Monthly Archives: October 2013

A Pakistani Parlour

Most people who have known me for a while would raise an eyebrow or both at the notion of my work in fashion and beauty overseas. It sounds really glamorous, so I say “oh yeah, you know, I’ve just been, ah, working the fashion and beauty scene in Lahore,” to sound impressive when in actuality I was waxing old ladies and fixing broken beds overweight brides to be had broken.

I lie; I’m working two extremes, here. I had it pretty good in comparison to the other girls; I was in the secret bridal rooms blending lavish colours on lips and eyelids, and I could take a break whenever I wanted. Whenever fingers snapped at me I would for some reason be conversing in English because “my daughter is flying to New York to study economics,” or something. Because I was from London I was held in high regard, I was special. What really tickles me is I think about how most people here in England like mocking foreign accents, the majority of them seem to think it’s a thing of comedy; but when I was in Lahore I always got “oh the way you speak in Urdu is absolutely hilarious!” they enjoyed a mash up of a British and Pakistani accent, they didn’t mock me for it.

As I have previously said, the Westernisation had always disconcerted me in that traditional values were being neglected. NOT in a “things are becoming too modern,” because hell, look at me; but in a way that makes it evident that “the right way is the white way.” A facial in Pakistan comes with bleaching the skin to lighten it up nicely and whitely. Models on screen were flaunting saris and bindis but their faces were ivory and porcelain with rosy lips and light brown hair. The amount of women who would come in lamenting their daughters dark skin, moaning “who would marry her now?” before, obviously, turning to me and asking if I was married or looking because they had a son who had just graduated and is just about to become a doctor. I wasn’t looking.

It’s pretty evident that the women who stepped on these marble tiles under the spot lights were incredibly rich, and the contrast between wealth and poverty were separated by the entrance to the salon. In the space of a second my sandal would step up from the excruciatingly hot sand, my ears would no longer here the motorcycles or the crying or the beeps or the shouting, my nose wouldn’t smell the sweat, the burning, the chickens, or the horse shit; my sandal would be off and my foot would be cooling down on the marble floors, my nose would smell the fragrances cosmetics and fruity lotions, my ears would be hearing a Bollywood song or something by Britney Spears. But that’s only after I manage to push the iron door shut and bolt it before we unlocked it for opening.

It does sound like a pretty standard beauty salon, sure, it had leaking water in the hallway to the foyer, Madame and her mother could poke their heads from their bedroom and look directly down at what we were doing. The products weren’t even that great; but the standard of the salon would be the same standard as, say, Taylor Taylor, in London. (well the pricing is almost the same, Pakistan being more expensive.)

It struck me how passionate the women were about keeping themselves “presentable,” “youthful,” and “beautiful,” even as they wrapped burqas around themselves before stepping out and into a rickshaw, back to the kids. It astounded me how, as poor as they were, they would still, without fail, make an appearance every fortnight. But it touched me, being taken in as their daughter, being taught things that I have taken with me ever since, (and not just how to give a mean neck massage) and that’s appreciating what I have. I loved how together everyone was, even if two customers didn’t know each other, they would bond and become friends, there was a real sense of community there, and I loved that. 

Until I stepped out onto the sand for the fourteenth time. 

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An Introduction to Living in Pakistan.

At the age of fifteen I had left the country for six months to spend three months in Lahore and three months in Mumbai. My mother sent me there for disciplinary reasons (I think I bunked a maths lesson or something) and I came back and well, look at me now, right?

So I left as a quiet and self-assured straight girl, pretty unassuming; but I came back just… different. Like, I got a haircut and got chubby and awesome. It’s funny because whilst I was being suffocated in a plethora of hugs and I love you’s, not a single person actually asked, “so how was being away for half a year?” which, looking back, seems like a pretty arsey thing but I just dealt with it. Growing up and meeting new people, I find myself at a loss for words when I’m confronted with the questions, “wait, what? You were doing a beauty course in Lahore? What?” I’m just dumbfounded; I honestly don’t know what to say.

“Um, yeah, I’m just not used to people giving a shit.”

“Um, yeah, I’m just not really that great at articulating myself so I’m just gonna go and cry over my blog about it.”

Replace “cry” with “scoff ice cream after a Breaking Bad marathon and then mull” and you got my Saturday night. “Shiri you should write about this in your blog.” “Um, okay.” And then three weeks later I’m sat here like I don’t even know, man.

