In second year English lit, we studied an anthology of Indian women authors called Inner Courtyard. Named thus, because the inner courtyard of an old-fashioned Indian home – aangan, ungunn, zanaana whatever you call it in your culture and mother tongue – was traditionally a space for the women of the house. To sit and braid their hair, gossip, nap, bond and laugh freely. And by freely, I mean, without the unconscious editing of these behaviours that would otherwise happen in the presence of men.
But as homes shrunk, so did personal spaces. And the inner courtyard gave way to its more modern cousin: the beauty parlour. Where Indian ladies of the comparatively liberated 70s and 80s made their way, in search of the same things their forebears did: a little time and space away from being a wife, a mother, a daughter or a daughter-in-law. Where you could sit with nice-smelling goop on your face, read a magazine with ads about these new-fangled things called sanitary napkins and get your feet massaged by a woman with considerable forearm strength.
(Men did not get this, presumably. What else could explain the prevalance of “oh, you went to the parlour you say? But I don’t see any difference, har har.” The concept that the difference in the woman was something for you to spot boggles the mind. But as always, I digress.)
So, women went to parlours to get away from the Sturm und Drang (See: second year, English lit) of their homes and if they came back looking prettier, that was always a bonus. Yes, the haircut, the facial, the pedicure, was always the overt reason behind the parlour visit, but the implicit need was for an hour or two of not being asked what happened to Mowgli’s parents or why there was so much salt in the bhindi last night.
No, you sat in your chair, while the parlour woman told you what to do for your acne, and gossiped about other regulars and for a blissful few hours, you were quite literally, lost to the world of men.
Obviously, it was too good to last.
Because some asshole decided to fix what wasn’t broken in the first place and came up with the idea of unisex salons. Because if men and women are equal, and women can work in offices, then surely men can work in salons?
Yes, but, we said. Nobody listened. The sound of their own wokeness was deafening, probably.
So now you go to a salon, the receptionist smiles apologetically and says none of their female attendants are available, would madam like to try Suresh, he’s very good too.
And you want to say, no, madam would not like to try Suresh, thank you very much. Madam doesn’t find the idea of a calf massage by a random man very relaxing. Madam was looking forward to forgetting men exist for the next half hour and unfortunately Suresh looks very much like a man, his hot pink apron notwithstanding.
But no, you’re a 21st century woman. A feminist. With unshaved legs, because it’s fucking winter and you shouldn’t be expected to shave if you’re going to hibernate in jeans for three months.
So you shrug and say ‘Fine’. And sit with your jeans rolled to the knee as Suresh wonders aloud when your last pedicure was, gives you an unnecessary smirk when you say ‘A while ago’ and asks if you need a leg wax after this. And you try not to notice that the man sitting in the chair next to yours, getting a pedicure from your favourite, female, attendant, is stealing glances at you in the mirror. And deep in your independent, woman-of-the-world heart you yearn for the simplicity of the inner courtyard.