My visits to the quiet hairdressing salon that proclaims, “Only for ladies, male clients will not be entertained,” and is run by an iron-hand ‘madam’ of undefined age and unchanging physique, provides me with tantalising opportunities to eavesdrop. This is unavoidable as trimming, teasing, streaking and styling of hair, waxing, threading and depilatory battles against stubborn, undesirable hair growth, manicures, pedicures, and even massage take place in a common room. Two facing walls have floor-to-ceiling mirrors while the third exhibits photographs of bejewelled females attired in red, heads covered with ornate dupattas, eyes demurely downcast under disciplined eyebrows, all as unique as peas in a pod, prepared for the most important day in a woman’s life.
Women sit facing the mirrored walls with hair in different stages of preparation and feet, emerging beneath pulled up jeans, stylish pyjamas or baggy shalwars, plunged in basins of water. Pitiless mirrors reflect their images ad infinitum, and provide eye contact during conversations. Madam and her team of ‘girls’ move between the women asking about their families, supplying cups of tea and coffee, and toiling to beautify different parts of the female anatomy. The room is abuzz with conversations between myriads of reflected images.
A young woman with impressive hair wails that her hair is falling out in clumps. Madam reassures her that this is temporary due to “taking tension” over her impending wedding. All will be fine she says, recommending scalp massages with mustard oil, lemon and eggs. Nearby, an older woman comments with wistfulness tinged with cruelty, “Beti, wait until you reach my age”. In another chair sits a teenager, tears rolling down her cheeks, convinced that her life is ‘ruined’. Her haircut has not turned out anything like the one sported by a model whose picture she has brought along. Madam hurries over saying that her hair looks bilkul (exactly) like that of the model, and then walks back grumbling under her breath that girls of this age are so confused, don’t know what they want.
One woman complains how impossible Karachi is becoming. There is neither electricity (thank God for the large generator I have just bought) nor water (Uff, how much I pay for water tankers). Her companion meets her eye in a sympathetic mirror and speaks of the law and order situation getting worse by the day. Her neighbours were robbed and “the aged, heart patient Khan sahib”, alone at home with his wife, nearly collapsed. But the robbers had enough tameez to help him to a chair and give him a glass of water, and waited until his wife had finished reciting Sura Yasin before cleaning out their cash.
Another relates that her friend was robbed but the robbers did not touch the gold bangles she was wearing as they “respected” womenfolk. Removing their bangles would be against our culture, they said, and advised her friend to cover her head with a dupatta. Another narrates that her driver’s motorbike was taken at gunpoint but the thieves gave him enough cash to catch a bus home. There is a brief silence as the honourable behaviour of Karachi’s thieves is pondered upon.
A woman then notes that it is wrong to rob others but they should be given credit for not forgetting cultural values. A woman quietly reading a newspaper and smoking a cigarette in the far corner of the room glances up with a faint smile and returns to her newspaper. An older woman is unimpressed with these gentlemanly traits.
Her nephew (I keep telling him not to keep so much cash at home but who listens to elders) was robbed during Ramazan just after sehri. Three men drove up in a big car and the guard (a very uncivil man) thinking they were guests opened the gate. The nephew’s wife (I keep telling her to talk moqa mahal daikh kar but it goes in one ear and out of the other) lectured the men about robbing people during the holy month. They retorted that “Auntie, we have to survive. We too are Muslims and also fasting.” But they found empty water glasses later meaning that the thieves were also liars, she says.
Three sisters discuss a widow claiming loss of her savings when the government discontinued 500-rupee notes. The oldest sister is horrified as the savings were meant for the marriage of the widow’s daughters, “an important obligation on all Muslims”. She recalls what she went through for her daughter’s marriage. “Oh, the money you need — the two mehndis, the milad and qawwali and the rukhsati dinner.”
Her sister mentions Pakistani generosity following the weeping widow’s appearance on TV. “Apa, mashallah, so many people have sent money to her. Inshallah she will have enough to get her daughters married.” “Alhamdulillah,” says Apa. The youngest of the trio interrupts her texting to remark that the whole thing was merely a scam and the widow now says she wanted money to perform Hajj. A shocked Apa exclaims, “Hai-hai, astaghfarullah,” and lapses into silence, and then says, “Bhai, Haj is also an important duty for Muslims.”
On my way out I pass a woman with legs outstretched, cotton pads inserted between splayed toes, the shade of nail polish making her toenails appear cyanotic. She congratulates her friend on her advertising agency who responds that nothing is easy here. To make a clip featuring cows for a new brand of imported milk, she had to travel to Switzerland. The cyanotic-toed woman says there are cows in Punjab and Sindh, no? Her friend sighs, “Yes but they are not pretty like Swiss cows. And baba, the tension of shooting a video in villages here? I don’t know how people can live in this awful country.”
Driving home, I notice that because of some strike the roads were deserted which are normally streaming with chaotic traffic and, magically, cricket pitches have sprouted on deserted streets. Boisterously disputed matches are under way with young men scoring runs splashing through rain water puddles that reflect images of wooden sticks serving as wickets. Passing by a park, I see families sitting under trees and children shrieking with laughter, chasing balls and wrestling on the grass. Vendors are selling food, balloons and tin whistles on hand carts. And there are kites flying in the blue skies of Karachi.