Thursday, April 4, 2019

Bharati Desai

Bharati Desai lives in a world of authenticity 
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"Sheevani, you've got good technique. Maybe you could be a hairdresser!"

It was Saturday evening and preparations were underway for a night out in East Lansing. It was my last year at Michigan State University and the bars saw better attendance from me than my classes. My roommate asked if I could curl her hair, so I set her up in my bedroom in front of the make-shift vanity constructed from the cheapest material a college student could find.

"Umm, no... I think Sheevani could do MUCH better than that!"

My roommate's older sister was visiting for the weekend. She was at least 4 years older than us and didn't ever let us forget it. In the 15 hours she had been at our place, no comment was left un-criticized or dismissed because we were "soooo young." My breath tightened at that last comment and I forced a tight smile. I mean, how could she know? I looked in the mirror at the reflection of my roommate whose eyes were as big as saucers.

"Sis, shut up..."

"No, I'm serious. The women I've come across at salons aren't the sharpest tools in the shed! Super trashy. I mean, good thing they can do hair because most of them can't do anything else."

My heart rate was speeding up at the awkwardness of it all. I tried to reassure my roommate through facial expressions that I was okay, but it did not work.

"Would you shut up! Sheevani's mom is a hairdresser!"

Boom.

"Oh... I'm so sorry, I didn't mean..."

"It's fine, don't worry about it." I said. But it wasn't fine. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled and my throat was suddenly dry and holding a lump the size of the foot in big sister's mouth. She didn't insult my mother directly, but it was close enough. And I was honestly very shocked at how angry I got within 15 seconds of a person deriding her profession. It wasn't like she said my mom was trashy or stupid, but apparently that didn't matter. I learned that day that if someone so much as insults the general vicinity of my mother... I'll cut a bitch.

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When I asked my mom if she'd be okay with me writing about her for this week's post, she looked a bit surprised and said, "Okaayyy." That response suggested she needed further clarification, so I explained how I think her story is so interesting. "Oh, I don't think my story is anything special," she brushed off. And that humility about her life and accomplishments is a big reason I wanted to write about her.

Not only is it special... to me, her story is extraordinary.

Contractor #9
Being the 9th child can be pretty chaotic. With 6 older sisters and 2 older brothers, my mother felt like she had 10 parents growing up. All opinions had to be considered and most life decisions had to be approved by numerous mother and father figures. Bharati Contractor couldn't make a move without majority endorsement of her elders.

One summer break, my mother attended a cooking class with her older sister (#3, Sarla), in order to hone some skills in the kitchen. The college where she took the cooking course also needed models for their beauty program. At 5' 5", my mother was considered quite tall, and was asked to model some saris and also enter the school's pageant. For a girl who didn't know how to apply her own make-up, she was shocked to win the title of Ms. Gulistan College. From that pageant win, she was offered modeling work from a big sari wholesaler, which for many girls would have been a dream break into the entertainment business. Her pictures would be in the popular Femina magazine and distributed all over the country.

Alas, her 10-person parental panel did not approve, and she turned down the chance to break into the modeling world. Actually, not all 10 were in agreement. My grandfather, who was very liberal for his time, was all for it. However, my extremely religious grandmother cringed at the thought of her daughter's image plastered everywhere for thousands of people to see. While I'm sure she was a bit disappointed, I don't get the sense that Mummy feels like she missed out on her calling. There is no resentment towards her family for steering her away from those opportunities. Her beauty queen glory was short-lived, but remembered with fondness.

19th They Meet, 26th They Marry
Whenever I tell people about my parents getting married, I've always said, "They got married 2 weeks after meeting!" I'm sorry to report that I've been a liar for many years because through the conversation for this post, I learned that it was actually ONE WEEK. They met on Saturday, January 19, 1974, and married on Saturday, January 26, 1974.

We romantics out there may think it was some whirlwind affair where they saw each other across a crowded room, sparks flew, and they ran off and eloped in the name of love. Sorry, folks. My mother and father getting hitched isn't a story replete with soap opera style drama, but I think it's pretty fascinating.

I'll try to summarize:

