In 2013 I was studying for an exam that involved reading lots of history and sociology, and I springboarded off of all that new knowledge into a ridiculous, studenty sort of idealism. In particular, I used the sections on colonisation and neocolonisation to re-evaluate how these forces were shaping my life, vowing to rid my little home of Western influences and embarassing reminders of consumerist excess. I’d been gifted some Calvin Kleins that year, a couple of gorgeous dresses, one the colour of the ocean on a cloudy day, cut in a 1950’s silhouette and topped with a bateau neck. I kept the labels on so I could gift them to family and friends. Powders, potions and tears were spilled- out went the Diors and the Estée Lauders, the M.A.C.s and the Cliniques. It was a proper purge, a cultural Marie Kondo-ing of all of my material belongings. S, who wanted then to leave the country after a terrible life- altering collision with the corrupt realities of medical academia wasn’t amused. Things changed when he picked up my books for a casual read. One thing led to another and suddenly, we weren’t in flight mode anymore. There was a growing and troubling awareness that things around us needed saving- including our own lives. There was a sense of joint responsibility, of duty, of rebelling for a cause- if not us, then who? Our protest took on too- literal, convenient forms. We enthusiastically adopted the thrifting lifestyle- shopping big brands only at seconds and export- reject outlets, trawling markets like Sarojini Nagar (and when we were up north in the mountains, Mc Leodganj) for cheap, good quality finds, consciously incorporating Indian brands in our wardrobes. A Burberry shirt S liked to wear only on special occasions wore down to a pale translucence; for five consecutive winters all he wore was a pair of thrifted fleece- lined Superdry track pants, and carefully mended sweaters from the seconds shop in our neighbourhood. I wore a lot of FabIndia (bought on sale, we were broke). Together, we’d look down the balcony of our local mall at the identical shiny squares that were shopfronts, sipping noisily on our study break sodas and counting yet another new entrant, inevitably a big name Western brand.
I’ve dialled it down since then. I do love a good, thoughtfully crafted garment or skincare game changer, and I’m okay buying it if only to experience and appreciate the skill, research, expertise and hard work that go into making a winner. I’m still allergic to big- name luxury though, especially if they’re American or European brands. I’m okay splurging an equivalent amount on a small, local, handcrafted-products business. In Italy last summer I passed up a pair of exquisite vintage Lanvin brocade slippers for sturdy, hand sewn leather sandals sold in plain unmarked boxes out of a family-run establishment on the Amalfi coast. As the proprietor measured my feet, her little son scowled at his Math homework at the only desk in the tiny space, flicking eraser shavings into the air and loudly insisting that the results of his long division sum were in fact correct. Fun, and very memorable.
Today, my wardrobe and dresser are 70% desi, a number I’m actively trying to push upward. In July 2018 I’d exhausted my annual supply of cleanser when I decided to switch things up and research newer homegrown brands. I stumbled on a little clip on Instagram. It was a beautiful Indian woman in a slouchy t shirt speaking earnestly into her phone camera. I liked that her face was bare in a way that didn’t feel strategic or contrived, that she had spots and dark circles, that her hair had sort of exploded from the monsoon moisture, that the camera angle was a little wonky and the lighting far from perfect- and that she wasn’t talking (as most bare-faced Insta users are wont to) about #realbeauty or #nomakeup or some other such form of confessional that dominates the highly commoditised pop- feminist space in social media today. She felt authentic, and I reached out to her. Best decision ever- our conversations have only grown since then. Her name’s Sunayana and she owns and runs Raw Beauty, a Punjab- based brand of completely natural beauty products that I’ve been using now for 9 months to fantastic results and can’t live without.
Since my first purchase, she’s grown and tweaked her repertoire and added new formulations. I was delighted when I received my consignment- all of it in handily re-usable glass jars, all of it wrapped in newspaper and secured with jute string and smelling delicious. She now offers refills in ecologically friendly packs. When you place an order, you need to let know if you want glass jars or the eco-packs.
