A housewife for more than 30 years, Nirmala Nair has a thriving career as an interior designer
By Shevlin Sebastian
Interior designer Nirmala Nair, 58, started her career in 2002 by accident. Her friend, Snehalata, had a Bangalore-based interior designer, Hema, as a guest. When Snehalata asked Hema during the course of a conversation whether she would like to design her home, the interior designer responded with a cruel, “I don’t do holes like this.”
The ‘hole’ was a 1600 sq. ft. apartment at Kadavanthra. Hurt and humiliated, Snehalata turned to Nirmala for help. “I want to show Hema that I also can have a good home,” she said. “So, can you start by designing a room?”
Nirmala, who had been doing casual design work for friends and relatives for years, agreed. The first was an anteroom, which was used as a dumping place for clothes, books and other unwanted things.
“When I looked at the room, the first thing that caught my eyes was a diwan on one side,” she says. “I put a lemon green, pink and yellow cover which I had obtained from Bangalore.” Thereafter, she put green and yellow carpets, drapes and plenty of pink cushions around the room. “Snehalata’s husband plays cricket, so there were a lot of bats dumped at one corner,” says Nirmala. “I got a shocking pink weed basket and put all the bats into that. On a wall, I put a pink and green Gujarati mirror.” For a finishing touch, she added a bright green potted plant.
Friends of Snehalata admired the job done, including an American-based Malayali couple who had an 1100 sq. ft. flat at Panampilly Nagar. They asked Nirmala whether she could redesign it. “They said that they would be using it as a guest house for their office staff,” says Nirmala. “So, foreigners would be coming for brief periods of work.”
Nirmala decided to do it in ethnic Indian style. “I made the bedroom in a Rajasthani style,” she says. There were artifacts, brocaded bedspreads, carpets and pictures of deserts and paintings of women in their colourful costumes. “The overall impression was very rich,” she says.
In the living room, there were Ravi Varma paintings, with typical Kerala wooden boxes. For the kitchen, she put in orange and silver cabinet covers with touches of green. “It was so colourful, that when you went into the kitchen in the early morning, you would feel bright and sunny.”
Nirmala’s career took off after this. “I have developed my clientele solely through word of mouth,” she says. “Most of them belong to the affluent and the upper middle classes.”
One client is corporate trainer Asha Krishnan, 48. “Nirmala has no ego,” she says. “This is very helpful when you are dealing with finicky housewives. She always adapts to the client’s desires, has excellent taste herself and is extremely cost-effective.”
What is remarkable about Nirmala is that for more than 30 years she was a housewife, looking after her husband, P.G. K. Nair, 65, an electrical engineer who has his own consultancy, and her two children, Gayatri, 32, now married and living in Melbourne, Australia, and Karthik, 28, who is studying for his MBA in Manchester, England.
“I have no regrets,” she says, about her many years of joblessness. “Unless you really need to work, I feel a woman should devote all her time to the children during their growing years.”
Nowadays, mothers feel that once a child is five or six years old, they can go out for work. “I don’t think this is right,” she says. “Your children need you throughout their school years. They need somebody to talk to.”
It is very important to know whom they move around with, and what they do in their spare time. “You have to be a friend so that they come and tell you everything.” When they don’t find anybody at home that is the time they develop relations with outsiders, which can be harmful. “The parents are so busy, one cannot blame the children,” she says.
But, if a woman does not have a career in the early years, is it possible to have one after several years? “It is very difficult,” admits Nirmala. “There are many women who have talent but they were not given the chance to develop it.” One of the primary reasons is that the husband has never allowed her to think for herself. “Every woman has great capability. No man can manage a house as well as a woman does.”
So how do such women recover their lost potential? “It is never too late if you know what you want to do with your life,” says Nirmala. “Once the children have left, you should search for something to do.”
Meanwhile, thanks to luck and talent, Nirmala has been able to find her destiny and is bravely shouldering on…
(Some names have been changed)
(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)