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At Home in My Skin

Arti Jain

Born of Punjabi stock, I've inherited the following traits:

1. An innate urge to use made-up, superfluous, and rhyming words. For example, kee laoge—cha, sha, ya paani, shaani? (What would you like? Tea/shea or Water/shawter?)

2. An involuntary impulse to dance—anytime, anywhere—the body takes over even at the slightest hint of a beat.

3. Ample child-bearing hips. "Kuddi healthy honi chaideeyee," my match-making aunts would often advise each other. No size zero would wed their munda (boy). Naa jee! NO WAY!

4. And bounteous facial hair. Yes, you read it right—dark and lush facial hair, especially on the upper lip.

Not all Punjabi females are adorned with all of the above attributes. You will come across chubby ones with hairless chins and cheeks. There are the super slim ones who don't like to dance. Or the quiet ones who don’t use made-up words. Not all Punjabi girls have to worry about their upper lip threading/waxing/bleaching schedule before accepting a social invitation. Not all are so bountifully blessed.

I, however, have been bequeathed with all of the above.

I remember my aunts advising my mother to use ubtan (a face pack made with chickpea flour and other icky ingredients) to get rid of the fine growth that had started appearing when I was about eleven or twelve. My mother didn't push me and anyway she always used to say, 'kum saariyan nu pyaara honda hai, chum nahin' (what you do with your life is more important than what you look like).

Her Teflon words kept me safe from worrying about what I looked like all through my school days till that fateful day in grade nine.

He was my second serious crush. It was a Science lesson. We were copying a diagram from our textbooks. His desk was two rows behind mine, diagonally to my right. So, I kept turning around to talk to the girl sitting behind me for a chance to see him. Crushes were top secret business in the mid-1980s in Dehradun in India. You only shared this secret with your closest girlfriends. Then they would keep you abreast with any voluntary or involuntary actions made by your love interest that would suggest that he too liked you. Even an innocent offer to share a textbook or notes could be read as a serious move. Valentine's Day hadn't yet knocked on India's door. But Mills and Boon had planted enough romantic notions in our hearts to fall for the TDHs of our school.

On this fateful day, while I was busy shading in the chloroplast within the cell membrane of a plant cell, my love interest, I had been informed, was sketching my portrait.

All the sitar strings of my heart and soul were jangling sweet music. Life was perfect.

Zaraa sa turn karna, tumharee muchhoon ka style copy karna hai.” (Turn a bit so I can copy your moustache properly.) His cruel words cracked through my mother’s Teflon coating and crushed me.

I didn't stop liking him, though. In fact, his bad-boy remark made him even more attractive. Even more desirable. 

But from that day on, I started covering up my upper lip with my fingers or hands whenever I met new people or attended weddings and I avoided being photographed at all costs.

Visiting a beauty parlour to get the whiskers waxed or bleached didn't surface in my middle-class Punjabi home. At fifteen, I was supposed to focus on getting straight A's and that was enough. It didn't bother me either. I was my mother's soni kuddi (pretty girl). In grade 12, I ended up as Miss ISC. The photo shows me beaming in my mother's favourite wine-colored Banarasi silk sari with silver butis (motifs). Oh, and my darkish upper lip can be seen stretched in a Colgate smile, standing next to Mr. ISC.

Next year, Delhi University. My college friends introduced me to Fem bleach. I sneaked into my local guardian's bathroom and applied the white mixture, wearing the whiff of stinking hydrogen peroxide that lingered till I'd washed the stinging souffle off. Armoured with a blonde moustache, I was ready for Delhi's hip crowd, or so I thought. Annoyingly, the bleach boldened my upper lip hair even more! They now shone like neon golden signs pointing in my direction—this way to the ‘girl with a moustache’.

Bleach was followed by that very Indian practice of making Punjabi girls pay for their genes—threading. This is where the practitioner uses a thread to create a knot and skillfully pulls each hair out of its root. Does it sound painful to the uninitiated among you? You have no idea just how excruciating it can be, especially if like me, you have sensitive skin. The newly cleaned upper lip skin goes red in protest, swollen and red, like an angry toddler throwing a tantrum.

College days ended. I started working.

For the first time, at the age of 21, the boy I liked, liked me back. Hooray!

No, don't go singing duets in the sunset just yet.

Wait. Ponder on the plight of people with upper lip hair issues. I couldn't just dive into our first kiss when the hormones were raging. No, sir! I had to stop us. Pretend modesty. My threading was due and I didn't want him to notice the little blighters poking up when he came close. I couldn't risk it.

So the first kiss, like any other social engagement like lunches with friends or official dinners or business trips had to be timed perfectly around the threading schedule. Not too soon or I'd be sporting the red Hanuman lips and not too late for obvious reasons.

One of the first things I had to look for when we relocated to London was an Indian threading parlour. Unlike these days, there weren't many of those around in the late 1990s.

At fifty-two, when I examine my reflection in the mirror, I realize that I'm getting comfortable with my Punjabi heritage, at last. A couple of laser treatments in the last few years have made the acceptance of my gene pool easier for sure.

It’s taken me four decades to get here, but I’m happy to have arrived in my body. New wrinkles and old wobbly bits make me who I am. Home at last. At home in my skin.

Arti is a poet, blogger and author who lives in Doha, Qatar, with her husband and half a dozen neem trees. Her work has appeared in The Kali Project, Kindle India Magazine, Gulmohur Quarterly and Poems India. Her second book, Don’t Climb on the Bullock Cart, is forthcoming with Parakeet Books, UK this summer. Arti blogs at My Ordinary Moments.

Twitter: @artijain28

Instagram: @arti.a.jain