So I’ll start with Pakistan, I guess. I went to Lahore and lived with my mother’s sister, her dad, and two kids. It was bizarre from the get go, not because I’ve never been there before or anything but because I was with only my mum, and I was kinda, forced, to go. I had lost my dad five years prior and my body was going through that painfully awkward phase called puberty, ugh. Just this huge wave of shit, actual fucking shit just flew up my nose. I was blown back by the powerful stench of shit.

Welcome to your motherland, bitch.

I settled into my mother’s sister’s home. Khala – the sister of my mother. Nana Jaan – the father of my mother.

The houses are a bit of an acquired taste, in the center, where there is no roof, is the basic living area. We chill on the bamboo beds, prepare the food for lavish dinners to be prepared on a single measly stove, lounge under the wooden ladder leading to the flat roof, bask in the sunshine and talk loudly to the neighbours over the clothes line fence. I scramble up the ladder with a book to loll on the other bamboo beds on the roof and watch the kites fly all around the sky, adding a reddish tinge to my paper. My cousin would come out of his isolated room on the roof and show me my new bedroom, perfect, a pleasant solidarity.

So we sit on the floor, crushing garlic and I’m teaching the young children to read English. I’m counting the days until I go back to London, I’m really not having a good time, I’m having a moody time, in fact. The first two days there was just everyone settling me into my new home, playing Ludo until the sun goes down at ridiculous o clock, running around the back streets to pick up chocolates and crisps, and visiting distant family members in the area. I can’t drink the water, it has to be boiled.

This is until my mum wakes me up and tells me I have to go to work. I do the obligatory wookie roar to wake myself up and find out I’m going to be a beauty therapist for three months with one of my cousins. Now, this particular cousin is a bottle of crazy. Like, I shit you not, man; she’s like five foot, 15 stone, a mop of hair, and a personality bigger than Russia. I still can’t get over her and I haven’t seen her in like five years, she-was-mental. I’m getting emotional just thinking about how crazy she is. She’d be bigging me up to her family, and then she’d turn around and give me a straight up bitch slap to my face because “I’m so cute.” I hear she got married and that fell through around a year ago… ahem.

So I’d insist on wearing the full burqa, I see how the men ogle and glare at the women around here and my fifteen year old self was far too fragile to deal with the leers. I’d wrap myself up in black cotton, the only part of me you could see if you looked close enough was my eyes; you’d be lucky to even see them, they were always looking at the ground. We’d leave the house, lock the massive gate at the entrance and walk. Walk over the bridge, past the food vendors and donkeys, past the darzaan (male clothes makers) where I saw men spending hours and hours applying sequins to the saris and lehengas. Walk down the high street, past cake shops where the fresh cream cakes would make my mouth water to this day and have my senses tingling, and past the rickshaws where a larger lady was adamant she could squeeze in with her three children, over dried up rivers and beggar children, molested children, disabled children, past paedophiles and preachers and then we’d come to an abrupt halt.

We’d cautiously open the large gate in front of us and shut it quickly behind and wince at the dull metallic clunk shutting of the sounds of traffic and children. Walking through the damp corridor, with its dripping pipes and lack of lighting, the beaded curtain would be thrust aside, I’d step in and warmth would hit me.

It was a cooling warmth (huh?) and the smell of bleach and cosmetics would waft into my nose, the bright lights struck my cheeks and I felt slightly normal for once. It’s a sad thing, “I felt slightly normal because this place was slightly westernised,” I mean, am I western or am I South Asian? It’s all down to self-identification, I guess. The Madame would take me on as her personal project, she wanted to build me up and use my London-ism(?) as a way to bring glamour to the salon. Everywhere I looked there was an element of Hollywood and white beauty with a few bindis thrown in, so having a girl from an English country full of prosperity would be good business.

So woman would rush inside and dramatically disrobe to show curvy figures and thick hair, fantastic eyes and suggestive smiles and saunter into the massage room. I had the honour of joining Madame in the bridal room and watch her paint the faces of nervous young women whilst next door you heard the moans of the older ones as their pressure points were hit with the just the right amount of touch.

I can’t possibly condense my experiences into one blog so take this as a detailed introduction. You’ll be hearing about my living in the mountains, the brothers, runways, and motor biking accidents.

Until then!

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