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Queer beauty

By Abhijit Kondhalkar

Pahal, a beauty parlour for gay and trans people run by young transgender Simmy since 2009, is also a drop-in centre providing counselling, comfort and warmth to a community in desperate need of acceptance

Pahal Foundation Gay community

In a corner on the outskirts of Delhi, Pahal Foundation has set up a unique beauty parlour. Everyone in this small 10x20 ft room has a mystifying identity. A yellow fluorescent bulb, perhaps the only source of light in the room, adds to the sense of mystery by casting sharp shadows on people’s faces. All are men dressed up as women, wearing ghaghras, chunnaris, cholis, embroidered jeansand V-necked tops. Some are dancing to local Haryanvi folk songs; some are painting their nails.

A small curtain cuts the single-chair parlour off from the rest of the room. A selection of beauty products is ranged along the mirror. A chart pasted on the wall lists the services on offer: simple threading, pedicure, waxing, hair colouring, light and heavy bridal make-up, etc. “Pahal mein waxing, threading, eyebrows, colouring, sab kuch hota hai. Waxing mein sabse jyada pareshani hoti hai kyunki baal nikalana itna aasan nahin hota (We offer waxing, threading, eyebrows and colouring at Pahal. Hair-removal and waxing is especially tedious),” explains Simmy, beauty expert at Pahal Beauty Parlour and Training Centre.

“Since its inception in 2006, Pahal Foundation has been actively engaged in promoting and protecting the interests of marginalised communities through community empowerment and community participation programmes,” says Bobby, programme manager at Pahal Foundation. The Foundation is a primary member of Integrated Network for Sexual Minorities (INFOSEM) and was formally registered as a society on December 1, 2006. Bobby adds: “In 2009, under a self-help group of transgenders and hijras, the Foundation opened up Pahal Beauty Parlour and Training Centre for economic empowerment of the gay community.” The idea was not only to open up a parlour for gay people but also to connect it with a drop-in centre that provides counselling, comfort and warmth to a community in desperate need of acceptance. The parlour is largely managed by Simmy, a young transgender born to a conservative family from Uttar Pradesh.

Mein ek hijra hoon, lekin ye naam mujhe pasand nahin kyunki mera mann ek ladki ki tarah hai… ab kya bataun mujhe mucche tak nahin aati! (I am a hijra but I don’t like to be addressed by that name because my mind is that of a woman… look, I don’t even have a moustache!)” Simmy laughs.

It was inevitable that Simmy would face the wrath of her conservative family. Her sexuality was looked upon as ‘a bad habit’. Her father wanted her to get married. One day, he even called a tantrik home as he believed that his son had been captured by the soul of a hijra. When the tantrik’s verses failed,he locked his son up in a room for four days without foodand water.

“Mein kisiki jindagi kharab nahin karna chahati. Meine papa se poocha, ‘Kya aap apni betiyon ki shadi mere jaise ladke se karna chahenge?’ (My father wants me to get married but I do not want to ruin a girl’s life. I asked my father whether he would be ready to marry my sister to a guy like me.”After explaining a brutal past, she was hinting at a much more cheerful present.

It was her profession that helped Simmy transcend her situation. She has worked with reputed parlours like Sylvie and Images in Lajpatnagar, Delhi. “Sylvie mein maine sab kuch sikha. Wahan pe saari ladkiyan mujhpe hasati thi lekin mein na unse bhi acha make-up karke deti thi (I took a beauty course at Sylvie. The girls working there used to laugh at me but I was better trained than them),”she explains with pride.But at Sylvie and Images, the clients would look at her oddly because of her sexual identity. She continues: “Community (gay community) ke logon ko bahar kahin bhi beauty treatment nahin milati. Log kuch bhi bolte hain (It is difficult for people from the gay community to get beauty treatment at male/female parlours. People misbehave with them).”

And so Simmy decided to set up a beauty parlour solely for MSM (men who have sex with men) and transgenders. Along with her friends Sanjay, Bobby and Prince, Simmy joined Pahal Foundation to give shape to her vision. Pahal, which advocates the rights of MSM, TG and the hijra community, thought it was an excellent opportunity to economically empower gay people.

Most of Pahal Beauty Parlour’s clients come for a makeover. Simmy’s job, in such circumstances, is especially difficult. First, she has to help them overcome their self-consciousness and reticence. She observes that people become more confident after a waxing or pedicure session; they sometimes even start dancing in front of the mirror. She’s right: the other side of the room, which has been turned into a dance floor, is crowded with transgenders, some shaking their hair, some busy applying nail-polish...

The parlour sees around 10-50 people a day; most are ill-treated by society and their families. “Abhi kal hi ki baat hai. Ek ladke ko maar pit ke ghar se nikaal diya. Woh abhi hai nahin, nahin to mein dikhati ki kitna buri tarah se mara hai.” Pahal offered him a place to stay and Simmy gave him a job with a monthly salary of Rs 1,000. She understands the pressures at home as she herself has been through the experience.

In the safe confined space of the parlour, Simmy’s clients are comfortable and able to let their feminine persona emerge. Just being addressed as ‘she’ or ‘her’ is immensely satisfying.

On the desk near the mirror are several condom packets. “Condom ka istamal bahut important hai. Community ke logon ko iske bare mein jyada jankari nahin hoti (Use of a condom is very important. This community is not very aware of its use),”explains Heera who is being trained as a beauty expert at Pahal Beauty Parlour.
Most of Pahal’s clientele and members are active participants in a peer-based programme for MSM. Indeed, the parlour became the main platform for Pahal Foundation to ensure social empowerment for MSM, TG and hijras through education and vocational training. It became a space for Simmy and others to advocate the issue of HIV/AIDS amongst the gay community. Members of Pahal and clients actively participate in queer pride marches, organise and conduct awareness and sensitisation programmes and get involved in state-run HIV awareness programmes.

“Upar Brahmakumari (a sect whose members surrender their life to god) ashram hai. Mein wahan ki ladkiyon ka bhi make-up karati hoon. Aur chupke se unhe sex ke bare mein batati hoon  (There is a Brahmakumari ashram on the upper floor of the parlour building. I give them beauty treatment and also sometimes discuss sex-awareness with them),” smiles Simmy. The joyous yet rebellious attitude of her parlour is confirmed through posters of world-wide gay and lesbian movements pasted on the closed shutter of the room.

Simmy has managed to train four of her colleagues. Sometimes she can be grouchy, and has been nicknamed ‘Mummy/Simmy didi’. These days even her family greets her this way. Simmy has four sisters and one brother. Her brother does not accept her, nor does her father who does not consider her his blood. But she has reason to be happy now because her mother has promised to gift her a sari every festive season. “Mera to nachne ka mann kar raha hai (I feel like dancing),” she says excitedly.

Simmy remains even-tempered despite the obstacles she has faced. And she holds on to her dreams: “Mujhe na raat mein sapne aate hain  ki ek bada sa parlour hai aur wahan pe meri acchi uth baith hai. Aur sab community ke log aa rahe hain. Aur mein naach rahi hoon  (At night, I dream of a big parlour for the community, where I have a good reputation. Where people from the community will have free access. Where I will be dancing).”

(Abhijit Kondhalkar is an architect and independent filmmaker. He has made a film on Simmy and the  Pahal Foundation titled Meri Pehchaan, which was screened at the 4th International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala 2011 and several other film festivals)

Infochange News & Features, May 2012