Warm my hands: The story of a Nepali newlywed

Image by Pratibha Tuladhar via Nepali Times. Used with permission.

Image by Pratibha Tuladhar via Nepali Times, used with permission.

This story is part of the series Suburban Tales, a monthly column based on the lives of real people, by Pratibha Tuladhar, and originally published in Nepali Times. An edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

When Kalpana first held hands with her future husband, her mind drifted from the flat fields of her hometown to the wide streets of Kathmandu, which was soon to be her new home. She stood up, looked at his face, and smiled; the wheat-packed belly of the field spread behind him looked like a golden curtain, and she wished they could have a photo taken of that moment. She thought maybe a new phone with a good camera would be possible in Kathmandu, and I could post lots of pictures on Facebook.

A year since that moment, Kalpana finds herself in the enclosed room of a beauty parlour in Kathmandu. No, she isn’t getting her eyebrows done, and neither is she getting a haircut. It is where she works now. From 10–5 every day.

“The working hours are not so bad, actually,” she says. “The money is not that great, but my employer says there will be tips.”

In her hometown, Kalpana had trained to pluck eyebrows using thread, to heat wax in tin containers and pull them off with cloth strips and to massage the face and shoulders of women as they lay down for a facial session. Her friends had advised her it was the best skill to pick before heading to Kathmandu. “Easy to find jobs,” they had said. “And if you’re going to go abroad, even better. Women do really well at beauty parlours.”

Now, in Kathmandu, Kalpana finds life doesn't match the narrative she had heard on repeat back home.

She had spent a few weeks in Kathmandu visiting relatives as a child, and so, of course, she knew the city. But the Kathmandu that met her as an adult felt distant, claustrophobic and indifferent. Bus rides are no longer breezy but an ordeal. She struggles to find space to even stand without being crushed by other passengers most days. The feeling is packed with familiarity, and yet it is alarming with someone’s elbow going over her face, some crotch pressed to her side, and someone’s garlic breath upon her hair. Sometimes, during bus rides, she shuts her eyes until the conductor announces her stop, “Balaju!”

This trip costs her NPR 5,000 (USD 38) a month. “The vermin!” she thinks to herself. Kalpana sighs throughout the bus rides.

In the first few weeks at the parlour, work seemed like a place to hang out with other women, gossip, eat buff momo for 150 rupees (USD 1.13) once a week. Mostly, a bowl of spicy WaiWai (instant noodles) with channa (chickpeas) for 60 rupees (45 US cents). Kalpana found her feelings bordering on a familiar excitement, like the one she felt during her school days when stealing moments away with her childhood friends.

Within less than two months of working at the parlour, Kalpana says her duties began to evolve. The owner told her that business was slow and shutters were coming down in the city, and she had to think of a way to keep it going. She said she would either have to sell the place or reinvent it.

Kalpana had worried at that time that selling the business would mean she would be laid off. The 3,000 rupees a month that she was able to save after paying for bus fare and khaja would be gone. These days, she sometimes wishes the owner had actually sold or closed down her business. That didn’t happen, of course.

Her employer quickly turned things around. She added a sign to the business saying “massage.” And the high beds they formerly used to provide facial services soon turned into massage tables. The lady took turns training all three girls who worked alongside Kalpana, showing them where to press, where to apply force, where to knead, where to rub and where to roll.

In her new role as a masseuse, Kalpana sometimes finds that she is assisting men as well as women. The men are often, pot-bellied, middle-aged men who come in quietly and leave in a shuffle.

“One time, this man asked me for an inappropriate kind of service, and I didn’t know if I was mad or frightened. I walked out of the room and called Didi. But Didi said some clients are hard to please, and she replaced me for the rest of the session.”

Kalpana’s hands are tiny, like those of a schoolgirl, and one cannot imagine how such small hands could even cover the span of a calf or work their way across the spine. Tiny hands.

“My husband doesn’t know. He still thinks this is a parlour, which it is, too. He might kill me if he knows I’ve been working as a masseuse also. Marnu huncha (meaning “He will kill me”). If I could find another job, I’d leave. Even as a housemaid.”

Some days, I think I’ll wake up one morning, leave for work, get on the bus from Balaju and just keep going, fall asleep on the bus, buy some badam (almonds) and suntala (tangerines), eat them on the bus, then sleep again and go back home at six. They would never know, right? I mean, until the money runs out?”

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