A Pandemic and A Parlor
It was not going to be a happy festive season. That part was given. But at least it could have been a pretty one. Seema had never had to deal with such dilemma. Not getting waxing done, manicure, and even eye-brows for so long wasn’t fun anymore. And it definitely wasn’t a good look. Seema frowned at the mirror again. They had said that it’d be over by now. And even if it wasn’t, what big deal was it anyways? People die in this nation every day…
Maybe because this time, they can track the deaths to everywhere. Maybe because this time, death was being agnostic. It wasn’t dengue in Delhi anymore. Or the hapless dying of hunger. This wasn’t the cancer or cirrhosis which, thanks to widespread pollution, had permeated every family. Whatever. It didn’t make sense to be callous about it. But it didn’t make sense to be not callous either…
Seema picked up the phone.
‘Hi ma’am, after so long you have called.’
Seema new Natasha’s voice. She also knew what Natasha would say next. ‘The usual ma’am? Hair spa, mani-pedi, and threading?’
‘I don’t know.’ Seema hesitated. Her response couldn’t be the usual anymore. ‘You are open full-time, huh? Just like usual?’
‘Yes ma’am. Bilkul. We have been open for over a month now. We use masks and all, and also we are cleaning all the time as usual.’
Seema couldn’t remember if they were ‘cleaning all the time’ usually. But yes, the salon was mostly spotless – she wouldn’t have been a regular otherwise. The towels did have old marks often…
’Who are all coming to work?’ She asked.
‘The usual ma’am,’ Natasha paused on the other side, ‘everyone has joined back.’
Seema hesitated a bit. ‘What about Ruksana? And that other girl? They come from villages, right? They weren’t local as far as I remember.’
‘Yes, ma’am, Ruksana has joined too. But Payal has quit. Would you like an appointment with Ruksana ma’am? We can get you in this week only.’
Natasha had obviously misunderstood her intent.
‘Well, how many people there are going back – travelling…you know…I mean, who are all we can be sure are…you know, lower risk?’
There was silence on the other end. ‘All of them ma’am,’ the silence dispersed at last,‘we check temperatures every morning. We also make sure they all wear masks We have an air purifier running too ma’am - a Hitachi one …top brand.’
Seema couldn’t find the right words. ‘Book me a half-day appointment for Friday,’ she said at last.
‘Is it necessary?’ Rushil didn’t look up. Work from home had had further effect on his anyways always down on his phone neck. He was looking into his monitor instead of his phone these days, but his neck slump somehow had stayed the same.
‘You went out to Shikdar’s house for drinks and cards, didn’t you? I didn’t say anything then. I stayed home putting the kids to bed. So how come suddenly you care?’
‘That’s different Seema, you know that. This is really unnecessary.’
‘Really?’ Seema realized she should stop herself, or else, this would turn into another fight. There just too many these days, she didn’t have the energy for another one. But she couldn’t not say.
‘How’s this different? You need a break, but I don’t?’
‘You can go chat with someone in the colony. Have people come over…cook some meals for our friends…going to a parlor is not the only way.’
‘It’s my choice. I want to do what makes me happy.’
‘C’mon Seema. You know the risks are different. All kinds of people come to parlors. And their workers- they are not like us - they will probably be mostly coming from slums – or some other close quarters… These people are poor Seema. They are getting exposed all the time… you can’t expect them to be hygienic. They have bigger things to worry about.’
‘What do you want?’ Natasha didn’t have patience for the staff just standing. She was worried, very worried. Navratri didn’t bring what she had hoped for. Neither had Karwa Chauth. Mr. Mukherjee was going to be furious. He was ready to pull the plug last week.
‘This location is draining money Natasha. The rent is high. And all the rich folks you thought would be willing to pay the price for quality, are actually spendthrifts. Meagre even. They’d get eye-brows done from street side barbers if they could. The mall locations can survive this pandemic – a satellite one won’t.’
‘I spoke to Ma’am last week sir. She said she will give me some more time.’
‘Your ma’am will say anything. What does she know of business? Women. I tell you.’
Most of Mr. Mukherjee’s conversations ended with this phrase. But Natasha never wondered if she should point out the obvious. Folks like her weren’t expected to have genders. She knew that.
Ruksana had now been standing for a good five minutes without a word.
‘Didi…I … I can do a few more clients. Meena is getting all the haircuts and the facials. She doesn’t even know facial… clients are waiting.’ Ruksana eyed the empty waiting area as she spoke.
‘Yeah right. We get five a day maximum these days.’