  • My mom was actively seeking a dude after a couple other suitors fell through. (Remember this is India, the land of arranged marriage where parents are actively involved in finding suitable spouses.)
  • My dad, nearing 40, was the subject of much concern from his family since there was no lady in sight.
  • My dad, who was already living in Detroit, came back to India to attend a funeral. The same day of the funeral, he was to attend a wedding in the evening. Since he had been emotional all day, his brother suggested stopping by a friend's flat to freshen up for the wedding. That friend happened to be the husband of my mom's sister. 
  • My mom came to visit that sister the same night. As she entered, there was Janak Desai, in all his bell-bottomed and side-burned glory. 
  • After he left for the wedding, my mom told her sister she thought my dad was a fox.
  • My dad was all about the smoke show that was Bharati Contractor.
  • Both families went ballistic with excitement and checked each of their horoscopes to make sure the moon and stars were properly aligned for the match... or something, I'm not sure, but apparently everything checked out with their Virgo/Capricorn combo.
  • The next day, Sunday, the families got together over a meal and decided the wedding was on.
  • All week my dad took my mom to meet various friends and family members as his betrothed.
  • On Saturday the 26th, they married.
Yup, easy as pie. What struck me when my mom was recounting all of this was the complete lack of trepidation or doubt. "Weren't you scared?" I asked... several times. My thoughts were consumed with how she barely knew him, how she was going to move to an entirely different country with him, how during that week between the arrangement and ceremony, they hadn't even been alone together very much. Mummy just shrugged and said that because she knew his family so well (his brothers were buds with her brothers), she felt absolutely secure. My dad fulfilled her two husband requirements: he came from a good family and was well-educated.

"Actually, I was scared that Daddy wouldn't like my cooking... I knew how to make some things, but not like a whole meal." She expressed this to him and his response was, "It's okay, as long as it's edible and not kachu (undercooked), I'll like it." Well, good... they cleared up the heavy stuff. 

Coming To America
My mother arrived in America on May 23, 1974, after all the immigration paperwork went through. This was the part of her story I was most curious about. What were her expectations? How did it compare to what she imagined? Was my dad supportive during the transition? Consistent with how she describes the fast-track wedding hoopla, she dismissed all of my assumptions of difficulty with a simple, "It was okay!" 

My father had told her that life in America was very different, but that the experience would be absolutely priceless. "You will learn so much," he told her. When Mummy talks about those early days, she admits to being very hesitant to speak to Americans for fear they wouldn't understand her English. My dad would always encourage her. "You must try... if they don't understand you, what's the big deal?" Instead of speaking for her, my dad made sure Mummy used her own voice. To further build her confidence with English, she took night classes at my future high school. Beyond that, her English tutors were popular American television shows like Good Times, All in the Family, and even Sesame Street. Again, my assumption was that Mummy would talk about a huge transitional period where she cried all the time; how living with Daddy caused a lot of fighting; and how she longed for her family back in India. Nope... Mummy made it clear that she had been ready to start her life as a married woman, in any country, for a long time.  

"Speaking English was the only thing that scared you?" I asked. 

"Pretty much... that and the cold weather. Winter was hard." 

My mom mastered English... but she still hates winter.  

From Time-Pass to Career Success
I was very young when my mother attended cosmetology school and it occurred to me recently that I really had no idea how she chose that path. I figured there had to be a discussion with my father and, knowing him, he would have had a lot of opinions on the subject. Daddy was a liberal guy, but that didn't stop me from asking if he was okay with my mom working.   

"Were expectations discussed? Did you always know you'd work? What did Daddy think?" I asked.

She said Daddy was extremely supportive and that she always knew she wanted to work, but wasn't sure what to pursue. Since my father worked a job that required normal 9-5 hours, he was adamant that whatever job Mummy chose be something flexible or part-time. Both of them agreed that her job would be one to keep busy or "time-pass" as Indians say, but not interfere with the lives of us kids. 

My mother had an interest in hair styling and beauty since her time in India, where she had taken courses and earned a certificate. My father liked the idea of her pursuing this field because he said it would make her happy. "You may not make the most money, but you will come home happy." So in 1984, she enrolled at Mr. Bela's School of Cosmetology in Madison Heights, Michigan. The school even gave her credit for her previous courses in India, which shortened the duration of her training by several months. 

Going to cosmetology school was the first time Mummy had regular interaction with a variety of people. She recalls how there were people from all different backgrounds, which was as much an education to her as the hair and skincare courses. She impressed her instructors with how naturally she took to the skills, and they even asked to learn some of her Indian beauty techniques. Eyebrow threading blew their minds! A salon owner named Theresa was taking courses at the same time to earn a teaching certificate. She always noticed Mummy's work and kept an eye on her at the school. Before my mom even took the State Board Licensing Exam, Theresa offered her a job at her salon in Royal Oak. Daddy was very impressed that his wife had been recruited prior to graduation! 

Theresa's Touch of Class was where Bharati Desai's career began. Mummy speaks so fondly of Theresa and that experience. "I learned so much... not only about hair, but how to handle clients." A major downside and ultimately the reason she left was the heavy smoking in the salon. Hey, it was the 80s, your stylist could have a ciggie hanging off her lip while she applied perm solution to your mullet! Mummy was lured to a new salon in the upscale city of Birmingham... where there was a no-smoking policy. Unfortunately the owner was clueless and the place went under in about a year. Coming off of that disappointment, a friend of hers recommended JCPenney's Styling Salon. "They use the same skin care line which you got certified in, so you'd be going in with an advantage." My mom walked in and the manager said, "Toni sent you? I don't need to know anything else... when can you start?" And with that, my mom hit the jackpot with JCPenney and ended up working there for close to 25 years. And that is the only time you will ever read "jackpot" and "JCPenney" in the same sentence. 

