Warm my handsThe feeling is packed with familiarity and yet it is alarming with someone’s elbow going over her face, some crotch pressed to her side and someone’s garlic breath upon her hair.
When Kalpana first held hands with her future husband, her mind drifted from across the flat fields of her home town to the wide streets of Kathmandu, which was soon to be her new home. She stood up, looked at his face and smiled, the wheat-packed belly of the field spread behind him looked like a golden curtain and she wished they could have a photo taken of that moment. She thought, maybe a new phone with a good camera will be possible in Kathmandu and I can post lots of pictures on Facebook.
A year since that moment, Kalpana finds herself in the enclosed room of a certain parlour in Kathmandu. No, she isn’t getting her eyebrows done and neither is she getting a haircut. It is where she works now. Ten to Five.
“The working hours are not so bad, actually,” she says at first. “The money is not that great, but my employer says there will be tips.”
In her hometown, Kalpana had trained to peel eyebrows using thread, to heat wax in tin containers and pull them off with cloth strips and to massage the face and shoulders of women as they lay down for a facial session. Her friends had advised it was the best skill to pick before heading to Kathmandu. “Easy to find jobs,” they had said. “And if you’re going to go abroad, even better. Women do really well at beauty parlours.”
Now in Kathmandu, Kalpana finds that things run contrary to the narrative she had heard on repeat back home.
She had spent a few weeks in Kathmandu visiting relatives as a child and so of course she knew the city. But the Kathmandu that met her in her guise as an adult has felt distant, claustrophobic and indifferent. Bus rides are no longer breezy, but an ordeal. She struggles to find space to even stand without being crushed by other passengers most days. The feeling is packed with familiarity and yet it is alarming with someone’s elbow going over her face, some crotch pressed to her side and someone’s garlic breath upon her hair. Sometimes, during bus rides she shuts her eyes until the conductor shouts: Balaju! Balaju!
Five thousand rupees a month. The vermin! Kalpana sighs throughout bus rides.
In the first few weeks at the parlour, work seemed like a place to hang out with other women, gossip, eat buff momo for a hundred and fifty rupees once a week. Mostly, a bowl of spicy WaiWai with chana for sixty rupees. Kalpana found her feelings bordering on a familiar excitement, like the one she felt during her school days, when stealing moments away with her childhood friends.
Within less than two months of work at the parlour, Kalpana says her duties soon began to evolve. The owner lady told her that business was slow and shutters were coming down in the city and she had to think of a way to keep it going. She said she would either have to sell the place or reinvent.
Kalpana had worried at that time that selling the business would mean she would be laid off. The three thousand rupees a month that she was able to save after paying for bus fare and khaja would be gone. These days, she sometimes wishes the owner lady had actually sold or closed down her business. That didn’t happen, of course.
Her employer quickly turned things round. She added a sign to the business saying “massage”. And the high beds they were formerly using to provide facial services soon turned into massage tables. The lady took turns training all three girls who worked alongside Kalpana, showing them where to press, where to apply force, where to knead, where to rub and where to roll.
In her new role as a masseuse, Kalpana sometimes finds that the persons she is assisting are no longer just women. There are sometimes men-- often, pot-bellied, middle-aged men who come in quietly and leave in a shuffle.
“One time, this man asked me for an inappropriate kind of service and I didn’t know if I was mad or frightened. I walked out of the room and called Didi. But Didi said some clients are hard to please and she replaced me for the rest of the session.”
Kalpana’s hands are tiny, like those of a schoolgirl and one cannot imagine how such small hands could even cover the span of a calf or work their way across the spine. Tiny hands.
“My husband doesn’t know. He still thinks this is a parlour, which it is, too. He might kill me if he knows I’ve been working as a masseuse also. Marnu huncha. If I could find another job, I’d leave. Even as house help.”
Some days I think I’ll wake up one morning, leave for work, get on the bus from Balaju and just keep going, fall asleep on the bus, buy some badam and suntala, eat them on the bus, then sleep again and go back home at six. They would never know, right? I mean, until the money runs out?”
Suburban Tales is a monthly column in Nepali Times based on real people (with some names changed) in Pratibha’s life.