Dolled up and raring to go

Patralekha Chatterjee | Updated on April 19, 2019

Busy run Mamata Sharma, owner of a beauty parlour in Bhiwadi, Haryana, says business is booming   -  patralekha chatterjee

Women in the poorer parts of Haryana are not interested in poll promises; they have their own plans for the future

You have to knock several times on a side door at Sonu’s beauty parlour before you can get someone to open it. You go up a flight of stairs — and reach a cosy spot where aloe vera gel blends with angst, and where women talk of their dreams and doubts. The electoral campaign elsewhere may be loud and vitriolic, but the conversation inside is free of bitter politics.

In the narrow backstreets of Haryana’s Nuh, you get a sense of why small-town India has become the new beauty business spot. There is not much money sloshing around, but women still yearn for a gold facial — and there are homemakers with some training who are willing to offer it at low prices inside the comfort of their own houses.

Nuh, barely a three-hour drive from Delhi, is part of the Gurugram Lok Sabha constituency, which goes to the polls on May 12. In 2018, Nuh (earlier called Mewat) figured at the bottom of Niti Aayog’s list of the 101 most backward districts. The area has a significant Muslim population. In April 2017, Pehlu Khan, a 55-year-old dairy farmer from Nuh, was beaten to death by cow vigilantes when he was returning home from Jaipur ferrying cows and calves.

Nuh remains economically and socially backward. It faces an acute water crisis and women trudge long distances to fetch water. Many among Nuh’s young men who earlier worked as truck drivers are jobless today. Their licences have not been renewed, they say.

But all backward districts are no longer called backward. Many, including Nuh, have been renamed aspirational districts by the Centre. Inside Sonu’s beauty parlour, you get a glimpse of the different shades of aspiration. Conversations here are not about Pehlu Khan or mob lynching, nor about the elections.

Sonu, the parlour owner, is out for the day. Her sister-in-law Minu, a slim woman in her early twenties, speaks quietly about her dreams while she paints a customer’s nails. Minu has been working at the parlour since high school and is happy to be able to help with the family business. Alongside, she has been studying for a BA degree through distance learning.

Rekha, another family member, also works at the parlour.

How does she feel as a first-time voter? She is not registered as a voter, she replies. “Who knows where one will be after marriage? I will register after I get married,” she says.

Electoral promises do not interest Minu, for she has her own plans for the future. She hopes to do her Master’s and find a job as a schoolteacher. “If I don’t get a job as a teacher, I can try to be a trainer for beauty courses,” she says. “I have heard that the government has training schemes for village girls, part of skill development.”

A 2015 report by KPMG for the National Skill Development Corporation estimates that employment in the beauty sector is expected to grow considerably in the next few years. “In beauty and salon segments, workforce requirement is expected to grow from 34 lakh in 2013 to 121 lakh in 2022,” it says. The sector is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 20 per cent — 23 per cent in the organised sector and 15 per cent in the unorganised segment. Rising income, increasing awareness among consumers in smaller cities and towns, and low rental and manpower costs are some of the drivers for expansion into hitherto untapped regions, the report says.

Thousands of Minus seek tiny slices of that pie.

A teenager walks in. She wants her long tresses trimmed. Elections and politics do not concern her much, she says. “All I want is to be a hip hop dancer. I learnt some steps from YouTube. But there is not much opportunity in Nuh. I hope I can go to Delhi, take dance classes and then become a dance choreographer.”

Travelling out of Nuh, one stops at Bhiwadi, an industrial hub in Rajasthan’s Alwar district. Mamata Sharma, owner of a beauty parlour, echoes the sentiments of the Gurugram dentist. “Those with lots of qualifications may not get jobs. But those of us in the beauty trade have our hands full.”

Sharma is proud of what she has achieved. After finishing high school, she did a two-year course in beauty care under organic cosmetic diva Shahnaz Hussain. “I used to come by bus from Bhiwadi to Connaught Place in Delhi every day,” she recalls.

Today, apart from running her own parlour, Sharma teaches beauty care at an institution devoted to skill development. “Everyone needs work, including housewives. I have 25-30 students; many are from rural backgrounds. Most of my former students have found work or have started their own parlours from their homes. They earn anything between ₹4,000 and ₹10,000 a month from the start. And they can make that money sitting at home. Some of my students have earned up to ₹50,000 a month with bridal packages during the wedding season.”

Sharma is not into news or tracking election trends, though she says demonetisation was a big blow to small businesses like hers. “But now things are looking up. The future is bright.”

Why? “Because everyone in this country wants to look good even if they have little money. I will never starve,” she replies.

Patralekha Chatterjee is an independent journalist based in Delhi

Published on April 19, 2019

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