by Rinku Dutta

I have been in numerous awkward, potentially perilous positions before but this one beat them all. There I was, flat on my back, the chipped marble floor cold against my skin, my legs rendered immovable under the ample thighs of a hefty Pakistani woman squatting in the V of my parted legs. No, we were not tangled in a wrestling ring or in a sumo dohyo pitting our strengths and skills in some championship. The Pakistani woman was inspecting me, as would my gynecologist. Except that she was not my gynecologist. She was a "waxing woman" and was about to apply hot, molten wax on my mound of Venus.

As she dipped her butter-knife in caramelized sugar and held it suspended like an executioner's chopper over my pubis, she paused and asked, "Wayse, aap kahan ke hai?" (By the way, where are you from?)

As an Indian in Pakistan, I debated the wisdom of stating the truth. Terrifying visions involving "accidents" with the butter knife, the tin of just-reheated wax and my vulnerable under-legs racing through my mind along with a vivid flashback: my friend Ramesh is sitting in a chair while a bearded barber leans over him, swiping Ramesh's jaws and neck with an oostra, a traditional knife-razor. An overhead TV is tuned to the Kashmir channel and the zealous barber is spewing vitriol against the Indians, the kafir Hindus. Meanwhile, Ramesh Tharwani, a Hindu from Ghotki, Sindh, getting a much-needed shave in the mountains of northern Pakistan where he had gone trekking, frets, "This shave is getting way too close for comfort."

Ramesh survived the encounter to relate the anecdote to us, his Indo-Pakistani friends studying at Rutgers University in New Jersey. But the humor that had accompanied his yarn was missing in my recollection of it, lying apprehensively on the floor of the bedroom of our rented apartment in Lahore. I could only recall his dread.

As it so happened, I had nothing to fear. The waxing woman Khursheed, affectionately called Khushi (Joy) by her family, was born on August 15th, the day India commemorates her independence. Khushi's mother's parents had migrated from India. Her mother was happy that Khushi's propitious birthday would sustain the link with her origins. "Main to Indians se bauhot pyar karti hoon ji; mujhe to unke dance bauhot pasand hai," (I love all Indians. I really like their dances.) admitted Khushi. "Hum to ek jaise hain," (Pakistanis and Indians are so alike.) she asserted, cheerfully spreading the warm wax below my navel, like orange marmalade on brown bread.

Agreed. But we differ in details. Significant details. Precisely the kind Khushi herself was working on- na-pak baal -un-pure hair. I wailed as she yanked off the six-inch by two-inch strip of starched white cloth she had patted over the wax. In one efficient tug, the hair matted into the hardened wax had been uprooted en masse.

In Islam, removing unwanted hair from the body is an act of fitrah (natural disposition). Referring to this, the Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said in the Sunnah, "The fitrah consists of five things: circumcision, trimming the moustache, cutting the nails, plucking the armpit hairs and shaving the pubic hairs." The fatwa (ruling) applied to both men and women and Muslim jurists allowed the use of lime or other depilatory agents. Today, any method, provided it is safe, is considered permissible. This is a hygienic ritual that has to be done, at most every forty days, as a religious binding.

While hygienic practices are also encouraged in Hinduism, such as the use of the left hand strictly for cleaning oneself and the right hand to eat, there are no ritualized guidelines offered or observed on maintaining other kinds of personal hygiene. It is only in response to a recent fashion trend that some ladies' parlors in the Indian mega-cities have begun catering to the rare client who requests "under-legs" waxing. Apparently, "bald eagles" are in demand among the newfangled Indian metro-men!

Among practicing Muslims, maintaining a bush, indulging in creative topiary on special occasions like Valentine's Day, is not an option. Khushi chides me for having lapsed on the decreed time of trimming within forty days. According to her, na-pak hair should not be allowed to grow taller than the length of a grain of barley ("jau ka daana"). The ladies' wax business that Khushi practices draws on this strict religious requirement, as waxing has become the chosen depilatory method among urban women in Pakistan. Under-legs waxing here is more thorough than Brazilian waxing, which leaves a thin "landing strip" of hair. This is the full monty, all the way to the back.

Having been at it for eighteen years, Khushi is very proficient. Within fifteen minutes the job was done. Washing up later, it was like revisiting girlhood-a strange pre-pubescent feeling. I paid Khushi Rs. 450, her charges for full-body waxing. She visits at least two to three customers per day and makes a decent income ranging Rs. 20,000 to 30,000 per month. "Itna to bauhot pardhe-likkhe log kamate hain, ji" (Usually, only very well educated people make this kind of money!), Khushi boasts. Her input costs are minimal: the price of sugar and lemon for the wax, the bukram cloth for the stripping, gas for the motorcycle (her unemployed husband drives her around), cell-phone charges to communicate with her clients. Since she provides home service, she doesn't have to pay for the upkeep of an establishment or taxes. Khushi's clientele include not just those in Lahore but also old customers who have relocated to Rawalpindi and Faisalabad. She relates this with evident pride: "Log mera kaam bauhot pasand karte hain. Kehte hain, hume ye kaam sirf Khushi se hi karana hai" (People appreciate my work a lot. They say that they will only use my services for this job).

Khushi believes that she has made a good career choice. As an uneducated, poor girl with no family support, the common route would have been to become household help. But she had decided against it. To her, that's a low-paying job, entailing menial work with no dignity, where one barely makes Rs. 2,000 to 4,000 per month and often gets abused. Above all, Khushi loves her waxing profession because it offers her a more respectable place in society. She is offering a service, a skill. She is no one's servant to be pushed around against her will and is her own master. With the money she earns she maintains a home, pays for her five children's education, and enjoys a few luxuries. "Shukr Allah ka, main aaj apni marzi se uthti hoon, apni marzi se soti hoon" (By the grace of Allah, today, I rise per my own wishes, I sleep per my own wishes).

Closing the door shut behind her, I paid Khushi grudging respect. With any honesty, I certainly could not claim the same about myself.