Being the only Indian woman in the cosmetology field ended up being an accidental boon for my mother. With all of the Indian immigration to the Detroit area, Bharati Desai became the go-to stylist and esthetician for a large number of newly arriving ladies. Her talent combined with word of mouth also opened up a side business of bridal styling for Indian weddings. When she wasn't at the salon, she spent many Saturday mornings in a hotel suite beautifying Indian brides, from their hair and make-up to perfectly fitting their elaborate wedding sari. This niche market amassed an impressive client roster and my mother would be booked solid for months at a time. My father once joked, "I used to introduce Bharati as my wife, but now I'm just known as Bharati's husband!" 

Her career is where I see my mother's story as very unique and admirable. For a woman in the Indian community to pursue a career in a field that wasn't seen as lucrative was rare... and to be supported by her husband who saw the value of her emotional well-being over dollars in a bank account... even more rare. Mummy told me how it was common for a lot of wives like her to find entry level jobs at banks. Working at a bank was practical, sounded dignified and definitely paid well. So often, and especially in the Indian community, the optics of one's life can outweigh actual fulfillment. Oh, what will people think? Will this job be good for my image? I love that my mom knew herself enough to take a path of genuine interest versus practicality, and I further love that my dad supported her all the way. 

Widow's Peak
Immediately after my father died, Mummy's well-being was our #1 concern. How would she manage? Can she handle the grief? What will she do without him? Well, let me just say that she was the pillar of strength for all of us during that time. We had absolutely nothing to worry about. She grieved in her own way, which was to cry minimally, pray a lot and recognize that this was part of life. This isn't to suggest that she didn't go through tough periods, or that her grace faltered at times -  but as a whole I am in awe of how my mother has handled herself in the years after Daddy's death. She is truly enjoying her life, just as my dad would have wanted.

Years ago I had a conversation that sort of woke me up to the significance of Mummy's path. A woman I worked with had also lost her father, so we were discussing our mothers as widows one day at the office. I had mentioned how I was going to surprise my mom at JCPenney for her last day. After Daddy passed, we convinced Mummy to retire. She was more than ready to start the next phase of her life, and that phase wouldn't include punching a time clock. 

"It's so awesome that your mom has that career and accomplishment," my co-worker said, "My mom is so lost without my dad. Her entire identity was being his wife and, now that he's gone, she doesn't really know what she likes or who she is." 

Her comment knocked me into a perspective I had never really thought about. My mind sort of rewound and played back a sped up version of Mummy's life. I saw how her identity had taken shape and evolved with unexpected, and sometimes unfortunate, events along the way. What was supposed to be a job to "keep busy" while her kids were in school turned into a successful career that ended up providing for our family. As my father's career in finance stagnated and eventually ended with forced retirement, my mother's JCPenney Styling Salon job provided health insurance along with continuing income. Another benefit of working there was a 401K to which my mom contributed for close to 25 years. Thanks to that, she was able to purchase a brand new condo all on her own after she sold the house in Royal Oak. For a woman who was afraid to speak English when she first arrived in America, I think that's pretty badass.

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I've been a witness to my mother's life for the past 40 years, but it wasn't until the last decade that I really appreciated her on a deeper level. Things really came into clear focus after I had my kids. There are too many instances to list but, suffice it to say, I've been at peak vulnerability in a myriad of areas since becoming a mother, and Mummy has been there with me through all of it. Sometimes silently, sometimes with words of encouragement, and sometimes through mental reminders of all she has conquered. As I get older and go through experiences as a woman, a wife, and a parent, I find myself hungry for the stories of my mother. I want to understand as much as I can from her perspective because it helps inform so much about how I approach many situations. I regret missing out on these conversations with my father before he died... I'm not making that same mistake with Mummy.

Writing this post has opened my eyes to a stark parallel between our lives. Here I am pursuing an unorthodox path with comedy/acting, and she did the same with her career as a cosmetologist. I cannot believe I didn't see that before, but as we were discussing her past, I realized that she boldly took a path that wouldn't necessarily be received as impressive or respected by her community. But she didn't care. That's where our paths diverge a bit. If you noticed, I kept asking Mummy if she was "scared" at so many points during our conversation. And every time she quickly bobbed those shoulders up and said, "Not really." I've spent a lot of my life being scared, but after combing through the major life events that Mummy forged through with a positive attitude, I have a shining example to reference at those fearful times.

Bharati Desai's story isn't one of fame and fortune. It is a story of taking life as it comes and handling it with resilience. It is a story of selfless acts for friends and family. It is a story of finding hidden strength and unexpected independence. It is a story of hard work. It is a story of how expectations have to evolve in order to find peace. Most of all, it is a story of the power and presence of unconditional love. 

I love you, Mummy. xo 

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