A Beautician Par Excellence

By Ravi S. Jha, senior journalist with Khaleej Times

Meera Nanda is a good-looking Indian beautician. A 30 something, she buffs up client’s cheeks, shampoos their loamy hair in a salon. And she does this with apt skill rubbing fairness bleach cream on some wheatish brown skin in the Alwar district of Rajasthan, a north-western desert state.

In India, where millions are passionate about anything fair and lovely, Nanda’s job of making people look beautiful isn’t easy. Her CV doesn’t talk of a career that any professional beautician may feel elated about. Till recently she fought persistently for getting a fair deal.

She was called ‘Harijan’ (children of God), a term widely used for untouchables (social outcasts). As one belonging to the downtrodden, Nanda, prior to her job of beautician, did menial work. So menial that people shunned her. Her own children felt withdrawn and diffident of disclosing her identity. Nanda’s work was to scavenge and clean human waste.

She collected faeces and urine of human inhabitants from their colony, where they had no flush toilets or no toilets at all ! Millions in India have no place to defecate, and they do it anywhere in the open. On roads and by-lanes in crowded slums; on terraces, by the railway lines – anywhere, everywhere. And that is where the job of Nanda and many like her did come handy.

Though this practice of scavenging has now been widely abandoned in India, Nanda’s job till recently was to collect faeces to stuff in a vessel. She then carried this vessel on her head to dispose it of. To let you know how it was done, one has to say it grotesquely: ‘waste deposited in open is collected in a barrel, and then poured out away from inhabitation.’

To do such a job, one needed guts. She went to school till Grade 8, and was married off at a legal age of 18. Not that she was forced into this occupation. She became a part of the tradition – known in India as carrying ‘nightsoil’ – owing to her social group and standing. Even her mother-in-law did the same.

And for the first time she did this job, instead of earning salvation, she was paid Rs. 2 (US $0.04). That night she vomited, was taken ill. The stench of rotten human waste that permeated her mind and soul refused to go. “I smelt and felt horrible. Yet I carried on with this job. A job is a job, after all,” she says.

Days passed by, and for her this not only became a practice, but actually her destiny. When the rest of India was seen growing stronger with its political and economic clout being acknowledged far and wide, Nanda was far away from reality. Till one day Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder, Sulabh International, walked to her doorstep, visiting her squalid home.

Dr. Pathak asked if she was ready to shun this unspeakable inhuman practice to do better in life. For a while she couldn’t believe her ears. She was eagerly looking for this, but how? She mused over the prospect of being included in the mainstream; she began to love to think that even she would now get the much needed socio-economic support. But how?

She was informed that Sulabh International was seeking to help people like her. The colony where she goes to work would get flush toilets, and people would no longer have to defecate in the open. All that happened soon, and Nanda stopped going to work that had kept her busy for very many years.

A little later she was asked to join a training camp that undertook a professional beautician course for people like her. After six months, Nanda began working at Sulabh International centre. She gets about Rs. 2000 (US $46) every month as stipend.  She has roped in her daughter, who helps her to get her towel and cream. Nanda, whose husband is a photographer, is no more an untouchable.

She has left the baggage of dishonour far behind. And thanks to Sulabh International that has taken up the ideology what Mahatma Gandhi had envisioned once. It’s an ideology that connects people to people. An idea that is pulling so many of the fair sex out of the living hell. Nanda is one; many others will follow.