‘Yes…but didi…all five goes to Meena. Everyday. I have had no tips since we opened. The daily train fare, travelling for an hour to get here…’
‘That’s exactly why you don’t have clients. Trains are the worst. You expect people to want to be near you after you have squeezed yourself out of compartments filled with thousands?’ Natasha softened a bit catching sight of the remorse in Ruksana’s eyes. She looked even smaller than usual. Ashamed. Embarrassed. Things were tough for Ruksana. She travelled daily from Srirampore, not an east commute pandemic or no pandemic. And she had mouths to feed. Meena stayed just a block away and walked to work. That’s what Natasha herself had pitched to a few clients to assure them. Yes, Meena stayed in a slum. But people didn’t care for details…
‘We use local workers. We know where they stay. We track them. We will know if anyone in their household is sick.’ The clients reacted well to that. Everyone wanted to come back. They were just looking for an excuse…any excuse…to be able to …But off-course, the clientele here was mostly locals. Repeat customers. The staff had chit chatted with them since the location had opened. So not everyone could be passed off suddenly as a local...
‘Just wait for a few more weeks. Be patient. Help with cleaning in the meantime. And please, I have work to do.’ Natasha didn’t have to look up to know that Ruksana would leave now.
‘Are you sure you have to go so soon?’
Meera asked again as she buttoned her blouse. She was getting tired of these lunch time rendezvous. Ever since this started, they were having to meet at the old apartment and the place was unkempt and filthy. But with both of their spouses home now full time, there wasn’t a choice. The bigger problem was finding an excuse to disappear for an hour. Prashant was not happy.
‘Your son is sick. Which office is doing in-person meetings still?’ Meera felt guilty remembering Sagar’s little face. The boy had had fever now for the third straight day. And today, Prashant had been looking like he wasn’t doing that great either. He was snapping more than his usual too. She wondered if she should mention to Rushil.
‘Are you even listening, Rushil?’ Meera looked up.
He clearly wasn’t. He had tied his shoes up already.
Seema thought if she should cancel the appointment. But it was just a cough… who didn’t cough in this city?
‘So, you are going?’ Rushil walked into the room interrupting her thoughts. He hadn’t stepped out since Tuesday - God only knew why. Few hours during the day was his go to. Seema had been relying on him not being home when she stepped out – she had scheduled the appointment accordingly. Anything to avoid another squabble. But well, as luck would have it…
‘Why are you home?’ Seema tried to change the topic. ‘Don’t you have to go wherever you need to go these days?’
Rushil ignored her, walking back into the bedroom instead and pulling himself into the sheets. What is wrong with him? It was unlike him to hit the bed before one am, let alone during the day. But Seema would take it. Maybe he will just doze off – that will allow her enough time to be back without having to answer why it took her so long and all that other crap…
Seema stepped out of the apartment happy, muffling the bout of cough that could have ruined her chance of doing so silently.
Natasha looked at Ruksana. It had been ten minutes already. At normal times, she’d have bashed her. But who cared these days? There wasn’t much that needed to be done. Besides, she was talking to her daughter it seemed. She talked to her children often these days. Natasha knew why. They were all out of school these days. Natasha didn’t know what exactly was going on with district schools, but there was no way these children were learning online. Natasha didn’t want to risk asking. Ruksana could ask for a loan or some money to help get her kids online. Who knew? She had asked yesterday if it’d help if she brought her children to the city with her and they all bunked here for a few nights. She expected Natasha to let them sleep in the parlor…
‘Where is everyone? It looks emptier than a graveyard.’ Seema pushed in through the glass doors.
‘Ma’am please come in,’ Natasha jumped up.
‘How was it, ma’am?’
Seema looked happy, but Natasha wasn’t sure. She had had to assign Ruksana. Meena had had to rush out just before Seema ma’am had come in. It wasn’t their fault completely - Seema had come in one hour earlier – but ma’am had been furious, nevertheless. Natasha was surprised when she saw Seema slipping the fifty rupees to Ruksana. But then, ma’am did look fabulous. Ruksana was very good, and they had done their best to have hot drinks served to ma’am who definitely needed that today. She had been having some sort of allergy she said, taking off her mask to help with frequent bouts of coughing.
‘Good,’ Seema responded, still admiring herself. The glass back of the reception area highlighted with mood lights made her look even prettier. ‘The girl does good work. But don’t keep her around too long…see my coughing has worsened already… God knows what germs she might have passed on.’ Seema stopped. Her throat wasn’t feeling so good…she needed to be back home…
‘Di? Won’t you go home?’ Ruksana entered. She had finished cleaning up it seemed. Natasha had lost track of time thinking. She was going to have to talk to Mr. Mukherjee to fire Ruksana as a cost cutting option. She did good work, but no one wanted to risk it anymore…
‘Ruksana, I need to say something to you.’ She said to the eagerly waiting face which was now cleared of the gloom of the past weeks.
Ruksana entered home one hour past her usual time. Usual time these days that is. One blessing out of this misery. All three ran to her, like every day. ‘I have something,’ she opened her palm. The note shone. Her tips money had always been for her children. She handed it to them every night and Fatima, her eldest, took upon accounting and budgeting of the few hundred rupees. From needs, to any left for wishes, the siblings shared. But they seldom burst into laughter like they did today, catching sight of a mere fifty rupees. Tomorrow…She didn’t know what it’d bring. But today, they had everything…