The beauty salon sits at an acute angle on the street and benefits from its neighbours: on one side an Indian grocery store thrumming with constant activity; on the other, a clothing shop passing off the careless bling of chiffon as the latest fashion from back home. The glass door of the salon heaves with posters breathlessly announcing cheap offers to the shoppers visiting these other establishments, attempting to seduce them indoors, for a facial, a wax or a quick upper lip.
Our story is set in this salon in Houston, Texas, but is by no means confined to it. This salon is thick with reminders of the subcontinent: Bollywood music, blown-up pictures of Hindi film stars, Shahnaz Husain products and paint casually peeling off the walls. Above all, there is the familiar presence of well-meaning employees who never fail to point out that you need more than what you’ve come for, tact be damned.
One summer day, the sun pushing its way through the closed doors of the salon, the beating wings of a bee cause a group of women to snap out of their afternoon languor. One woman, big-eyed with a neat braid, leaps off her chair, covers her ears and breaks into an ungainly dance. ‘Ussey bhagao, please ussey bhagaao,’ she begs her friends to drive away the buzzing insect. They, in turn, laugh and laugh as one of them swaggers forth with a piece of paper and an overstated bravado. She places her bait on the glass window; when the bee comes to rest on it, she folds the paper and squashes it. The squad cheers this deft execution.
The event has injected some vigour into the lassitude of the afternoon. Another woman stretches, then gets up and connects her mobile to speakers, which start belting out the latest Bollywood hits. The temperature outside has soared into the forties. The beauticians know that they have about an hour before clients start streaming in again, for noses to be rid of blackheads, faces to be bleached, unwanted hair to be uprooted; for these women from Karachi, Lahore, Ahmedabad and Mumbai to wring a prettier Houston from their fingertips.
The salon is in Houston’s Little India or Mahatma Gandhi District — a neat triangle within a larger precinct called Hillcroft, permeated with sights, smells, sounds and flavours from the Indian subcontinent. Walking along these streets generates a sensorial dysphoria that makes you forget you’re in the grand ol’ state of Texas. Hillcroft, representing, block by block, almost every ethnic and racial group in the city, uncovers the contradictions, synergies and intersections of the most diverse city in America, and of America itself.
When you type ‘South Asian salons’ on Google maps, a constellation of red bulbs pops up within that neat triangle and far beyond. Every salon promises the best cosmetology service, especially in the field of threading — that underappreciated expertise of desi aestheticians whose hand-neck coordination sets some eyebrows apart.
Four years ago, after I moved to Houston from Mumbai, I resumed my Indian custom of worship at the Temple of Beautifully Arched Eyebrows. My devotion has remained more or less constant, but my roving eyes have sometimes taken me to different salons based on my convenience and their offers.
From every salon I have been to, a leitmotif has emerged. Bent over my face, thread in their mouths, necks bobbing back and forth as they work, woman after woman has opened up, with both trepidation and candour, about the emotional and physical distance between where they currently live and where their hearts dwell. What they thought America would be and what it is. Their stories, I learn, are sloppily enmeshed within the larger, punishing narrative of emigration to the United States.
Much has been said about Vietnamese nail salons in the US. More recently Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, through her book Americanah, has helped us conjure in our minds the trappings of African braiding salons. But South Asian salons running on the backs of immigrant women, central to the lives of South Asians in the US, have remained largely unmapped.
I spend a month interviewing Indian and Pakistani beauticians in Houston, speaking mostly in Hindi.
I learn that their lives have followed similar trajectories. Hoping for a glorious future, many of them travelled to the States after marriage, on tourist or student visas, stayed back after their visas expired, and are now withering in the welter of the American immigration system.
Loopholes exist and some of the women managed to get green cards, beginning their path to citizenship. But, for many others, months slid into exhausting years and the arrant status of ‘illegal immigrant’ has come to hang over their lives like an unforgiving spectre. Going home is not an option, for any such attempt would make a return to the States near impossible; they remain stuck in the ever-expanding space of neither here, nor there. They are left with two options: hide and hide well or be found and deported.
At the salon where the bee has just been exterminated, some of the women are taking a nap. The trill of the phone pierces the silence.
‘Must be didi. She must have caught us on camera doing timepass. We’re dead,’ says one as she goes to answer the phone. ‘Hello, how may I help you? One minute.’
Relieved, she covers the receiver with her hand, gesturing to someone else to come get it. Not everyone engages with American clients on the phone, just those who feel confident speaking English.
‘I wish we had some chai,’ she says, returning to her seat.
‘Shall I open a thela for you?’ asks her friend.
The bee dancer interjects: ‘Such small dreams. If I had my way, I’d own a parlour. In Karachi, no less.’
