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…