Business, Economics and Jobs

Bandra Diaries: What's in a bikini wax for an Indian woman?


Editor's note: The Bandra Diaries is an occasional series that details life in today's India.

MUMBAI, India — Swati Karan prefers to wear one of her many colorful salwar kameezes, the traditional Indian tunic and loose pants. She says they're comfortable, and her mother tells her she looks best in them.

But six days a week Swati, 26, pulls on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt or button-down and begins the two-and-a-half-hour journey to work. Though born in a small village and now living on the outskirts of Mumbai, Swati has arguably one of the most modern jobs in all of India — though it may not be the most glamorous. Swati works at a beauty salon giving young women Brazilian bikini waxes.

Swati lives in a one-bedroom apartment with nine family members in Dombivli, a suburb northeast of Mumbai that is only slightly calmer than the city itself. Every morning, she walks 15 minutes to the train station, past women on mats selling fresh vegetables and busy stalls offering everything from fried samosas to plastic buckets.

Swati waits with the other women on the train platform to secure her space in the ladies' compartment of the train, standing room only. She takes the train for an hour to Dadar, where she transfers to another train on to Bandra. There, she waits another 30 minutes for a bus to Pali Hill, a posh Bandra West suburb known for its tree-lined streets and Bollywood mansions.

And finally, Swati arrives at work: an upscale beauty salon where men in designer jeans get manicures and women in three-inch heels have their hair straightened. It's a far cry from her home back in Dombivli, but in her black eyeliner and kitten-toe heels, Swati fits right in.

In a place as dynamic as Mumbai, sometimes old and new, Western and Indian, coexist in parallel universes. Other times they occur within the same person at the same time. On a daily basis, Swati lives amid these layers of modernity and tradition.

As a child, she lived in a small village in Maharashtra State. When she was 7, her mother moved the children to Mumbai, where her father worked. As a little girl, Swati enjoyed doing makeup and hair for herself and her cousins, she says as she sits in the Bandra salon, pretending to apply brush to her cheeks. After graduating from high school, she attended a junior college and then took a one-year beautician course.

Swati's three older siblings, like her parents, had arranged marriages. But she has had a boyfriend for the past four years, a friend from her old neighborhood, and plans on having a so-called love marriage (as opposed to an arranged marriage) with him.

While her siblings and parents knew very little about their future spouses, Swati has spent years getting to know the man she will wed. On their days off, they go shopping together in Thane, another suburb of Mumbai, or on Linking Road in Bandra.

Depending on what Swati wears that day, she says the shopkeepers treat her differently. If she wears a Western outfit, they act like she has money to spend and bombard her with shopping options. If she wears traditional Indian clothes, the salespeople are less friendly.

Some couples go to Bandra to have alone time, snuggling up close together as they look out at the Arabian Sea from Carter Road or Bandstand. Swati has no interest in public displays of affection.

Swati’s and her boyfriend’s wedding, most likely to take place next year, will cost about 200,000 rupees ($4,350). Unlike in the past, when the bride’s family covered everything, both families will contribute to the cost. She says there will be no dowry.

Swati Karan
Swati Karan at the beauty salon where she works in Bandra. (Hanna Ingber Winn/GlobalPost)

Once they get married, Swati will move in with her husband and in-laws, she says as she sits in her living room in Dombivli. Her niece and nephew, each with black smudges on their faces to ward off the evil eye, play nearby.

Swati says she will continue working after she gets married. She enjoys her work, which includes giving facials, applying makeup and threading eyebrows. She says she was first reluctant when a salon asked her to give women bikini waxes as she found the procedure strange, and her Indian clients were initially nervous to undress in front of her. But she — and her clients — have gotten used to it, and she now feels good that people trust her to do something so personal. She earns 9,000 rupees ($195) a month plus tips, more than double what she thinks she could make working at a shop in Dombivli.

But just because she will continue as a career woman does not mean that she will leave traditional housewife roles behind — she says she’ll work as well as do all the cooking, cleaning and childcare.

She says she does not resent her boyfriend or think the strict gender roles are unfair. Instead, she accepts the expectations for what they are.

“Nowadays, the women mostly do both,” she said. “It’s OK. Just busy.”

After work everyday, Swati shuffles through the crowds as she commutes back to Dombivli. Before going home, she makes a five-minute stop at a Hindu temple in her neighborhood to pray to a statue of Lord Ganesh. She says it’s calming. This is not a family tradition; none of her siblings or parents do it. It’s a daily ritual she has begun, a way to stay rooted as life speeds by.