Amid the laughter, Amara, the youngest of them, quietly enters the scene. She is a slight figure, her forehead creased.
‘Job hunt?’ asks one of her colleagues.
Amara nods. ‘What else, yaar?’
Amara has just finished an evening MBA programme in sales (she paid for it by saving money from tips) and spends night and day looking for an office job.
‘Let me tell you my story from the beginning. You won’t get bored?’ she asks me one day, sipping milky coffee at an Indian restaurant not too far from the salon. She is wearing a blue blouse on beige trousers, her eyebrows form nice arches over her big, bright eyes. Her hair falls lightly on her shoulders, on which she appears to carry the weight of the world, at 26.
Amara’s destiny, she says, was written not at birth, but at the age of seven when her parents made the choice of escaping hardship in the Pandharkawada village near Nagpur, at the centre of the Indian peninsula. News had reached their village that there was a country far across the oceans and archipelagos where lives changed and dreams came true. This mythical land embraced anybody and everybody and offered them riches.
Her parents left for America with her two-year-old brother in 2000, but without Amara and her sister.
‘To be fair, it was because when they tried to apply for a visa with us, they didn’t get it. An agent told them to try applying without us and they got it.’
The unfamiliarity of America was oppressive for the couple, who didn’t understand English. Her father slipped into a quiet depression, her mother held the fort, selling her clothes and jewellery. Months later, her father took a job as a waiter in a restaurant. Her mother rented out a room in their apartment to make money. By now, their tourist visas had expired; they didn’t have the right to be in the country, much less work. It quickly became clear that bringing the daughters to America would have to wait.
Back in India, Amara transitioned from child to adolescent to adult, consumed by dolorous feelings of betrayal and abandonment.
‘Can you imagine? I was only seven and was sent away to a boarding school near Hyderabad, while my older sister continued her schooling in Nagpur. I was a wreck. Wasn’t good at studies. Was terribly lonely,’ Amara tells me, her voice trembling.
At 22, she followed the path of her parents, who by now had their green cards. Amara arrived in Houston on a student visa (her sister had done the same a few years earlier). The reunion with her family was harder than she had imagined. The fourteen-year gap shrank in the instant she set eyes on her parents at the airport, she says, but in them she saw ageing strangers who stared back at their child, the lovely birdlike beauty she had become.
Houston was massive and isolating, the process of bonding with her family painful. There was no money. Gloom settled silently, like dust on furniture.
‘I didn’t get out of bed for weeks. I was angry and depressed,’ Amara says. One day, she decided to put an end to it and use the one skill she had learned in India.
‘Will you please give me a job?’ she asked the owner of a beauty parlour she frequented. ‘I am desperate.’
Amara’s narration is disarmingly lucid, amid sobs. ‘Majboori thi’.
Majboori, that gnarly upheaval in the heart which forces a person to break out of familiar bondage and leap into fearsome unknown seas. Majboori that makes them burn the candle at both ends so that, if not they, at least their children can glow in that fast-receding American dream. Majboori: desperate circumstances.
Jabeen asks me to meet her at her brand-new salon. ‘You can come anytime,’ she tells me. ‘I don’t have clients yet.’ The salon is in a strip mall by the edge of a highway, where cars crisscross at more than 50 miles an hour. The walls are freshly painted in bright yellow and a big mirror hangs on one of them, reflecting the lush green trees on the other side of the highway. Jabeen is 31 years old, short, with hair tied in a bun, and is dressed in a black t-shirt and black jeans torn around the knees. ‘Black is professional in America,’ she says.
Jabeen has mastered the once-inscrutable language of the American service industry: the customer is always right; be confident at all times; say please, sorry and thank you at every chance you get. And smile. Never forget to smile.
But navigating this landscape wasn’t easy ten years ago when she first set foot in America. ‘I didn’t know English and didn’t understand a single word of what they said in that accent,’ she says, now rolling her ‘r’s.
A woman enters the salon and points to her eyebrows. The job is done in less than five minutes. On her way out, Jabeen tells the new client to come again for a 25% discount.
Jabeen was married at 20 and soon after made the transatlantic journey from Mumbai to New York with her husband. New York was too cold for the couple, so they moved south in search of the sun. Her husband got a job at a gas station.
The new bride had brought with her some experience in threading, waxing and hair styling. Someone told her about an Ismaili lady who hired Ismaili women. Jabeen was offered $6 per hour in cash at this salon, 15 cents more than the federal minimum wage at the time. She went on to work there for the next decade. The money was too little, but this was America and there were generous people who left generous tips. She began to save and, little by little, learned to drive and speak English.
