Makeup – a take on liberation

‘Who do you think is more liberated me with my head scarf or the ladies on Wall Street with 10 products covering their faces?’
Nousheen’s eyes were bright and passionate as she dug into her chicken tikka masala. ‘At least I don’t spend half an hour each morning dousing my hair in chemicals and then drying them with hot air!’ She tossed her head, scarf and all, and Minakshi knew she was thinking of her resplendent black curls beneath.  Minakshi laughed self consciously, silently counting the number of products on her own face. There were eight. There was her liquid black eye liner to add depth to her lashes, her pencil eye liner in coffee brown to soften her eyes, the double-lashes mascara, a touch of rose wine eye shadow, a concealer – that amazing product she had discovered that took away her perennial dark circles, her foundation – a special sand colored concoction she had brought from Macy’s, her honey colored lipstick, a touch of clover blush. Beneath it all was her moisturizer, under eye gel and lip balm, which didn’t count as she was sure Nousheen used them as well.
She scooped some curry using her naan as a spoon and tucked in. It was Friday, they were in New Jersey at an Indian Restaurant, away from the demands of the City and Nousheen’s unvarnished, hot words were a fitting accompaniment to the spicy food. She had known Nousheen since school, lost touch and then met again. She remembered the soft spoken girl, with her beautiful Hindi, flavored exquisitely with Urdu words and mannerisms. There had been no head scarf then, just dreams of where engineering would take them.
But America had made an activist out of Nousheen, who worked as a software developer and at a non-profit for women’s rights.
‘Well, I am one of those women on Wall Street’ Minakshi said
‘Oh you are different’, said Nousheen, reluctant to band her friend, ‘at least you know what the other side thinks! Besides you were the one who used to say ‘Makeup? What am I making up for? Remember?’
She remembered. That brash confidence in herself, the feeling that she could be whatever she wanted by being just herself. No need for makeup. No need for adapting to the world.
‘I remember’ Minakshi said, and then ‘You need to chill. Give up. Don’t talk women’s rights to me today. It’s Friday, and we are going to ogle at Matt Damon.’
‘Well, that’s a woman’s right’, said Nousheen, ‘Ok, Ok, tell me what you got. Job OK? Uncle Aunty OK?’
It was fun to hear her use that term – their accepted addresses for each others parents, parents, creating the illusion of an extended family.
‘Everything’s fine. I may get a promotion’. 

And that was just it. She didn’t know if she would, but she might. That ‘might’ feeling had been oozing into all her thoughts today. It was like an after taste of a strong anti-biotic, that covered your tongue and throat and made everything taste dull and unappetizing. Monday she had a big presentation. She was flying out on Sunday night. The audience was expected to be huge. More importantly to her at that moment, there would be two partners from her firm. It had been made clear to her through the strings of euphemisms and caveats common in her line that the presentation was pretty much do or die in terms of her promotion.

‘We would like to know more about your personal impact with large groups’ they had said, ‘And on how you engage audiences with our thought leadership’ Sentences dripping business jargon and large words till they almost didn’t make sense. But strangely, that’s how she spoke and even thought nowadays. In terms of take-aways and key insights and domain expertise.

She was going to talk on cross-cultural training. It was a hot topic now given the rage of outsourcing and globalization. Large words again. An area she had researched at length, and advised clients on across the globe. Characteristically, she had finished the presentation ahead of schedule, so now she had a weekend of tension to kill. She still hadn’t figured out how she would make her big impression.

Driving back late that night in her expensive beamer, she was pensive. If America had made an activist out of Nousheen, what had it made of her?

Well, first, it had made her successful. She made more money that she needed at this age, traveled business class across the globe, lived in a beautiful Manhattan apartment, traveled to Marrakech on one vacation and trekked to Macchu Picchu on another. Born and raised in Delhi, she had grown up in a three room flat with three generations under the same roof and middle class principles served each day with her daal and chawal (rice). And then she had gone to college, and eventually made her journey across the Atlantic for her masters at Sloan. She had taken to the country immediately, graduating top of class and landing plum jobs to choose from. She worked hard, didn’t complain and got results. Her dedication was unquestionable. To others she was a little success story, packed in expensive wrapper with a delicate bow. She couldn’t say she was unhappy. She wasn’t. She was thrilled at where she was in her career, ahead of so many of her class mates, earning more than any male member of her extended family. And she loved her work, the sharp thinking and utter devotion it demanded.

It was the second descriptor that came to her mind that she wasn’t at peace with. America had also made her artificial. And that was what bothered her now as she drove into the Holland tunnel and at various small, silly points in her day such as when doing little things such as looking at her perfect nails or spraying her hair.  Every day through her school years she would tame her hair into two plaits, put on the blue skirt and white shirt of her school uniform and go to school. And in college, it was always the salwar kameez’s and then jeans and T-shirt, bare skin, and well brushed hair. Looks were relegated to the bottom of her to do list. The no-makeup philosophy was her source of pride and even a reflection of beauty in India. Why hide myself and put chemicals on my skin, they had thought. 

