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Finger on tweezer

Bapi Pramanik at work inside Maa Kalpana Gents Beauty Parlour. Pictures by Samir Mondal

Belpahari’s breathless beautician Bapi Pramanik must strip down to his vest to facial his clients fast.

Outside his parlour, it is as if the heat is bottled inside a sealed cap. Inside, he has a cooler blowing.

Bapi has nice biceps and a fashionable stubble scraping sculpted jaws. Yes he’s handsome even if he’s a shorty. Not my type.

Nothing personal, so let’s break away for a split-second and issue a disclaimer: This reporter of The Telegraph is writing to you from one of India’s poorest districts, poorer even than much of sub-Saharan Africa. Now, deal.

Here’s the story: Bapi is hurrying because he wants to be able to make it to see the Bengali film star, Dev. Can he make it?

Dev, the star, will land in this forested outback named Belpahari at a southwestern tip of Bengal in a helicopter with Mamata Banerjee in a couple of hours for an early afternoon rally. Belpahari is at an intersection with Jharkhand and Odisha.

Bapi the beautician has been at work since 8 in the morning and he looks guiltily at friend and classmate Pankaj Pal, a private tutor, who too has been waiting hours for his turn in the vanity seat.

Bapi runs a unisex salon but has named it the Maa Kalpana Gents Beauty Parlour.

Meyeder beshi shomoy laagey (Women take too much time),” he explains. “Aami soptahe ei 8-10 joner jonno shomoy baar korte paari aar tao amader porichito (I can make time for just 8 to 10 of them in a week and that too those who we know). But I prefer the men (15-20 a day) because there really isn’t enough space and there are not enough hands to meet the demands of the women. (Bapi employs three other boys). Mala-di’r kaachhey pathiye di (I send them to Mala-di, a friend of his) who does most of the work for women either at home or by visiting people but she is away in Ghatsila (in Jharkhand) today.”

Because he is in such a hurry this morning, he is only taking in queued-up customers who want a haircut and a shave.

That means no women right now inside Maa Kalpana’s tiny cube that is Bapi’s salon in the market on Belpahari’s main road.

But the thinny 16-year-old schoolboy whose scalp he is massaging is insistent. The schoolboy is in a blingy white shirt over drainpipe jeans. He has been waiting awhile to be primed up for the Dev rally. (The girls will be there). After his faint moustache is trimmed he wants his hair should be “ishpike” (spiked).

Bapi reaches for a small toothpaste-type tube of gel that will fashion the flicks on the kid’s forehead skyward, in gravity-defying arcs — like the palm trees in the rolling plains of “Maoist-infested” Jungle Mahal.

Forests of fire and plains of peace, the contradictions of beauty in this rakish terrain are now both: crafted in parlours and lurking from a wilderness. Choose yours.

At Shiuli Sahoo’s in Silda, 7km short of Belpahari on the road from Jhargram where she charges Rs 10 for plucking eyebrows at her “DEAR Ladies Beauty Parlour & Tailors”, life wills itself even when she’s focussed with the tweezer. She can hear explosions in her head, she says, while going from follicle to follicle.

THE KALPANA PACK

What Dev can expect if he drops in at Bapi’s salon

• Rosewater-wash
• Scrub clearance
• Massage gel
• Face pack
• Nourishing cream
• After-shave/ perfumed spray

Belpahari beauties and Silda sirens really have little to bargain with. Why not look good, meanwhile.

Shiuli Sahoo, 39, lives with her husband, Satyaranjan, 45, and their two daughters in a rented two-storeyed house with three rooms that includes the parlour, for Rs 3,500 a month. Satyaranjan says that till last year they lived in a mud-hut a little inside of the street-town.

The move into a pucca house is Jungle Mahal’s “peace-dividend” for them.

Five minutes from her parlour is the Silda police camp where 24 men of the paramilitary Eastern Frontier Rifles (EFR) were gunned down by a Maoist hit squad in January 2010. The place where the camp was is now a permanent settlement for the armed police within walls that are painted in Mamata Banerjee’s favourite blue-and-white colours.

Now the past merely intrudes into the present. The present is in what we are.

Satyaranjan, Shiuli’s husband, will wonder that the EFR men earned measly salaries themselves. And they were killed by the hungry. Widows still cope with a life beyond parlours and in the camps or quarters in Kharagpur, just some 60km from here. Shiuli is fortunate, says Satyaranjan who wanted to flee from here but could not afford to.

“We were all Maoists”, says Dilip Mahato, half-mocking, the anchal (area) sabhapati (president) of the Trinamul Congress’ Dharampur locality. Dharampur, bordering Lalgarh, was where villagers stormed into CPM leader Anuj Pandey’s three-storeyed-house in June 2009, the year of the last Lok Sabha elections. A three-storeyed private house here is a symbol of prosperity and prosperity here means ill-gotten wealth. Rice costs Rs 2 a kg for the poor here since then.

It cost Rs 16 per kg when memory intrudes for those who are older. This reporter remembers being to Amlashole village, in the same block (Binpur II) as Belpahari in 1990 to report on starvation. It wasn’t an issue till a decade afterwards, by when Bengal’s politics began crackling.

By then Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, having taken over from Jyoti Basu, was delusive about bringing in capital at the cost of land. It was just so overwhelming for him that there were so many people to deal with and so many kinds of them. And there were the Maoists led by a Kishenji who was killed for a peace to be gained through regime-change.

Recent history makes up mind here in Jungle Mahal. Fairness creams and their rigorous application are a frivolous extension of the argument that beauty will defy. But they exist on the newly-paved roads of this rough and ready place.

“We were always smart,” says Satyaranjan, whose wife Shiuli is so busy because she runs the beauty parlour in Silda. “And the tribals here have been much smarter (hushiyar)”. In their parlour, he says, they draw a half-and-half clientele of tribals and non-tribals.

In Belpahari, beautician Bapi Pramanik, impatient and energetic, just wants to get rid of unwarranted, uninvited guests. “Kuchhu toh haariya kheto, akhon toh ekhane aasey,” he says in a moment of indiscretion. (Many used to just drink haariya — the intoxicant rice brew — at least some of them come here now)”.

Bapi is still trying to make it to Dev’s rally with Mamata Banerjee. That 16-year-old schoolboy has left with his temporary “ishpike”. A somewhat older man has taken his place. Bapi washes his face with rosewater. He says the man had made a booking two days’ earlier.

After the rosewater-wash there are still five steps to go through:

• scrub clearance

• massage gel

• face pack

• nourishing cream

• after-shave/perfumed spray.

The whirr of a Sikorsky helicopter chops through hot dry air over a forest of Sal trees while the facial is done.

Bapi does manage to make it at a jog to see Dev just as I am leaving the rally. The Ghagra Falls on the Tarapheny River, cascading water over 20-feet rocks, beckon before sunset. India’s beauty fascinates.

• Belpahari is part of Jhargram constituency, which votes on May 7