Back home in Madh – an island separated from the flourishing city of Mumbai by the Arabian Sea – she had been trapped by poverty, dropping out of school in Class Seven. Her father was a rickshaw driver who worked round the clock. On many nights, he skipped meals and slept in the rickshaw. That sight, of her father exhausted and curled on the seat of the three-wheeler, still rankles her.
With no documents to prove her legal existence in the US, Jabeen hasn’t been able to return to India and has joined approximately 150,000 other undocumented Asian immigrants in Texas. And although she picked up the ways of being in America, she has been simultaneously deadened by their grueling demands.
One incident left her particularly shaken. She was mugged at gun-point while her then-two-year-old son held her hand.
‘That time I thought enough of this. We came here imagining a better life but what are we getting? There’s nothing other than work work work. What life is this where you can’t return home? I long to fall at my father’s feet and thank him for his struggles because I understand them now,’ Jabeen says, choking on her words. ‘But at least we’re better-off financially.’
Without divulging details, she says the family is very close to getting their green cards. ‘Once we become legal, it will be easier to travel to India.’
Like Jabeen, roughly 450,000 people from India lie hidden under a cloud of omertà in the United States. Indians make up the fourth-largest group of undocumented immigrants in the US, after those from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala.
But it is not just undocumented immigrants who inhabit the back shops and dark alleys of white America. Houston, although diverse, remains a hugely segregated city, economically. Hidden from public view are lives that billow under a carapace of cheap housing and poor public infrastructure, never fully able to integrate into the mainstream.
In America, I came to understand that ‘good’ neighbourhoods meant those with a predominantly well-off, white population. Indians, or Asians in general, who occupy seats of power and influence in major corporations, hospitals and institutions mostly elect to live in these prosperous areas, which are also often coveted school districts. Aligning with white Americans seems like a safe bet for their existence abroad.
I was also struck by an almost pathological need of educated, wealthy and high-skilled Indians to distance themselves from the less privileged ones, as though any association would weaken the carefully constructed image of the Indian diaspora as a hardworking, respectable community.
The stories of the ‘other’ Indians whose households do not make $100,000 (the median income for Indian immigrants) then get eclipsed by narratives of those who embody academic and professional excellence.
The image of Indian immigrants as paragons of ideal citizenry was set back in the 60s. The Civil Rights movement earned basic rights for people of colour. Threatened by the Soviet Union’s advancement in the fields of arms manufacture, space exploration and technology, the US passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act in 1965 and began to cast around for skilled labour from across the world. Qualified Indian professionals emigrated to the States in unrelenting waves.
In recent years, the South Asian American community ― of which 80% is Indian ― has become the fastest-growing demographic group in the US. It currently stands at over 4.5 million people. ‘From the beginning Indians wanted to define themselves as highly successful. The trend got aggravated in the 90s with the tech boom and a lot more people started coming on H1B visas in well-paying sectors,’ says Dr Sangay Mishra, author of Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans. The model minority title was foisted upon Indians ― and they readily embraced it ― lumping them with other similarly ‘well-behaved’ Asian immigrant communities in the US.
‘The model minority myth has been imposed on us by a larger white discourse. It is created in opposition to so-called problem minorities like African American or Latin American. This has been done to control the social reality of other minorities,’ says Mishra, who is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Drew University in New Jersey.
Anybody who doesn’t come to align with the model minority gets relegated to the margins, where people are forced to create a parallel and largely cash-based economy, moving around in spaces with other people like themselves. These are the blue-collar, daily wage earners you see handling your clothes in washeterias, selling sim cards in mobile phone stores, sitting behind gas station counters, serving you food at inexpensive restaurants, stocking provisions at grocery stores and toiling at beauty salons.
The French have a term for the invisible, behind-the-scenes workforce: les petites mains. The little hands in beauty salons work in concert to make you, the customer, that much more visible and presentable. Working as a beautician is not all sunshine, but it is one of the sectors towards which women gravitate, many of them undocumented immigrants. Some come to it with experience, others learn on the job.
Everyone I spoke to complained of neck, shoulder, wrist and foot pain to various degrees of severity.
Amara had not anticipated the brute force required for her job. ‘We have to do everything: mop the floor, wash the toilets, scrub hardened wax off surfaces. But it feels safe to be around women,’ she says, and credits her job for calming her anxieties. ‘It is nice to be around older colleagues who have your back. I’ve learned so much from them.’
Some women tell me their husbands are secure in the knowledge that their wives are surrounded by women. For the women themselves, it’s comforting to spend their days with those who look like them, speak like them, have the same cultural points of reference and embody fragments of their distant homes.
But the cash economy in which they operate, due to fragile immigration status or convenience, exposes them to the risk of exploitation by salon owners. I reached out to four owners: two didn’t respond; one said I could only talk to her and not her employees; and the fourth said she only hired ‘legal people.’
