(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 3rd October 2009)
One of the most fascinating discoveries I made right after my move to Delhi two years ago, is the word ‘kharab’. It goes with just about everything, and has the advantage of sounding as offensive as a swearword without carrying the label. I loved how switches are kharab, milk goes kharab, someone can make your mind kharab, this pen is kharab…I was in love with the word!
And then it happened. I remember that fateful day, as I stepped in from the winter evening into the heated interior of a salon. I smiled warmly at its occupants, only to be greeted with a look of intense pity and the damning statement, “madam, your skin is so kharab.”
I would have been less surprised if someone had told me my face was blue. I write with an ink pen and the finesse with which I handle it is rather pathetically at discord with the maternal love with which I care for it (no one else is allowed to use it, it lies on a bed of handkerchiefs and I bathe it every other day).
Back to the point – I was the only kid in school not to sport a single pimple, and not an extra pigment permeated my skin despite years of swimming and biking under the Madras sun.“It’s tanned, it’s dry, you have an oily T-zone, you have open pores, it’s bilcul kharab,” my interlocutor certified, as others gathered round.
And suddenly, as I looked at the mirror, I could see craters open up in my face, my skin grow a few shades darker, white patches peel off, oil spills on my nose and forehead, and pimples sprout across my cheeks. I shook my head to clear it, and then looked rather admiringly at the said interlocutor.
I think it’s a course they do. Before they learn how to thread and tweeze and wax and cut, they are taught how to depress a customer with carefully chosen insults, and then offer an array of treatments that would otherwise be laughed away.
“You should wax your hairline,” one woman suggested, and stared blankly when I shot back, “it’s a Widow’s Peak! It gives me my arrogant look!”
“Yes, madam, you’ll look friendly without it,” she agreed, after absorbing the information.
“I try very hard not to.”
“Or madam, laser treatment lelo. It looks very kharab.”
Lasers to me were those light sabers they used in the Star Wars movies (and I have to grudgingly admit, something my dentist used to seal a lot of white cavity-filling goop), but NOT something you target at your face to destroy a Widow’s Peak.
On the subject of hair, I’m one of those people who are actually grateful for the curls. I enjoy it when people with straight hair are envious of my mop, and refuse empathy when my curly-haired acquaintances wistfully ask me whether I would not rather have had easier-to-manage hair.
“Mine’s pretty easy to manage,” I say, running my fingers right through it, “I wash and condition it every day.”
It’s not just my USP, but the storehouse of my humour. Yes, I do find I’m rather less witty and slower on the uptake when it’s been blow-dried straight. It’s the reason I can wake up and rush to office, and look like I have spent hours styling my hair. It’s my claim to fame – I was once stopped and photographed by a hair products company at Covent Garden, and made two hundred pounds for the trouble.
So, when someone blasphemed, “madam, why don’t you go for hair rebonding?”, I turned back and said in my syrupy voice, “because I think people with straight hair look kharab.”
That was the last time I’ve heard the word used in that salon.