Then when she had got the job of her dreams and moved to New York, she learnt quickly she needed to look the part. She had had plenty of cues from her new life.
 ‘Clients like to do business with those they are comfortable with. You have to look the part’ said a partner at the firm.

An airhostess, on one of her early business trip, seeing her in a favorite comfortable skirt held her back from business class ‘This is for business class only. Are you with some of the people in there?’ she had said, taking in the unfashionable skirt and tired face. 

 It was like a muffin pan, she thought. You had to get into the mold and then rise from there. She laughed at the analogy.

She had walked into an expensive salon on 5th avenue and scandalized her expensive French stylist by asking him to chop of 10 inches of thick black rippled hair. His instructions were to make her look less Indian. And then she got her eyebrows thinned to haughty arches.  Went for a free makeover session at Bloomingdales and stocked up on the recommended goodies. Suits, short skirts and panty hose were added to her wardrobe and manicures and pedicures to her monthly budget. She had even chopped off the last few letters of her name, becoming Min. She bought expensive shoes and drank in the ‘Sex and the City’ lifestyle that was anti-thesis to her upbringing.

It had worked. The coffee shop server went from being silent and efficient to friendly and loquacious once she cut her hair and added makeup. A client who would look at her suspiciously suddenly decided to invest in her. Sometimes people would tell her ‘you don’t look Indian. You have an international look’. And she took that as a complement.

Yet she had the nagging feeling she was a fake. Most women, her American or Americanized friends and even many of her Indian friends did not question something as ubiquitous as makeup. But Min had been born to question and felt insecure about the need to hide. No one told her so, but she felt it several times a day – like she was an outsider watching someone don a stereotype and go out to work.

She reached her apartment. She re-read her script and the research notes. She knew them by heart now, yet, it was reassuring to see the words.

And then her phone rang. She didn’t know the caller, but always picked up her calls at night, not knowing if there was some unexpected news from India. It was Nousheen’s mom. Checking on her and giving her the news that Nousheen had been attacked.

Nousheen had parked in the covered parking lot of the mall where the movie theater, whereas she had parked outside.  It turned out that there had been two of lurkers in near the down escalator. As Nousheen rode down the escalator, they had whistled ‘Look what we have here… a cute little terrorist’ out to her. And she could feel the outrage Nousheen would have felt, and the instinctive fear that would have kept her quiet and make her start walking hurriedly to her car. They had followed her to the car, closing in as she reached it. ‘Let’s show them what we can do’ one had said beginning to pull at her headscarf. Two things had saved her – she had manual locks on her car and that she had parked facing forward, so that she didn’t have to reverse to get out. As she opened one door, they tried to get in from the others but failed. In a split second she slammed the door on the hand of the man behind her, starting her car as he recoiled and shooting ahead her door hanging open. She had driven out of the parking lot, door hanging open. She was shaken, but physically fine.

Min would have driven back but Nousheen’s mom said she would not risk it, and that Nousheen was fine. So she stayed alone in her apartment, quiet, angry, then crying, shaking and eventually sleeping. And she had driven to their home at late next morning, for fear of waking a household who had spent the night in turmoil.  She had met Nousheen, but it had been strange in front of the whole extended family. They were not going to call the police. They did not want to get involved in any controversy given the natural suspicion stereotypes brought them. She told Nousheen’s mom of canceling her trip, but they were insistent. Let these men not create more disruption than they had.

She spent most of Saturday researching hotlines for women who had been assaulted on the internet. It was a useless and agonizing pursuit, but it gave her something to do. Nousheen would never call, but she may get help at the non-profit she worked in.  She felt for her friend, the outrage, the insecurity, the indignation of being stereotyped. She wanted to think about it, and as she lay on her bed, she thought of the soft spoken girl she had known in India. We all cater to stereotypes and it was the slavery to stereotypes that had got Nousheen here.

She had been wondering all along how she would make an impression with her speech. Suddenly, like the first sweep of the wiper in rain, it became clear to her what she should do.

She packed carefully and caught her flight. Her mind was strangely still. She flew to Atlanta and checked in to her swanky hotel. There would be 300 people they had said; it was going to be one of the best attended sessions of the conference. The audience would be senior managers, with a good sprinkling of c-level executives. Senior guys she and all her peers craved to engage.  She had no lectern, but would speak from a stage in to a sea of faces.  She had brought her best blue Armani skirt suit just in case, but it stayed in its case. She shook out a cream silk salwar kameez she would wear on occasion in Delhi to impress visitors, muted, elegant and Indian. It came with a brown dupatta with intricate threadwork. She put it on. And simple shoes.  And then she picked up her laptop bag and walked to the conference, no layers and no makeup.

Last 5 posts by Amrita Bakshi


  1. Lisa

    Loved the story.. Its beautifully written..

  2. Archana

    I loved the story..After coming to U.S , I have been wearing western dresses to go outside and the salwar Kameez is always for indian parties. Even , I had asked my mom who came to visit me to wear salwar not saree which always wears….

  3. Amrita

    Thank you very much Archana. That is a good point on the Saree, i do that too.

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