Zeenat grew up in Pakistan, more than 1,200 kilometres and a line of control away from her now-best-friend Sakina, who was raised in India. It was in a salon in Houston, several thousands of miles away from their homelands splintered by conflict and strife, that their stars aligned.
Common personal struggle gave them a sense of solicitude for one another. I meet them on separate occasions and each woman tells me she owes the other gratitude for bringing light in her life.
Sakina’s highlighted hair, which she pushes behind her ears every now and then, is long and straight. Her lips are a shade of crimson. When she came to the US from Yavatmal with her husband eleven years ago, their daughter was a baby. The couple’s first job was in the kitchen at a deli in a gas station. ‘We took turns to work from 4am to 11pm. The hardest part was not the long hours but cooking pork. I would cry chopping meat, the smell just wouldn’t leave me.’ During the first few months, she became pregnant again.
Today, she runs a salon from home and is triumphant, more than anything else, about the cosmetology license she recently secured. ‘I failed the exam thrice but was successful in my fourth attempt,’ Sakina says, both laughing and flushed with embarrassment.
Beauticians in Texas can operate only with the mandatory cosmetology license that they get after completing 1,500 hours of study. The license is central to their lives, but very few actually have it. ‘How can we afford the classes when we earn only between $7 and $10 per hour?’ asks Sakina. The living wage in Houston is $11.23.
Zeenat, who moved to Houston twelve years ago to join her husband, already an American citizen, practises without a license. Most of her in-laws had migrated to the US, one after the other, on family reunification visas. But being naturalised was not the shield against their struggles Zeenat had hoped for: her husband got sucked into the American credit system and ran up huge debts, despite working as tech support staff in a small company. Leaving two little kids at home was not what she wanted but Zeenat took up a job at a beauty parlour. Being paid in cash helped the family save a little on taxes.
Zeenat’s home is on the outskirts of the outer loop of Houston. In the large living room with bright-red curtains, there are at least four couches. ‘My husband’s family is big and they come home all the time,’ she says with a smile. She is wearing a blue and pink cotton floral maxi nightdress. Her husband flits in and out of the room. ‘Poor thing. He was used to a suit-boot job but was fired. He now works in a gas station and earns only $10 an hour,’ Zeenat says, once he is out of earshot, lowering her voice.
This has meant that the family must subsist without health insurance. Zeenat suffers from excruciating pain in her heels and has arthritis. ‘I go to a clinic for shots to manage my pain, but I have to pay $100 each time.’ She also runs a catering business to make ends meet.
As time passes, Zeenat’s husband enters the room more and more, expounding on this and that but mostly on Imran Khan’s ascendancy to Prime Minister. Now there’s a degree of stupor that darkens his spiel. ‘I wish Zeenat didn’t have to work so hard, I wish we could travel the country like we used to in Pakistan.’
But Zeenat’s is a smile that never leaves her. ‘I’ll show you something,’ she says and motions me toward the back door of her house. There’s a structure there, the door of which she opens. The room inside is sparse but contains the essentials: a box air conditioner, a large mirror, a reclining chair and a massage table. She stands at the threshold, demure. ‘I don’t tell my clients at the other salon where I work, about my private practice. I don’t want to cheat the owner. Only friends and family come to me.’
At the ‘other’ salon, where the women are enjoying their earned hour of rest after the dispatch of the bee, Zeenat announces to the group that she is contemplating a trip to Pakistan at the end of the year. There are loud, envious cheers. ‘Lucky! Take me in your bag na,’ says one of the women.
‘I don’t know if I’ll manage. It’s too expensive,’ she says softly to me. ‘It’s my brother’s daughter’s wedding. Her parents had to work, so I did everything for her when she was a baby. She was so little [Zeenat makes a cradle, her palms touching her elbows] and is now ready to be married.’ For the first time since I have known Zeenat, I see her eyes clouded with tears.
‘Kya karein? Mulk se, apne logon se jo mohabbat hai,’ Zeenat says, her voice a cauldron of longing; ‘what to do, I have such a deep love for my homeland and its people.’
The clock is ticking, the flurry of activity will soon resume. Zeenat heads toward the cash counter. ‘Ready? Remember the order,’ she says to the group, unfolding a piece of paper which she reads out. The numbers roll out of her mouth. Eight. Six. Three. One. Four. Every woman has a number, every number has a turn.
A middle-aged woman walks in. The slouching beauticians, all at once, sit up straight.
‘Yes?’ asks one, smiling.
‘Eyebrows and upper lips, please.’
Eight gets up, smiles and says: please follow.
All the women’s names have been changed.
Illustration by Supreet Kaur