I have been in numerous awkward, potentially perilous positions before. But this one beat them all. There I was: flat on my back, the marbled floor cold against my skin, my legs held immovable under the ample thighs of a hefty Pakistani woman squatting in the V of my parted legs. No, we were not tangled in a sumo wrestling dohyo, pitting our strengths and skills in some championship. The Pakistani woman was inspecting me as would my gynaecologist, except that she was not my gynaecologist. She was a ‘waxing woman’, and was about to apply hot, molten wax to my most sensitive of parts.
Suddenly, she paused. Butter-knife dipped in caramelised sugar, suspended like an executioner’s chopper over my lower belly, she queried: “Wayse meiN, aap kahaN ke haiN?” (By the way, where are you from?)
As an Indian in Pakistan, I debated the wisdom of stating the truth. Terrifying visions of ‘accidents’ involving my vulnerable ‘under-legs’ raced through my mind, along with a vivid flashback: My friend Ramesh, sitting in a chair while a bearded barber leans over him, swiping Ramesh’s jaws and neck with an ustra, a traditional knife-razor. An overhead TV is tuned to the Kashmir Channel, while the zealous barber is spewing vitriol against the Indians, the kafir Hindus. And Ramesh Tharwani, a Hindu from Sindh getting a much-needed shave in the mountains of northern Pakistan after trekking, is fretting: “This shave is getting way too close to my carotid for comfort.”
Ramesh had survived the encounter to later relate the anecdote to his Indian and Pakistani friends. The humour that had accompanied his yarn was missing in my recollection, however, laying apprehensively on the floor of my bedroom in Lahore.
As it happened, I had nothing to fear. The waxing woman, Khursheed (affectionately called Khushi, and obviously, joy), was born on 15 August, the day that India commemorates her Independence. Khushi’s mother’s family had migrated from India, and was happy that Khushi’s propitious birthday would sustain the link with her origins. “I love Indians. I love their dance,” Khushi admitted. “Hum to ek jaise haiN” (We are so alike), she continued, cheerfully spreading the warm wax below my navel, like orange marmalade on brown bread.
Agreed. But we do differ in details – significant details. Precisely the kind that Khushi herself was working on at the moment – na-pak baal, not-pure hair. I wailed as she yanked off the strip of starched white cloth she had patted over the wax. In one efficient tug, the hair matted into the hardened wax had been uprooted en masse.
The 40 day cycle
In Islam, removing unwanted hair from the body is an act of fitrah (natural disposition). In the holy Sunnah, the Prophet is reported to have laid down the following guidelines: “The fitrah consists of five things: circumcision, trimming the moustache, cutting the nails, plucking the armpit hairs and shaving the pubic hairs.” The fitrah fatwa (ruling) applies to both men and women, and is a hygienic ritual that has to be done at most every 40 days, as a religious binding.
While hygienic practices are also encouraged in Hinduism, such as the use of the left hand strictly for cleaning oneself and the right hand to eat, there are no ritualised guidelines offered on maintaining ‘personal’ hygiene. It is only in response to a recent fashion trend that some ladies parlours in the Indian mega-cities have begun catering to the rare client who requests ‘under-legs’ waxing.
Among practicing Muslims, however, maintaining one’s pubic hair – even indulging in creative topiary on special occasions like Valentine’s Day – is not an option. Khushi chides me for having lapsed on the decreed time of trimming within 40 days. According to her, na-pak hair should not be allowed to grow taller than the length of a grain of jowar, or sorghum. Her ‘ladies wax’ business is a direct result of this strict religious requirement, as waxing has become the chosen depilatory method among urban women in Pakistan. Muslim jurists allowed the use of lime and other depilatory agents. Today, any method, provided it is safe, is considered permissible. While men choose to shave or trim their hair with scissors, women prefer to wax.
Having been at it for 18 years, Khushi is very proficient, and was finished within 15 minutes. I paid her PKR 450, which she charges for a full-body waxing. She visits at least two or three customers every day, and makes a decent living earning 20,000-30,000 rupees per month. Khushi does not suppress her satisfaction at her success, either, noting to me that, “Only very well-educated people make this kind of money.” Khushi’s clientele includes not just those in Lahore, but also old customers who have relocated to Rawalpindi and Faisalabad. “People like my work,” she said. “They say that they’ll only use my services for this job.”
Her pride is warranted. As a poor, uneducated girl with no family support, the common route would have been to become a low-paid house-help. Above all, Khushi likes her job because it offers her a more respectable place in society. She is offering a service, a skill, and she is her own boss. With the money she earns she maintains a home, schools her five children, and enjoys a few luxuries. “Shukr Allah ki, maiN aaj apni zindagi se uthti hooN, aapni zindagi se soti hooN,” she explained. “By the grace of Allah, today I rise to my own life, I sleep to my own life.”
Closing the door behind her, I paid Khushi the waxing woman a grudging respect: with any honesty, I certainly could not claim the same about myself.