At 17, circumstances forced Bilkees Khan to open a female exclusive shop. Gradually it upgraded into a beauty parlour, a South Kashmir first. As life seemed set, Bilkees was diagnosed with cancer. This is her story of the fight for survival, reports Samreena Nazir
With wet Mehandi hands, a group of girls are coming out of the first floor of Anantnag’s U-shaped complex. Locally it is called Ladies Market because most of the first floor shops are owned by women. They run boutiques, beauty parlours and Mehandi shops. Of them, Bilkees Beauty Parlour is famous.
Inside, Bilkees Khan, the promoter is sharing a laugh with a young bride whom she readies for her betrothal. Soft-spoken, Bilkees welcomes customers with a smile. But behind her ever smiling visage she hides her 20 years of struggle and pain.
Her journey started in 1997 when the Anantnag town was ruled by government-backed renegades Ikhwanis. “Women were rarely seen in the markets or at workplaces. And if they were, they couldn’t venture out without a burka,” recalls Bilkees. “Even the veiled was made mandatory in most of the town schools.”
At 17, Bilkees opened first ladies exclusive shop on busy Khanabal-Pahalgam road, opposite Women’s Degree College. It was more of a compulsion and less of a choice.
“Being a shopkeeper in the male-dominated market was like a taboo. People used to inquire about me as if I was a sinner,” said Bilkees. “Had I not been provoked by circumstances I would have never opted for this profession.”
It all started after Bilkees’ father Ghulam Nabi Khan, an artisan, lost his eye-sight. It shattered the family. Suddenly, Bilkees became the family head.
Sixth among seven sisters and one brother, Bilkees lived with her parents and one younger sister. Her five older sisters were married. Her brother had his own family and lived separately. In order to sustain her family, Bilkees dropped out of the eleventh standard and started working.
To start a venture, she needed funds. Bilkees recovered money from people they owed to her father. As it started, the response was overwhelming. “It was perhaps because my shop was located opposite Women’s College,” feels Bilkees.
Bilkees knew make-up, so girls started visiting for grooming. “This talent of mine got popular among girls by word of mouth,” admits Bilkees.
Soon she started getting requests to do Mehandi and make-up for would-be-brides. As the response was good, Bilkees turned one corner of the shop into the parlour. It boosted her earning and helped her to manage the necessities at ease.
To furnish her art, Bilkees did a diploma in make-up and was known as Bilkees Beautician. Gradually, the parlour surged out of the corner and took over the fabric shop entirely. After two years, in 1999, Bilkees closed her fabric business and started Bilkees Beauty Parlour.
“It was not today’s Anantnag, as I had to put my life in danger to run a beauty parlour. People used to blame me for destroying the social values. Complaints were filed against me in the jurisdiction of those considered as well wishers of society. I used to get advice wrapped with threats even from the fruit vendors,” recalls Bilkees. “But, when I revealed my situation to those who would threaten me, they understood the problem and allowed me to work.”
Bilkees’ responsibilities didn’t end even after sustaining her family financially. She managed two ocular surgeries for her father which helped him walk by himself, without a stick.
Bilkees had to spend weeks with her ailing diabetic mother at SKIMS Srinagar, who went into depression after her only son left her.
In order to keep the show going at her beauty parlour, Bilkees took her sister and a job aspirant as apprentices. “While I would nurse my ailing mother for days, these two were able to manage the customers at the parlour,” said Bilkees.
As her mother’s health deteriorated, Bilkees got her younger sister married. Her husband, their cousin, was invited to stay with the family to fill the void of the “son”. Bilkees refused to marry fearing it will dictate new priorities, upsetting the family and impacting the business. Little sister’s marriage improved her mother’s health.
=During Yasmeena’s post-marriage functions, Bilkees felt something unusual in her breast. A few months later, she felt a lump and visited a doctor. As its size surged, the Fine Needle Aspiration Cytology (FNAC) test suggested the lump was a normal gland. Post-removal, the biopsy indicated the third stage of breast cancer.
Immediately, numerous tests, endless scans and appointments followed in SKIMS where she stayed for about 25 days. Bilkees underwent another surgery but this time again only lumps were removed leaving the tumour affected lymph nodes.
“The doctors told my father, she can survive at maximum for six months to one year,” recalls Bilkees.
Once back home from SKIMS, Bilkees’ entire family was in mourning as her condition was bad. Everyone gave up hope except Bilkees. “Even the day I collected my biopsy report I went to work. I never gave up hope,” she insisted.
A few days later when Bilkees went to SKIMS to collect her second biopsy report, a doctor suggested her to visit Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai. Within two days, Bilkees was in Mumbai along with her two brothers-in-law. After being there for three months, she underwent third surgery and finally, the infected lymph nodes were removed.
After surgery, it took doctors days to certify the exact size of the tumour so that they could start chemo accordingly.
“I travelled alone from Mumbai to my home for almost three and a half months after doing my first chemo session. For 17 days I was not able to digest and was feeling nausea after my first chemo session,” recalls Bilkees.
There were five more sessions yet to be done.
“While going through my chemo sessions, I would rest at home for two-three days until vomiting and nausea stopped, then go to the parlour, as I had to earn for my next session,” said Bilkees. “I had no idea of my strength until I experienced cancer.”
Despite her illness, Bilkees managed everything, be it her visits to Mumbai after every three months or her business.
But it was the death of her father in 2004 and mother in 2007, that finally broke her emotionally.
“Indeed one cannot challenge death or escape from it. But I believe that my disease killed both of them,” she believes.
Free from cancer. Bilkees married in 2008, a year after her mother’s demise.
“Within a month of marriage, I went to my in-law’s place in Doda,” Bilkees said. “I had already told my husband and his family about my health issues.”
After chemotherapy, Bilkees underwent menopause for years and was not able to conceive. “When I told my husband that I won’t be able to conceive, he said it is not an issue for him. But that was not the case,” she said.
Things started to worsen when Bilkees came to know that her in-laws wanted her husband to re-marry. After four years of marriage when Bilkees was at her parental home for surgery in her foot, she realized that her husband was ignoring her. “He didn’t visit me during those three months when I was home.”
A month later when Bilkees was in Mumbai for her follow-up check-up, her cousin sent her pictures of her husband’s marriage. “This shattered my life completely,” said Bilkees.
She came back to her parent’s house and began staying with her sister Yasmeena, who was expecting her second baby. “I once again took charge of my parlour,” said Bilkees.
Yasmeena wanted her second son to be adopted by Bilkees but his father disagreed. This created dispute among the couple. “During that time we came to know that my sister’s husband had transferred our house on his name,” said Bilkees.
The sisters filed a case against him and won. The dispute turned ugly and Yasmeena got divorced from her husband. But as part of the settlement, she had to pay him Rs 15 lakhs as alimony.
Now Bilkees, Yasmeena and her two sons live together.
“I have no complaints from life,” Bilkees said. “Since the day the doctor gave me a year to live, I have lived for 17 years already.”