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regular-article-logo Sunday, 26 May 2024

The story of struggle and pain of Calcutta's veteran Chinese hairdresser Winnie Vidi Vici

Her life might have been rough around the edges and low on the gloss, but the same cannot be said of her craft

Paromita Kar Published 10.09.23, 05:10 AM

There are people who come into your space for a short while, intermittently, and yet leave a touch of care and a lesson in dedication.

Winnie Aunty is a golden 72 now; 54 of those she has spent as a hairdresser, a craft she seems to be only getting finer at with every silver strand.

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The iconic Sunflower salon on Russell Street off Park Street may have moved address for a while now, but that has been Winnie Aunty’s workplace since inception. Prior to that, she worked in a parlour called Fairy on Chowrin- ghee Lane.

Winnie Aunty was born in Tangra in east Calcutta, the traditional home of the Chinese community of the city. The ethnic Chinese made a population that peaked to over 20,000 in the early 20th century. Soon after her birth, the family moved to Kalimpong and then to Manipur, possibly in search of a better living.

She says, “I started working very early in life. My father passed away when I was 11, so I needed to look after my mother and brother, who was seven years younger than me.”

A young Winnie joined the welfare unit at Our Lady of Providence on AJC Bose Road, doing embroidery work on tablecloths, tea cosies, napkins and so on. But it was not
sufficient to feed a family. That is when she joined a beauty parlour to train as
a hairdresser.

“At first I used to make buns, gradually learning the step cut, out curls, in curls, boy’s cut...” Thus grew her love for styling hair. Then, without the asking, she voices a regret —“No studies.”

But what has education got to do with knowledge anyway? Whenever a hair care company offers something new, she is present at the workshop or demonstration. “You can never say I know enough, there’s always something new to learn,” she says plainly. “I will not stop working, I will look after my old clients... some of them cannot even walk.”

No matter which part of her life Winnie Aunty talks about, her tone remains almost the same — calm, sans frills. Only, once in a while she lets a soft chuckle pass, much like a schoolgirl’s.

The anecdotes flow. She says, “Once, Asha Parekh came for a haircut. She came in a burqa... I first met Sharmila Tagore when she had just got married. She gets her hair done by me even now. Every time she is in Calcutta, I go over to where she stays — at her friend Sunita Kumar’s place. When her children were young, they would pull her leg, saying, ‘Oh, you are going to Calcutta for a haircut?’ Once when Pataudi was here and needed a haircut, it was I who did it. I have been doing Sunita Kumar’s hair too for years now.” There are many more rich and famous who trust their tresses in her care. “All of them love me.”

Winnie Aunty lives with her husband, who is 81 and cannot move around much, in their Beckbagan home. “A simple, one-room flat,” she says. Her extended family lives in the same building. “My husband has a large family, they were seven brothers.” Now only three remain.

Old timers of Sunflower would be familiar with the name Patsy, who was was the eldest sister-in-law. With her at the helm, Sunflower was born in 1976. “She took care of everything, the finances, the family... Now her daughter-in-law manages the business,” says Winnie Aunty. “We as a family have been through a lot.”

The story of how she met her husband is out of those old romance novels. “Those days most Chinese boys used to hang around New Market and Nizam’s. After work, I boarded a bus to go home and noticed that he too was in there. In fact, he had been following me for days. One day, I told him sharply, ‘Stop following me!’ And the poor man turned the other way, pretending to ask someone for some address. Of course, he wasn’t dissuaded and continued to come after me.” The man worked in a shoe shop, and later in the restaurant business.

In time came two daughters and a son. But Winnie Aunty faced the biggest curve ball life can spring — the loss of a child, her elder daughter. The young woman met with an accident in Vienna, where she lived with her husband. “She was waiting at a crossing on her way home, which was two buildings away. Can you imagine?” Her younger daughter lives in Canada, and son in Calcutta.

Has she ever thought of leaving Calcutta? “No, this is where my life is. I don’t mind visiting someplace for a few days, but I cannot live there. Whenever I go to Vienna or Canada, I go into a salon and simply sit and watch those professionals at work.”

Thus she goes on, even after a job is complete. Taking a few steps back, she looks at her work from this angle and that, caresses the ends, gives it a final stroke with her brush, ever so lightly. And then perhaps another.

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