It takes three strokes, sometimes four.
Shake the little bottle and tap it against the cup of your palm before unscrewing to find a bead of colour at the end of the brush.
People say the smell of nail varnish is addictive, but let that intoxicating aroma fill the air anyways.
The brush needs to stretch its bristles to the curved ends of each side of the nail, left and right, and a final stroke in the middle to finish. Dip and repeat. Dip and repeat.
And then blow.
Swing your painted nails left to right, like a pendulum in front of your mouth, to let the fresh coat dry quickly.
Ignore a false sense of confidence tempting you to move, that itch under the sleeve can wait.
Perfect nails demand patience.
— Red —
Painting nails was not always such a meticulous process.
When I was too young to know that nails are pampered with specially-made colours, I would pick up bright red and blue “sign pens” from my metal pencil-box and scribble away with a manicurist’s confidence.
At home, I’d try to hide my fingers — roll them up into a tight fist around my thumbs or simply keep my hands behind my back. But mothers see everything. Angry, Aama would scrub the stubborn colour off, staining the porcelain white of our bathroom sink.
She preferred nails bare; I remember Aama only had one or two shades of red polish at the back of her dressing-table drawer. The rare times she did colour her nails, a round of dinner dishes or the weekly laundry would easily chip the paint off.
“Nani, padhnu pardaina? Nachahine nakkal po garcha…”
“You should be studying. Why are you wasting your time on this?”
But she wouldn’t say anything when Bajai, my grandmother, called in the Nauni didi to trim our nails and rub the red alah on our toes.
“Maiya, thana wa!” Bajai would strictly speak to me in Nepal bhasa to make sure I learnt the language.
Under Bajai’s protective eyes, I’d smugly watch Nauni didi slide her small brush over my skin and nails to paint red “shoes” around the feet. The cool of the brush tickled, but my feet then looked like those of a kathak dancer’s, whose red alah designs highlight her rhythmic footwork. It was a guilty pleasure and I would refuse to wash my feet for days to make it last.
There were a lot of things Aama wouldn’t say under the shadow of Bajai’s presence. In the old woman’s eyes, Aama was not the girl her only son should have married — she had sent him to Delhi to study, not bring home a Gurungni from Sikkim.
Bajai had first refused to even let her in the house, I learned later, until father threatened to move out if she didn’t accept his wife, who had fought and left her own family to be with him.
Sons were supposed to take care of their parents in old age. Bajai had married off her four daughters already and her husband was long dead. The matriarch relented.
But the burden of that acceptance weighed heavily on Aama as she strove to be the perfect Newar buhari, an obedient homemaker who woke up before sunrise and slept only after everyone was fed and the kitchen was cleaned spotless.
I’d reply, every time someone asked me what my mother did. But before I was born she worked for a few years as an accountant at a school, quitting after her job became one more weapon in Bajai’s arsenal.
So, instead of balancing accounts, she learnt to balance oil and water to perfect a bara, a Newar delicacy of lentil patty.
Instead of recording salaries on a ledger, she kept track of the money Baba gave her on the first of every month for groceries and other expenses.
Instead of calculating profit and loss, she calculated the kilograms of beaten rice, vegetables and buffalo meat required for a nakhtya, a post-festival feast when my aunts came home and Aama cooked and cleaned all day.
She even trained her tongue to call me Maiya instead of Nani in front of them.
But it was never enough.
Aama says it was only when we were born that something in her changed.
The constant cacophony of people consoling – and berating – her for not bearing sons and telling her how to raise her two daughters only strengthened the rebel in her.
Her daughters were not lesser than sons.
Her daughters would be strong, they would do whatever they wanted.
They would not give up their dreams, would not become her.
Perhaps that’s why she would try to steer us away from stereotypes – away from kitchens and brooms, away from frilly dresses and colourful nail polishes.
I don’t think I owned a bottle of nail polish until my teens.
