Most women enjoy a special relationship with their beauty salon. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t endure epic bus journeys through interminable Southall traffic towards Neelam and Kuldeep’s magic fingers at the Beauty Room in west London. There, childhood taunts of “Brezhnev eyebrows” and “she-man mush” are waxed and threaded away – even as Sikh guilt about removing sacred hair sprouts up. Curiously, I never did get rid of my “Bearded Lady”/ “Elvis” sideburns.
Both comic and serious, my play Lotus Beauty was inspired by the Beauty Room and the multigenerational women of British Asian suburbia (such as in my home of Southall), who frequent ladies-only salons to pamper and preen themselves, gossip and wax lyrical about their successes, share struggles and find sanctuary and community with other women. There, they make cosmetic changes to their lives. But scratch a polished veneer, and sometimes, a deeper malaise runs beneath. Lotus Beauty seeks to peel away the hidden layers of what it means to be Asian and female in modern Britain, holding up a mirror to see the light and shadows reflecting back.
I first conceived the play in 2007, when data revealed that 80 out of 240 rail suicides in Britain occurred on the stretch of track running through Southall, Slough and other largely Asian areas. In 2005, Navjeet Sidhu, 27, had jumped to her death at Southall station, holding her five-year-old daughter and 23-month-old son. Six months later, Navjeet’s inconsolable mother killed herself at the same spot.
Growing up in Southall, one becomes disturbingly inured to the desperate ends chosen by isolated women, many of them victims of emotional, physical and sexual violence but also more recently, male immigrants trapped in unforgiving circumstances. Yet while a mere inconvenience for disrupted commuters, the tragic loss of those lives is always shocking, distressing and forgotten too quickly. Lotus Beauty remembers them.
The play draws on Homer’s Odyssey and Alfred Tennyson’s The Lotos-Eaters, reflecting on how some British Asians have become modern “Lotus Eaters”, settling into a blissful forgetfulness of who they are and where they come from. In the capitalist swamps of modern Britain, they lose themselves in the external beauty of status and materialism, racing up social and corporate ladders, obsessing about how they look, how much they earn, how many houses and cars they own – a 21st-century narcosis and spiritual bankruptcy that in truth afflicts us all. Such rampant individualism has hurt our women and our communities. In Lotus Beauty, it manifests through characters who are disconnected from their deeper selves, women who become each other’s worst enemies, complicit in one another’s suffering, absolving husbands/brothers/sons/fathers and fathers-in-law of their actions as the women inflict emotional pain on each other.
Infused with the eastern symbolism of the lotus, the play suggests that beauty is about daring to let our superficial masks drop – by truly confronting ourselves and connecting with those around us more deeply. If we did, maybe other Navjeet Sidhus could bloom, like the strong, spirited Asian women the play celebrates, who have overcome struggles in Britain to lift up and hold other women and their communities together.
Act 3 Late Afternoon
In her anorak, BIG DHADHI hobbles into the cubicle. TANWANT embraces her.
TANWANT Sat Sri Akal BD! You no come whole week! We miss you!
BIG DHADHI Big boss here?
TANWANT points to the next cubicle.
BIG DHADHI [looks around the cubicle] Never be in here. Bigger than my room.
PINKY [tugs BIG DHADHI’S beard] BD, Mum wants me to be a beautician like her – –
BIG DHADHI No be your Mum. Be you.
PINKY [tugs BIG DHADHI’S beard] Let me chop it off
BIG DHADHI slaps PINKY’S hand. She sits on the beauty couch, pressing her knees.
BIG DHADHI Why, when man grow big beard, people call it wisdom? When woman grow big beard, they make big joke?
PINKY picks up an electrolysis pen and waves it at BIG DHADHI.
PINKY Mum’s got all this expensive laser stuff. If we zap your beard, it won’t ever grow back yeah?
BIG DHADHI I take amrit.
PINKY So what if you’re baptised? The Ten Gurus will understand.
TANWANT [to BIG DHADHI] Sikh people has to live with unwanted hair back then. With electrolysis and IPL, you no has to.
BIG DHADHI Bad womans take out hair, take out root. Pinky, you watch TV all day, all night. Hair like TV aerial to Waheguru. We peoples, we lost, need hair for fine-tune to Waheguru. If peoples rip out hair, how we get reception to Waheguru?
PINKY [waving the pen at BIG DHADHI] You had an accident
TANWANT Big roti accident!
PINKY You were making rotis for Dad and the boys and the kitchen towel caught fire on the iron thava, burnt your beard clean off!
TANWANT BD, you always make the roti at home?
BIG DHADHI You think Reita make?
TANWANT She always say she do.
BIG DHADHI If she make, her nylon nail fall in Harmeet roti. He fed up with nail polish roti. He say, ‘After 25 year, her roti still look like wiggly maps of Punjab’.
PINKY and TANWANT laugh loudly, quickly stifling their laughs.
BIG DHADHI Like how she tell everyone she 50. But really she 55?
PINKY She lies about her age?
BIG DHADHI Tanni know – in India, in past time, we not know what is birthday.
TANWANT I no even know my real age.
PINKY See: ‘Tanni – born to fake it to make it!’
BIG DHADHI Boy like your Dad get star chart when born. No girl like Reita. So when we peoples first come UK, we no member girl birth date, only boy birth date, so we make up birthday for all girl passport. Reita Dad not member her real age. So he make her passport age five year young. Best thing he do her. Her Mum member real age later. But Reita keep passport age. She change age like she change name. Mum spell it R.I.T.A. when she born. Reita change it later, cos she think she Miss World.
PINKY and TANWANT try to stifle their laughs. REITA bursts into the cubicle.
REITA Keep it down! [Sees BIG DHADHI.] Oh – you’re here. I’m almost done.
REITA heads back into her cubicle.
BIG DHADHI Pinky, naap my knees. Aaja. [Points to head.] Up here, I walk so fast. But shill shell body no walk so fast…
PINKY presses BIG DHADHI’S knees. TANWANT potters around the cubicle.
PINKY BD, some girls like taking off hair from down there.
BIG DHADHI Kitho? [Looks down.] Leg? Toe? I got very long toe hair – long as your head hair. [Touches PINKY’S hair.]
PINKY No, down there!
BIG DHADHI [looks all over the floor] Down where?
PINKY [giggles and points below] They take off hair from their
BIG DHADHI Where?
TANWANT covers her mouth in horror. PINKY bursts into laughter.
BIG DHADHI Dhor fitteh mooh!
BIG DHADHI covers her face with her chunni. TANWANT and PINKY stifle laughter.
BIG DHADHI [confused] Why?
TANWANT So no nasty tangle.
BIG DHADHI Ho Raba, how much dark fall when woman be girl?
PINKY And how much dark fall when old woman be old man?
BIG DHADHI Girl no be girl? Woman be woman?
PINKY Bearded woman be woman and bearded man be bearded man?
BIG DHADHI Sachi! Girl try be old. Woman try be young. Ek run forward too fast. Ek run back too fast. Crash! Who happy?
PINKY If I had –
REITA comes in, with her red makeup case, gesturing to keep the noise down.
PINKY – a bikini wax done –
REITA You won’t.
PINKY [ignores REITA] I’d have a thin line of hair running from my stomach to [points below] down there
REITA We don’t do bikini waxes on young girls
PINKY Says the beauty pimp. [To TANWANT.] What do they call that line?
TANWANT Landing strip.
BIG DHADHI Like at airport?
PINKY [enacts an aeroplane motion with her hands] When the landing strip has been laid, the airplane comes flying into laaaaand!
PINKY laughs hysterically. TANWANT stifles her laughs. BIG DHADHI is silent.