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Blacklight: Anarchy in the Afternoon

Reetu glanced at the wall clock again and grumbled. ‘Even the clocks have spider webs on them. When is the last time someone used a broom here? Customers are charged an arm and a leg…Fancy wallpapers all around, no shortage of subterfuge but a big zero in cleanliness!’

Santosh didn’t respond. ‘Ma’am, you come now.’ He addressed instead the silent, much younger woman who was seated at the far end and had been obliviously flipping through a magazine. The only one among the ones waiting who hadn’t voiced any concern or objection.

‘When will my turn come?’ Reetu was further exasperated. ‘Call Mehmood. He knows me. Let me talk to him!’

The salon was teeming today. Diwali time is no joke, especially for this location. The City Center was always crowded, one of the most popular hangout malls.

‘Why can’t Savina write anything properly?’ Santosh let his frustration out at Jamal who had been sweeping behind the counter. ‘Tell her to not come to the job if she doesn’t care. No one can read a single line in the appointment book here.’

Jamal didn’t answer. He never did. Usually, he just smiled, but today, that wouldn’t have been prudent either. Santosh has been manning the desk single- handedly. Savina called sick on the worst day possible and Mehmood sir was out of town. Even Parvez had come in late. Meena had been juggling both hair and nail since morning.

‘Ma’am, will you have tea or coffee?’ Jamal thought of asking the woman who had refused to take a seat and was insisting on calling Mehmood Sir. But he couldn’t. He had never asked a customer directly. Santosh should…

‘Reetu ma’am. Come.’ Meena stepped out of the facial room just in time, almost startling the woman.

‘Meena. Thank god you are here! These folks are useless.’ Reetu side-eyed Santosh who had escorted the other woman to the wash station not too far away and was now intently washing her hair.

‘Sorry, ma’am. You please come.’

Meena was visibly exhausted. Sweat beads clustered on her forehead, plastering her bangs. Among all the things, the AC in the backroom had been malfunctioning today too. But Meena’s smile was unfazed. Jamal knew Meena would ask for tea for the client in a minute. Should he sneak in a cup for Meena, too? He couldn’t decide…

‘Jamal, get coffee for Ma’am. Ma’am doesn’t like tea. Right, ma’am?’ Meena interrupted Jamal’s thoughts.

‘Yes.’ Reetu said. At last, a hint of happiness could be heard in her voice. It had been a stressful afternoon. She followed Meena to her chair, flopping her bag down.

‘How do you want the hair this time ma’am? Same?’

‘Do something different. And it better be good. You guys killed me with the waiting today. Can you see what state I am in? I feel the sweat glands bursting almost. I got my make-up done at home and it’s ruined now. I have to go to the party directly from here and this is…’

‘Don’t worry ma’am, I will fix the make-up too. Pre-Diwali party right? Meera interrupted politely, and then addressed Jamal who was already back with coffee. ‘Get the standing fan here for ma’am.’ Jamal left to oblige.

‘Do you want any food, ma’am? Patties or sandwich? We can get you something.’

‘No, no! I ate already. Just get along with my hair, I need to be done soon.’

Meera could feel the bile churning a bit in her own stomach thinking of food. It was way past lunchtime. Reetu ma’am read her thought as if. ‘When did you eat?’ She asked.

‘We eat at home and come, ma’am. Most of us. Need to take early morning train and then bus from Sealdah to get here by 10.’

‘You don’t eat lunch here?’ Reetu was curious. Her mind; now freed from the devastating worry of getting terribly delayed for the Chatterjee party, could focus on other things. The coffee was good too, and the fan was helping.

‘Yes, Ma’am. I bring some lunch. Will eat at the break.’

Reetu looked up at the dome over her head, pouring steam incessantly. Meena should have been back by now. Her hair must have been long set.

‘Go get lunch.’ She had insisted herself when she had been set under the steamer. But it seemed like forever now. Reetu looked around. Only the rude idiot from the desk earlier was around – massaging a client’s head. Where was everyone else? All of them took lunch break at once? Where did the other clients go? Good deeds don’t go unpunished! Reetu thought to herself. She was only one stuck here – still not done…

‘Come ma’am.’ Meena hurried back in from somewhere, wiping her hands on her apron.

‘Did you wash your hands well?’ Reetu asked sternly, feeling a bit annoyed now at herself for her earlier lapse in judgment.

‘Yes, ma’am. Of course. We wash the lunch boxes, too.’ Meena stopped abruptly. The last piece of information probably shouldn’t have been shared.

‘That’s why it takes you all forever. Doing your chores while clients wait.’ Meena’s fingers were now frantically styling through Reetu’s hair, relaxing her. ‘What did you have for lunch? Beef?’ Reetu continued.

‘No ma’am. Of course, not! Daal and rice. Can’t afford meat for daily lunch.’

‘But you eat at dinner? During weekends? Or just during Eid?’

Meena looked around, then smiled softly with her head down. Not responding. Jamal was back too, sweeping around the stations, gathering the hair. He didn’t look up either.

Reetu caught the silence. ‘How do you eat that stuff? Doesn’t it smell? I can’t even stand mutton sometimes.’ She sneered. ‘But anyways. None of my business. This is Kolkata after all. You guys have a free hand for all sorts of anarchy here.’ Reetu closed her eyes, soaking in the comfort of the fingers working on her head that hadn’t paused through her dialogue.

Reetu Bajaj stepped out of City Center just before dusk with impeccable hair and a mostly happy demeanor. She looked just like she had wanted to, and she had tipped well – in spite of the mismanagement today.

‘Don’t bring lunch from home anymore.’ Santosh instructed the crew. ‘Finish shift an hour early. Go grab snacks if you need to. Or bring biscuits and dry stuff from home. Less jhanjhat for you all, too. No washing, tiffins, etc. Rice makes us drowsy in the afternoon anyway…’

Meena, Jamal, and all listened on silently…

Note: This is the first piece my regular column for Cafe Dissensus which will be called Blacklight (a.k.a Black light), a UVA light used for finding scorpions at night. It makes visible what lies hidden in plain sight.

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