Beauty was a sensitive subject for Hetal Kasliwal, a homeopathic paediatrician from Nasik, Maharashtra, and mother of two. Married into a family of fair-skinned, light-eyed folks, she had already been acutely aware of her ‘wheatish’ complexion, as it is called euphemistically in India, but to make matters worse, she developed facial paralysis after the birth of her first child.
And so, when earlier this year she was crowned Mrs West India in a beauty contest organised by Diva Pageants in Pune, it felt like vindication. And yet, because it came after years of personal growth and self-actualisation, it also felt like home.
Born to a father in a government job and a homemaker mother, Hetal was raised in Mumbai and parts of Gujarat along with her two siblings. Drawn to children from a young age, she took up homeopathy with a specialisation in paediatrics. Besides healing them, she also motivated thousands of them through talks and seminars. “If you want to change the country, you have to start with the kids. They are our future,” says the amiable Hetal, who now has an eight-year old daughter Prisha and four-year-old son Reyansh.
Hetal met her husband, Dr Parag Kasliwal, during her college years in Mumbai. Moving to Ozar, a tiny town of just 50,000 people, after marriage naturally came with a massive culture shock. “I had prepared myself mentally but the transformation required of me was just too great,” she recalls. Understandably, a medical post-graduate student from a metropolis cannot easily adjust to being a sari-clad homemaker in small town overnight. Her confidence and self-esteem took a massive hit.
In an effort to rebuild her life, Hetal set up her own clinic in Nasik town when she was 27 years old. A few years later, however, having her first baby landed her straight into post-partum depression. “My immunity became low,” she says, which made her vulnerable to infection. Her husband was also struggling with his own new business at the time, and the stress from multiple directions took a toll on Hetal’s health.
That’s when facial paralysis struck and Hetal lost control over one side of her face.
Unable to face the pressure – and snide remarks from patients who said, “What kind of a doctor cannot heal herself?” – Hetal shut down her clinic and went into a cocoon of sadness and self-flagellation.
Gradually, hope and light pulled her out of her emotional hell. She began reading books like The Secret and Heal Your Life by Louise Hay. “That helped me become more positive and embrace all that I have,” says the 37-year-old. “It took two or three years for me to come out of my ‘victim-mode’ and to take charge of my life. I realised that the power to change is within me. I began meditating, learnt to forgive, and developed an attitude of gratitude.”
By the time her son was born, Hetal was back to being her optimistic self. A chance comment about Hetal’s complexion by her daughter, who was four years old then, triggered a new line of thought: “My daughter – like me and most women in India – had internalised the notion that gora-chitta skin (fair complexion) is the epitome of beauty,” Hetal recalls. “I decided to change my daughter’s perception of beauty.”
A fan of Bollywood actor Sushmita Sen, Hetal had memorised the historic moment when Sushmita was crowned Miss Universe in 1994. “I guess my subconscious mind had registered this visual a long time ago,” she half-jokes. Though she had heard of Diva Pageants, it took her two years and a lot of courage to register herself for Mrs West India this February.
“I applied for it just hours before the audition,” she narrates. Tentatively, she introduced herself, saying, “There are no chains that can bind you unless you are willing to wear them.” She told the organisers – Anjana and Karl Mascarenhas – about the challenge of facial paralysis, and her hesitation in meeting new people because of it.
Anjana later said she had goosebumps listening to Hetal speak. “You must win this crown,” she told Hetal, “and you must become the face of facial paralysis.”
Enrolled in the ‘Gold’ category for married women in the age group of 36 to 55 years (the other is the ‘Silver’ category for 20 to 36 year-olds), Hetal went through three days of grooming and training at the Grand Hyatt in Pune. She made friends, learnt how to apply makeup (“Imagine a homeopath being able to apply perfect foundation! That is my biggest achievement!” she chuckles), and how to style herself to perfection.
When she won, her first emotion was not just delight for herself but disappointment for a new friend she had made at the event. “I felt better only when she was made runner-up later on!” she says.
She credits the pageant organisers for giving an authentic platform for married women to develop inner strength and to overcome their identity crisis. “I can teach my daughter: beauty is about your confidence and what you feel about yourself,” says Hetal, who went home with a bag full of gifts, vouchers and jewellery as prize.
She now wears her crown and sash at all media interviews, and dresses up every time she steps out of the house. Unlike her old habit of staying makeup-free, she wears lipstick and grooms herself before heading to her clinic: “After all, I don’t want patients thinking, ‘How on earth did she win a beauty pageant?’!” she jokes. Her entire demeanour is changed.
“Because of my facial paralysis, I never smiled fully earlier. It was always a small, controlled smile. Today, I don’t care if my smile is lopsided – I still go ahead and give it all I’ve got. If I hadn’t participated, I wouldn’t have reached this point,” says Hetal.
She proudly points at her paralyzed face and adds, “I am a beauty queen. And this is my smile.”
First published in eShe’s June 2019 issue