Nail tale

Manjula Padmanabhan

It’s time for my flight to New Delhi. Before I leave, however, Muriel and I have scheduled a visit to the nail salon across the road from where I live. “The management has changed,” she tells me, “but they’ll take our gift coupons!”

We walk over to the salon. The change in management is immediately noticeable: Instead of a team of slender-waisted, smiling Korean ladies there’s a team of slender-waisted but unsmiling Korean men. Instead of having the place to ourselves, there are at least five other clients getting their digits attended to. Instead of an air of dreamy, perfumed indolence, there’s an atmosphere of sterile efficiency. Even the orchids seem a little too crisp and perfect to be quite real (though they are).

We explain why we’re there and are assigned seats next to one another. “Manicure?” asks my young man. I say yes. At once he nods to the wall behind the cashier’s desk and says, “Choose colour?” But he speaks very softly and without moving his lips. So all I hear is, “Chew ka.” It’s like a scene in a foreign-language comedy without subtitles. “Umm,” I say, feeling incredibly dim-witted, “What?” He blinks and repeats, “Chew KHA?” But this time he points at the wall. “Oh!” I say and lumber to my feet to go look at the galaxy of coloured bottles on the shelf.

Muriel, meanwhile, has chosen to get her nails clear-varnished. She’s already sitting down. Her young man is somewhat older than mine, with the personality of a wise old turkey. I hear her trying to engage him in small talk. “Have you been doing this a long time?” she asks. “Yes, but not too long,” he answers, before asking, “Steel file okay? Or emery?” “Emery,” she responds. Trying again she asks, “How about you? Who does your nails?” To which he responds with a terse, “Yes.”

We glance at one another and hurriedly look away again: Giggles are starting up like bubbles from a bubble machine. We don’t dare laugh. The place is like a funeral parlour. The other ladies are already sending snarly looks in our direction. One mother and her young daughter have settled down to get pedicures. Alas, they remind me of nothing so much as a giant walrus mother and her mini-giant walrus pup, leaning back in their recliners with their flippers soaking in white plastic tubs. Next to them, a middle-aged blonde wearing a skimpy tee-shirt sits in a massage chair that sets all the pouches on her neck and upper arms a-jiggle.

By the time Muriel and I escape we’re aching with suppressed laughter. But our nails are shiny and shapely, hers plain, mine purple-black and glittery. Thus equipped, I’m ready for my flight the next day. Twenty-eight hours later, I’m in Delhi. Bins is at the airport. “Oh hello,” he says, “what’s wrong with your nails?” “Nothing!” I say, bursting into the long-delayed giggles, “nothing at all.”

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on August 09, 2019

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