From Cleaner to Beautician
In a dusty Kolkata bus, a petite lady neatly clad in a sari lifts a huge bag and prepares to disembark. The bus stops outside a swish multi storey and she gets off, walking swiftly towards the gates. The security at the main gate waves her through – she is a weekly visitor, sometimes bi- weekly to this complex.
She makes her way to one of the towers and gets into the lift. Her 12 hour work day has just begun.
Sharada** is a beautician. She visits the homes of well to do upper middle class ladies in Kolkata where she rejuvenates and refreshes them with massages, skin treatments and various other therapies. Her large and cavernous bag is filled with all types of creams and lotions – from companies like Shahnaz Hussain and Lotus Herbals. As she expertly goes about her job, she whips out a bottle or a tube, all the while assuring her client “Madam, just see after I have finished. You will notice a huge difference.”
When Sharada enters a clients home, she never looks at the clock. She will not leave until every service has been completed, which can run upto 5 at a time. Her mandate is simple – she needs to make sure her client is feeling good and refreshed, otherwise they will not need her services anymore. She sits patiently while the lady of the house gives a dressing down to the cook, or takes a call from a friend, or reprimands her children. Almost zen like in her manner, she exudes calm and restfulness.
It is no wonder then, that Sharada has around 40 to 50 clients and earns anything between INR 40000 to 50000 per month. What makes Sharada so remarkable is that she dropped out of school in Class 6 and has never been certified as a beautician. She grew up in a shanty town on the outskirts of Kolkata in a family where education for girls was a luxury. At age of 14 her mother felt that rather sit around cooking and cleaning, perhaps her daughter could be put to more gainful employment. Her first job was in the local beauty parlour where she was asked to sweep and clean up after the other staff. Call it a natural proclivity or a diversion from the squalor she was used to, Sharada found all the goings on in the parlour fascinating and new and exciting. In the midst of sweeping up hair or throwing away soiled water, she would stand and watch for a few minutes – facials, pedicures, massages – and itch to do the same as well. Noticing her interest, the owner began to call Sharada over “to observe and learn” as she worked her magic on different clients. Before long, Sharada was subbing for other employees – at first simple jobs – and later more complex ones. Her pay she says never increased, and she did not think to ask for more! But the more she did, the more she learnt and the more she fell in love with her job!
Well, before long Sharada fell in love – with a local boy who drove autos for a living – and at the age of 17 she was married. At 19 she had her first child – a girl – who was followed by two boys in quick succession. A young mother, she had already given up her job at the parlour, and was living in a one room hovel. Her husband would leave in the morning, and come back late, presumably driving his auto but the unmistakable whiff of alcohol would not escape her at night.
A few years later, broke and fed up with an abusive, alcoholic husband, Sharada took the morning train to Kolkata and started doing the rounds of smaller salons looking for jobs. The best she could do was start from where she had left off – as a cleaner. After a year or so of cleaning, her employer finding herself short staffed and over booked, asked Sharada to do a small job on a client. That one incident had far greater ramifications for Sharada than she could imagine. Realizing that Sharada was no novice at this, her employer began to pass on a lot more work to her. Sharada says that she worked at the salon for 8 years, and almost forgot the time when all she did was sweep and clean.
In the meantime, her situation at home had gotten no better. Leaving her kids with her mother, she would return at night and be met with abuses from her husband. She says that he had doubts as to her line of work and to ease the situation would offer him money. She also wanted her children to have a better life, but with her current circumstances it did not seem possible.
She did not how to deal with her situation, but she still went into work everyday. One morning a client especially pleased with her work, asked if she could do a home visit. Not sure if this was possible, she checked with her employer. She agreed on the condition that Sharada would only visit clients whom her employer referred. She would be paid a regular salary, but would continue to be an employee of the salon. A few years later, Sharada, stuck with the same domestic situation as earlier, felt that maybe it was time for bolder decisions. She left the salon, citing personal reasons, and then paid a visit to those clients with whom she had developed a good rapport with over the years. All it takes is ONE – so one of her clients agreed to employ her services only for massages. A few weeks later, a friend of the client asked her to come by and start off with weekly massage sessions. Before long, Sharada had a sizeable list of clients for massages. She then began to request her regular clients to try her out for facials and hair spas. Thanks to keeping her eyes open at her old place of employment, she started visiting wholesale distributors of beauty products. She would purchase a few bottles of different creams and lotions, and would then show them to her clients. As their confidence in her abilities grew, before long she found herself booking day long appointments for beauty treatments. Things that clients would do in salons were now given to her. In the cool environs of their home, clients would relax glad to have escaped the dust and grime outside while being pampered and primped by Sharada.
Through her work Sharada has financed a house, two autorickshaws – one for her husband, another for her son, got her daughter married and sends her youngest son to private school (with tuitions in the evening). She has sent her two older children to private school as well, but they dropped out after failing their Class 10 exam. “Atleast they studied more than me” she says. “If I had stayed at home maybe my daughter would have studied up to Class 12, and my son would not roam around so much.”
She wakes up at 5 am, cleans, cooks, sets her house in order, before she leaves to the board the 10 am train to Kolkata. She boards the last train home at 9:30 pm. Ask her if she can’t get someone from her locality to help in the house and she laughs “They all have jobs in the city. Why will they want to work in my house?” Ask about getting her children to help out and she says, with less mirth this time “My children think it’s my job to clean. Their father tells them “Let your mother do it”. She expects no gratitude from her husband or children, because she realizes it will never come. So she does what she has to do. Like starting a small jewellery business on the side. Sharada visits the “Gold Bazaar” in Kolkata once a fortnight where she picks up small trinkets and sells to her clients at a mark up.
“My clients are all posh ladies” she says. “They like sitting in AC rooms and drinking tea. I also get to sit in a cool room, chat with my clients who talk to me about their life and do my job. They give me tea to drink and food to eat. They give me saris they no longer wear. In my job I have learnt it is important to dress well. So I always use only those saris which look nice. But I also have money to buy new saris!”
A few days prior to when I met Sharada, her eldest boy had left home and had not returned. She was on the phone quite a bit talking in calm tones. She told me she had cancelled her last appointment that day because she had to visit the police station to file a FIR so that they could look for her boy. I almost keeled over with shock, but Sharada told me “This has happened many times before. He will return. I know that. But everyone tells me file the FIR, just in case. Where will my son go? No one gives him money apart from me.” What about the autorickshaw she has bought him “He uses that to take his girlfriend around” she says nonchalantly.
She has pinned her hopes on her younger boy, who she says is more inclined to study than her other two children. But she is not holding her breath. “Boudi” she says “my clients are so rich, but they always tell me their children don’t listen to them. They say they don’t study, they stay out late and talk to them rudely. How am I any different from all those ladies? My children are the same.”
She had hoped that her daughter would study and work in an office in the city. Instead she chose to drop out at 16 and get married at 18. Her husband still thinks she is up to no good in the city, but it does not stop him from asking for money. And she gets only 4 – 5 hours of sleep a day. But as Sharada says “I am better off than my mother, atleast I make a lot of money. My children don’t respect me, my husband thinks I am a bank. But my ladies – they will call and ask me to come. So, I get up every morning and go to work. What more can I hope for?”
** Name and some other details have been changed to protect personal identity
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