A beauty brand borne of a great-grandma’s alchemy
When Noor Arora was 15, her maternal great-grandmother, Shakuntala Devi, lovingly called Ammaji, died in Delhi. She was 93. Sorting through her things, her family found journals in which she had written some poetry, documented her life, and noted down hundreds of experiments she’d conducted to hone her home remedies.
What to do in case of pimples (a paste of orange peel, guava leaf and eucalyptus bark); a cold (a mix of rock sugar, fenugreek seeds, piplamool herb, almond, sesame); blemishes on skin (mix ground mulberry leaves, tomato juice, milk and hibiscus flower).
Those diaries full of nushke (Hindi for prescriptions or formulae) became a go-to resource for the extended family. Three years ago, it became the foundation of a cosmetics and home remedies company called First Water Solutions, set up and run by Noor, her mother Geeti Arora, 55, a homemaker, and her aunt Mani Khurana, 51, an HR executive.
In all, the family found 90 notebooks. “Her entire life is in those pages,” says Noor, now 28. There are notes on the freedom struggle (Shakuntala Devi was born in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, in 1914); her thoughts on and pride in the Swadeshi Movement; notes on the shortage of vegetables during the war with China.
“As a child, I have memories of Ammaji writing in these books. None of us knew what she was writing, and we never asked,” Noor says.
Shakuntala Devi and her husband, a dentist, both loved to travel, so she also noted down home remedies from all over India. “Near Kanyakumari, she writes of how she has found a nushka for body hair removal. She jotted down the key ingredient, but it’s in either Tamil or Malayalam and no one has ever been able to tell us what it is.”
Two years after Ammaji’s death, her daughter, Noor’s grandmother, was battling cancer with radiation treatment that scarred her skin. “She needed to feel connected to her mom and took the journals out again. While reading them she found a recipe for her problem — a bunch of herbal juice extracts like mulberry, cucumber, hibiscus and lotus flower. We prepared it the way it was in the diary and her skin showed improvement. We were shocked,” Noor says.
Geeti then found a remedy that helped relieve her back pain. “In a particularly smoggy and polluted winter, we followed a recipe for softer hair and skin — it had clove, bergamot and parsley. It worked. So we decided to make bigger batches and gift it to family and friends.”
Their reaction was so positive that the three women decided to take this public.
Noor had returned from studying industrial design at the Parsons School of Design in New York, so she could help with branding. “My mother and aunt did all the constructive work. They, like Ammaji, are strong believers that anything is doable; all you have to do is figure out how,” Noor says.
So far, the company offers 62 products and 138 raw ingredients at prices that range from Rs 200 to Rs 1500. There’s a First Water store in Delhi, and products retail through stores such as Spiritual Warrior in Delhi, Clove in Mumbai and Maal Gaadi in Chennai. Products are also available on websites like Nykaa, Amazon, Flipkart and Sublime. “We have a lot of repeat customers,” Noor says.
“I have been using the products since 2017, when I heard about them from common friends,” says Vrinda Gupta, 28, a businesswoman from Delhi. “I use the clay face mask and the face and body mist regularly. The sweet story about how she uses her great-grandmother’s recipes makes them more special.”
That makes it more special for the family too. “I feel like Ammaji’s passion is getting realised now,” Noor says.