Smoking regulations are lax in Pakistan. Tahira baji would perch on a stool behind the reception counter and puff away at her Marlboro light. She is short, dark, and mostly has her hair straightened and streaked with light brown. She is usually in good shape and attributes her healthy weight to green tea. In recent years she has started wearing a dupatta over her head every now and then. The Bollywood music had also gradually been replaced by regular TV dramas. During Ramadan and other auspicious religious days she would put on the Arabic channel.
Parlors are great places for gossip. It seems like facials, haircuts and dyes are stimuli to reveal neighborhood secrets and share family regrets. As soon as the black gown is thrown around you and Pinky gently tips your head down to cut off the split ends – “I can’t believe my son married her. She refuses to even walk near the kitchen let alone enter it! I seriously doubt if she even knows how to make tea.”
Or you lean back with your eyes closed, your skin tingling beneath the white cream smeared on your face. “My daughter is going to Thailand for her honeymoon. I wanted them to go to Mauritius but the tickets have become so expensive you know…”
Tahira baji listens with a sympathetic ear, giving her suggestions every now and then, switching between Punjabi and Urdu depending on her clients. With her regulars she asks about their daughters and grandchildren.
She must be in her early 40s now. She started working in a parlor when she was barely 18 years old, attending beauty classes and learning the trade on the go. A few years in she was able to open her own parlor, near my house in DHA. She started small, hiring a couple of girls and teaching them everything. Like any other job, there is a hierarchy. From the girls who thread eyebrows and chins and make tea for everyone else, to waxing and facials and then haircuts. Finally there is the position of overlooking everything, which is what Tahira baji does now. Every now and then when there are a lot of clients and not enough staff, she will stand up, cut hair or if you’re a favorite client she would apply dye.
She is a good manager, I think, authoritative, chiding her staff frequently, delegating effectively. But she cares about the girls, making sure they get safe transport back home, understanding when they need a sick day and keeping good relations with the girls’ families.
Tahira baji always seems composed, a slight air of nonchalance that I attribute to the cigarette. She is always in good spirits – I guess one has to be in a job like this.
“She has worked so hard,” my mother would say, admiration and sympathy blended together in her voice. She was the only person bringing in any income for her family of seven for many, many years. There wasn’t a father in the picture and as the eldest of three daughters and a son, Tahira baji realized she had a lot to do. All the money she earns goes to her family – rent, grocery, education and so on. She singlehandedly married off her two sisters and a cousin (who used to work at her parlor too), arranging the events and the dowry.
“She always had so much responsibility, her own marriage was never a priority.” My mother sighs. “She still looks after her brother who has no head for education!”
Tahira baji’s parlor isn’t particularly impressive – small, curtains instead of doors for the waxing cubicles, tubs for pedicures. Tahira baji, on the other hand, is more impressive than any other polished owner of a polished parlor.