At my catholic all-girls school, a hint of colour on your eyes or lips would warrant a visit to the principal’s office, with a bountiful of moral policing thrown in. (My friends’ stories would have triggered a trending hashtag today.) Shirts had to be tucked in; skirts couldn’t climb above your knees. Ankle-length socks didn’t count as socks and students had to use uncountable number of clips to tame any loose hair.
I can’t remember the number of eyebrows a girl raised in my class the day she walked in beaming with perfectly-shaped eyebrows. Her smile was short-lived. The pain of her first threading paled against the 30-minutes of suffering of cross-questioning from the teacher, almost a question for each hair plucked.
“What was the need to thread your eyebrows?”
“Do you think you look pretty?”
“Girls in tenth grade don’t waste time doing their eyebrows. They study for their SLC exams!”
Yes, we study, the rest of the class forced a nod in agreement. Sad for her humiliation but grateful for not having to instead take a test the teacher had now forgotten about.
Nail polish in school? Forbidden. Nails had to be trimmed short or you would have to fork up ten rupees for failing the Monday morning nail-checks in the assembly line.
Nail cutter chha? We would ask each other in the mornings if we forgot to trim. Sometimes, in hurry, I’d painfully cut it down to the pink skin of my fingertips. My hands were large and manly — inherited from my grandfather — and the short nails made them appear even more masculine.
My hands would contrast against her slender ones, the kind you see close-ups of in advertisements for expensive watches and diamond rings. Her nails were blue the first time we met. Not the navy blue of the school uniform I’d finally wriggled out of, but blue like the sky or even like the bubble gum she was chewing.
Her nails matched the blue glass beads on her hands. Her pleated skirt was inches shorter than mine and her socks stylishly long.
I met her in college, where shirts didn’t have to be tucked in, hair could fly loose and no one checked our nails.
In class, I automatically walked past the empty seat next to her and her gang. I knew girls like them — they gossiped and laughed in high pitched tones, they cared more about boyfriends and what to wear to the next party than about an assignment, and, right before an exam, they became nice to you to steal your notes.
Nope, she was not “friend material”.
But, ahead of the first internal exams, I was lumped with her for a class project. I remember assuming I’d probably have to do most of the work as I headed to her house to discuss the assignment.
To my surprise, she had already started her research and even planned some parts of the report.
We started talking.
When endless Wikipedia research and copy-pasting bored us, she mischievously pulled me into raiding her sister’s nail polish collection, a palette of colours neatly arranged in a box.
Dusted Pearl, Party Girl, Black Magic, Coral Craze – the names on the little bottles were often as fascinating as the colours inside.
I nervously put my fingers on the edge of her sister’s wooden dressing table, but her hand pulled mine and rested it on her knees.
She opened shade after shade, trying some on and then rubbing it off with a cotton ball, until I found Spring Berries.
It was funny how I had first dismissed her for being too girly and now we were bonding over shades and nails. We were doing things girlfriends do and I, despite myself, was smiling.
I still tease her sometimes and say I never thought we’d be friends. But I’m grateful that that afternoon proved me wrong. I wonder if it weren’t for her, who I would have sneaked out with at night to go dancing? Who would I spend evenings with trying to learn tricks to pass my biology exams? Or who would refuse to leave my side when I battled my biggest loss.
When she was done, a silver tint gleamed on my lavender fingernails, its sweetness hanging in the air.
I didn’t know a girl could be so helpless when her nails are drying. I fanned the coats of polish until they dried, not even going to the bathroom because a button and a zipper could destroy all our work.
I loved it.
The colour on my nails rekindled the same kind of joy as the sign pens did when I was a kid, except now I wouldn’t let Aama touch it.
That little bottle of Spring Berries had amazingly transformed my clunky hands into feminine ones. My nails were not as short as they were in school, and my fingers did not look too bad even next to hers!
And so it began.
My first nail polish was a cheap one from the local cosmetic store. The kind that thickens easily or turns your nails yellow if you wear it for too long. Its label faded away even before I could remember it.
