I entered the Kanika Herbal Beauty Parlour in Udaipur, India not knowing what to expect. It was a 6×10 room with a large mirror atop a counter with two chairs along one wall, several shelves crammed with unrecognizable beauty products, and a sink and bench along the third wall. The fourth wall is the glassed shop front.
The owner, Pooja, smiled and greeted me as I opened the door. Yes, she nodded, she could color and flat iron my hair. To verify, which I’ve learned to do here in India, I asked her to show me her flat iron. Satisfied that I would not leave with my hair burned nor falling out, I made an appointment for the next day.
My new friend Karleen accompanied me because she wanted to witness what an Indian hairdresser would do. Pooja greeted us dressed in a beautiful sari, offering us homemade sweets wrapped in newspaper. We politely declined, knowing we should not eat any homemade food here.
Pooja had me pick between two Miss Clarol-type boxes of color. I could be dark brown or black. Luckily, my hair color is in that range — if I’d been a blonde or red head I would have been out of luck! She applied the color and we waited an hour for it to set.
Meanwhile, she did my nails. Expecting something similar to what I get in the US, Karleen and I were surprised when she merely took off the polish, filed a little, then reapplied polish. Karleen later said, “I could have done an equally poor job for you.”
Time to rinse the color. I stepped to the shampoo bowl and learned that not only wouldn’t there be shampoo because it would wash out the color, but the electricity was off so I would be treated to a bracing cold 10-minute rinsing while I stood stooped over with my head in the sink. Brrrr!
When the electricity returned, Pooja used a low-wattage hair dryer on my very thick hair. She stopped frequently as the outlet she used for the dryer didn’t hold in the plug. She kludged it by jamming broken match sticks into the outlet with the plug.
I paid $12 for this 2-hour experience. Karleen and I agreed that even though I would have to re-iron my hair, it was worth it for the story.
Later than day, feeling tired and sore from shopping and a too-hard bed, I went back to Pooja for a massage. She said we could do it at her shop — on the hard bench — or in her home. I opted for the latter as I was curious what her home looked like.
She locked the shop and led me down a narrow street up a narrower passage, up a flight of narrow steps to her 2-room flat. She shares this 500-foot apartment with her husband and 12-year-old daughter, Kanika. I passed through the front room with Kanika’s single bed which doubled as the couch. Curtains divided the rooms, and on the other side I entered Pooja and her husband’s room with a double bed, two chairs, a TV and some shelves. Kanika was there watching Indian soap operas and we chatted a bit, although her English was minimal. She showed me a US TV show that was dubbed into Hindi. It was funny to see well-known US actors speaking Hindi.
Pooja told Kanika to leave and laid a clean sheet on the double bed and instructed me to take off my clothes. She communicated this by pointing to my pants and with a downward gesture saying, “open.” The massage was pretty basic and not at the level I am used to, but her sweet nature made it relaxing.
Afterward, while I was dressing, she insisted I stay for tea and the homemade sweets she’d offered in her shop. I felt it would be rude to refuse again, although I knew I wouldn’t take more than a sip and nibble. She also invited me to stay for dinner with her and Kanika, as her husband — an artist — would not be home until late. I again politely declined. After a few minutes and a few sips and nibbles, I excused myself.
While the $10 massage was not what I was accustomed to, it allowed me to enter into a world I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. And Pooja and Kanika now have given me an indelible memory.