defined by the tool that she wields.
Displaced by the steel nail clipper, there are fewer and fewer nanginis around. However, their services are still essential before many religious ceremonies. Especially in Newari homes, nanginis are required for death anniversaries (sarada), weddings, sacred thread ceremonies (bartaman), the first time a girl wears a sari (gunyu cholo), the naming ceremony (nuaran) and death rites (kiriya). Other communities also need a nangini's services when nails are cut as part of purification rituals.
With deft precision, Indira handles the razor sharpness-one wrong move and a client could be a missing toe. Luckily, her mother taught her well. Although her nieces are being trained by their mothers, many other young girls refuse to learn this trade probably because being a nangini boxes them into a caste system that treats them as impure. Indira knows better than to enter the kitchen of higher caste homes.
"I continue doing this because I am not educated," she says as she trims the cuticles of a customer. After each nail is shaped, she uses the pointed end of the tool to clean. The nails are then buffed to a high shine by rubbing brick dust over them.
The result is astonishing-as good as an overpriced foot spa at a parlour, only all natural and much, much cheaper. Even today nanginis charge only about Rs 30 when clients visit their homes and roughly Rs 100 for every housecall. In addition, they may receive a few extra rupees for tea or transport and an annual salary averaging Rs 200 per client.
Her business is strictly word-of-mouth, and though Indira keeps busy with 6-10 clients visiting weekly and 50-60 homes to cover regularly, she cannot survive on her earning as a nangini alone. She has a day job, which is why she is reluctant to have a photograph taken. "I don't want my name and picture in the paper, everyone will recognise me.l feel shy," she pleads.
The final touch is the traditional alta, a red liquid said to have cooling antiseptic properties. Indira paints a ring around the outside of each foot and over each nail. In 10 minutes she has finished her work, using only her nangini, water, sprinkles of brick dust and a splash of alta. Everything fits neatly into a small pouch she tucks into her handbag.
As Indira turns to leave, so many questions remain unanswered. These are queries that she herself cannot answer: like whether one day there would be no more nanginis left. To that she smiles and says, "No matter how small our numbers become, whatever happens, as long as the rituals survive, we will too."