Pink, purple, silver, blue.
Shimmery, glittery, metallic, matte.
Black, for the teenage rebel.
Red, for the lover. For that reflection on the mirror when blood-red nails slid down his bare back.
Nude, for the job interview.
Elle 18s, Street Wears, Revlons and Maybellines.
Flowers, polka dots – nail art!
Now I even own a Sally Hansen French manicure set.
But I did not touch those colours after Aama left us, just as Nepali sons traditionally stay away from colourful clothes for a year of mourning.
I don’t know how nail polish became a staple when we packed for our hospital stays. It was not on our checklist of essentials — Aama’s clothes, socks, a hot water bag, a pillow, cutlery, a blue plastic bottle of Vicks.
And yet, the colourful little bottles found their way into our bags, soon becoming a part of the routine in the hospital room.
But first, we topped the boring white sheets with floral ones. We unpacked and made a ‘home’ within those four walls – arranging clothes in the cupboard, setting up the water heater and soup bowls in the ‘kitchen’, keeping the towels and toothbrushes in the bathroom – we couldn’t always be sure how many days we were going to be here.
Aama would settle down. The nurse would come and we would cross our fingers as she examined her arms to find veins for the chemo drip. There would be an audible sound of relief when finally she did, and the little droplets of the meds found their rhythm.
“Aba timiharu suru gara,” she would say, signalling us to settle down.
To kill those hours of waiting, we would bring books, sometimes movies on a laptop, sometimes a deck of cards or a game of Ludo.
And almost always, the trinity of a nail polish, a remover and a roll of cotton. My sister and I would open up shop and ritualistically do each other’s nails once the doctors were gone.
Aama did not stop us anymore like she did when we were kids. Perhaps she was happy to see the women we had become. Her firstborn now held a senior position in the accounts department of a multinational company, just as she had dreamed. When she married, there was no question whether she would continue working or not. Her youngest was coding and developing apps. Aama would proudly point at little icons on her phone and say to her her friends –
“Yesto banaucha ni kanchi le!”
So the woman who scrubbed off colours from my nails now instead asked me to colour hers. With her long black locks gone, doing her nails was one of the few ways she felt she could feel feminine, be pretty. Like everything else, the chemo had made her nails brittle. So I bought gentle water-based brands and carefully painted her nails red, her favourite. She would smile as the colour shimmered.
But, of course, there were bad days.
That evening when Aama was resting on the hospital bed after a particularly exhausting day, I fought a lump in my throat.
A cap had replaced her long luscious hair. The necessary evil of chemo had eaten away her appetite, she couldn’t even take a bite of her favourite mushrooms that Baba had lovingly made. She had been coughing for days, because even a common cold was difficult to cure now.
Her skin was a few shades darker, the ring on her finger had begun to lose its grip.
I did not want to break down in tears. So I sat on the sofa and fumbled through my bag to get a book I’d brought. Instead I first found a little smooth bottle of light peach polish: For Every Season.
I opened it.
Focusing all of my energy into this little task of getting perfect nails helped me relax. If I messed up, I rubbed it off and repainted.
The repetitive process was oddly comforting – you could start over, you could be okay.
“Nani…” Aama called me. Mothers see everything.
I stood beside the bed and placed my hand on her forehead the way she liked it, just the way it calmed her down.
For now, I was with her. She was with me.
Now – although I own no makeup other than two shades of lipstick, a liner and a mascara – you can find a spectrum of colours lined up on my dresser.
A blue one from my first vacation to the beaches of Bali. A raspberry red from when my best friend got married. A hot pink gifted by someone who doesn’t know my taste. And a dozen others for no reason at all.
On days I’m feeling down, I still like to open one of those tiny bottles.
It takes three strokes, sometimes four.
Paavan Mathema was one of the writers of Breaking The Bracket 2018, a feminist writing program hosted by Quixote’s Cove.