Before I begin my run down, here’s a useful note on my skin type, so you can gauge the suitability of these products to your own : it’s powder- dry. I’m from the mountains, so no amount of moisturization is enough. When I’m not eating right, my T zone’s so oily it’s in danger of a US invasion even as the rest of my face is mortifyingly visibly flaking. It’s especially bad in winters.
Here we go then-
- Gulaabo, a soft natural powder that works best as face and body cleanser. Key ingredients- powdered oats and powdered roses. I use chilled Pure Rose Water from Kama Ayurveda to make a calming, no-tingle paste that exfoliates beautifully. I follow it up with gentle splashes of diluted Rose Jasmine Face Cleanser, also from Kama Ayurveda. This is because I live on a busy commercial street and my skin’s grimy and clogged by day’s end. Gulaabo works quite well by itself too. I actually used some as a gulaal- replacement this Holi- mixed it with rose water, poured it into a small flower-shaped steel katori and threw in some rose petals for effect. Everyone loved it.
2. Chhattari, an ubtan for the face and body. A grainy powder that works away at dead skin, ingrown hair and stinging tans. Key ingredients- powdered orange and lemon peel and besan. I make a paste with water just before I hit the shower. It’s so great we used it for the haldi ceremony of my brother- in- law’s wedding as a substitute for the powered turmeric that often causes skin to break out- terribly inconvenient when you’re getting married. Topped with genda petals, this too made an excellent, widely appreciated stand- in for gulaal this Holi.
3. Magic Salve, a greasy all- purpose ointment I’ve come to rely on so heavily I can’t imagine my dresser without it. I’ve decanted some into a travel-sized jar so I can take it with me everywhere I go- a little goes a long way. Key ingredients- kokum butter, tamanu oil, coconut oil. I’ve used it for chapped lips (mine threaten to crack the sides of my face open, Joker- style), flaky elbows, annoying red rashes on my face and body and the dry, itchy skin between my fingers. I’ve used it as a hand cream and a number of times, a moisturiser in the dead of a particularly brutal Himalayan winter. My wrinkly little grandma loved it too- she’s a tough old bird but she likes to take care of her skin, and this was perfect. I plan to take her a jar when I visit next.
4. Conditioning Hair Mist, a smelly but efficacious leave- in potion containing organic apple cider vinegar, organic rose water and pure essential oils of rosemary and cedarwood that you spray into damp hair and also directly into your scalp. My brittle, ageing hair’s behaving much better now, and the oiliness in my scalp’s reduced palpably. I now wash my hair once in three to four days, as opposed to washing them every other day.
5. Chamkeela- an insanely delicious black powder that’s elevated my brushing routine and given my hypersensitive cavity- filled mouth respite from nagging aches and pains. I sprinkle some onto my regular blob of Colgate on the brush, rub away and rinse per usual. Except there’s no metallic aftertaste anymore.
6. Happy Underarms Salve, a solid deodorizer that keeps your pits smelling fresh and clean all day. Smells like the inside of my gramma’s purse- a warm, comforting, familiar smell I love and associate with happy childhood memories.
I’ve come to think of Sunayana as a Good Witch, a skilled apothecary and forest- worshipper who magics scrumptious- smelling, healing things into existence. You can find her on Instagram as Raw Beauty and visit the Catalogue highlight on her profile for a peek at her work. She accepts payments online. Sunayana, if you’re reading this- thank you. You know how much I love you!
And now, a little PSA for when you’re dealing with fledgling businesses, small brands and local shops: be nice. Be kind. Be considerate. Communicate with courtesy. Calibrate your expectations to realistic levels- very often these little businesses are a one- person army and may lack the time or bandwidth to write you prompt replies. Be patient in your correspondence and in your overall dealing. These businesses are all heart and are doing their very best to deliver. If you’re unhappy with any aspect of the transaction or the quality of the product, it’s always a good idea to reach out the creator/ seller for clarifications first, before yelling your head off in an all caps ragey review online. Understand that deliveries take time and are subject to the natural inefficiencies of courier companies. If you like the product, remember to say thanks and express your appreciation. If you have feedback to share, do it privately, constructively and with kindness. All of this goes a long way in keeping morale up and helping small businesses thrive.