“Hello ma’am, my name is Maha* and I am from Home Salon. Where can I start preparing for your services?”
For me, an India trip is incomplete without some pampering — massages, facials, the works. This time around, my sister-in-law mentioned a new ‘app’ called Home Salon – a company which places individual salon professionals with clients. Maha was the professional salon lady who was going to pamper me for the next two hours with a much-needed facial and a pedicure.
“Ma’am, kya aap acting karte hai? / Do you act?”
“Haha, no I don’t.” I said, smiling, while staring at this pretty doe-eyed petite, dark beauty sitting in front of me. “Maha, how long have you been doing this salon work? Do you like it?”
And thus started two hours of a conversation, which ended with a jarring, eye-opening viewpoint of the atrocities faced by many, especially women. Not wanting to belabor and write the entire conversation down, here is a gist of 30-year old Maha’s life (or can it be even called one?)
Maha, the eldest of 4 kids, is a regular Muslim girl who wasn’t too interested in academics growing up, and wasn’t exactly pushed to study or finish college (after all they needed to educate the others, and educating the girl child wasn’t a high priority). She studied until the 10th standard, and was promptly married at 18. Her husband was well-to-do, and she didn’t need to work and was generally happy — she said all of this with what might border between civility or affection — I couldn’t figure out which. She then gave birth to quintuplets at age 24 (4 girls and a boy). One of the girls passed away due to double pneumonia at age 2.
I was sad to hear that. But that wasn’t enough.
Three years ago, the entire family visited their native village in northern India (near Delhi) to resolve a family land dispute (as are rampant all over the country). Due to the conflict for the land, a total of 10 of her family members were murdered. Yes, murdered. This included her parents, her husband, father-in-law, sister-in-law, sister-in-law’s family, etc. She fled at that time, leaving her 3-year old kids in separate locations in order to somehow keep them safe, and alive.
Maha is now the sole breadwinner of her little 200 square feet home in Vashi. Her mother-in-law survived the massacre, but lives with her now and needs a lot of care. Maha pays for her sisters and brothers educations, sews formal attire for her sister, practices hair and bridal makeup, takes care of her 4 kids, and trudges to multiple clients all over the City of Dreams through the Home Salon Services.
When I asked her if she likes the work, she said she was disillusioned. When she started working, she really liked it, and then quickly realized that she was getting the short end of the stick. Home Salon, takes 75% of her earnings for their booking and placement fee (this HAS to be illegal). Maha pays for her own transport, and buys her own products for the salon services. All Home Salon does, is place her with the clients. She has looked at other options (like salon services in some major hotels) but they need her to be a college graduate or get certified, or pay them Rs. 1.5 lakhs so they can teach her in-house. (She asked me while I had a mask on my face — “Ma’am, undergraduate ka matlab kya hai?/Ma’am, what does undergraduate mean?”)
Oh, Love! I couldn’t help but scramble my mind for possible options for this industrious girl trying to make her ends meet.
She then asked me how old I was, and was surprised to learn my age and that I was single. She told me why I hadn’t married and had kids yet. I explained how I had come close but I didn’t want to “just” do it to appease the societal norms. And I didn’t have kids yet, but if I couldn’t have any of my own in the future (which very well might be the case), I would just adopt one. On hearing that she said, “Arre ma’am, aisa hai toh mere hi le lo/ Oh Ma’am, in that case, adopt one of mine!”
I was aghast hearing that. “Maha, how can you even say that? They are YOUR kids! Have you considered remarrying since you obviously need help with the kids? You’re just 30 after all.”
She said, “Kya bolu madam. Jo milta hai, usey sirf ek hi cheez chahiye. Aur akeli aurat par toh sab ki nazar rehti hai / What can I say, ma’am, whoever meets me only wants one thing. After all, everyone keeps an eye on a single woman.” She proceeded to tell me how she has never felt secure as a woman, has never had a positive male role model, never liked her life and is now at a point where she wants to give up and die.
Maha was raped at age 9… by her own father. When she told her mother, she blamed Maha for ‘tempting’ him. This was something that was ongoing until she got married. She finally put a stop to it, and stopped visiting her parents when she found her father molesting one of her daughters! (Mind you, that kid was less than 3 years old at the time!)
Maha said her husband was a good provider while he was alive, but he had a terrible anger. During one of his fits, he burned her… badly. (She proceeded to show the subtly hidden burnt underside of her arms, and then pointed to her torso. I could see skin with third-degree burns under her neck and on her arms.)
After her husband died, her maternal and paternal uncles had made several advances towards her, which she has managed to successfully shunt so far. But it hasn’t stopped all random men from hitting on her – just because she is alone.
My heart hurt listening to her. This girl had gone through so much in such a short life. And she seemed to be hanging on by a thread, and somehow still had a shred of optimism lurking beneath. I asked her then, why do you persist to live in Mumbai? It wasn’t like she had any support from her extended family, and Mumbai is an expensive city. She could easily move base – away from these creepy, disgusting eyes and hands, to even something as close as Pune. The home salon services would probably give her the same amount of clientele, and maybe more money and peace. She looked at me incredulously, like she had never even considered that option before (which she hadn’t). With a new shine in her eyes, she told me she would think of it. I don’t know if she will truly think and change courses of her otherwise hurtful life, but I truly hope she finds a way.
Once we wrapped up, I paid for the services and gave her a heftier tip (by Indian standards, but not so from the American ones). She then turned her doe eyes at me, saying that it was way too much. I waved her off, and offered to drop her to her next client’s location since I was taking a cab the same way.
Some of the last words she said during our cab ride were, “Ma’am, aap yahan (India) mein nahi rehte, right? Aapki bolne ki adaa se khyaal aa jaata hai. Pata nahi aapse wapis milna hoga ki nahi, lekin mujhe kabhi aap jaisa koi mila nahi. Bahut kam clients hotey hai jo kabhi itni tehzeeb se baat karte hai. Main toh aapko sirf do ghanton se jaanti hoon, aur main toh aapki fan ban gayi hoon. Thank you!”/ “Ma’am you don’t live here in India, right? The way you speak and conduct yourself made me think so. I don’t know if I will be able to cross paths with you again, but I can truly say that I have never met anyone like you. There are very few clients who treat service persons like us with respect and niceties. I only know you from two hours, but I am already a big fan. Thank you!”
Maha, I don’t know what is in store for you, but I do hope that it is something good. You deserve it. Life is way too cruel for some. Losing one’s innocence this early in life, and being disillusioned is not the way one should live. However, I hope you remember —
“Some women fear the fire, and some simply become it…
– R.H. Sin”
*For the purposes of retaining some privacy, her name is changed to Maha for this post. I wish her well and I hope she is safe.