I feel ridiculous as I stand in my birthday suit wondering what to do with the key.
After two weeks of travelling in India, my eyes sting from the pollution, my bones ache from sleeping on rock-hard beds and I can no longer keep the names of all the temples and mosques I have visited straight in my mind. So at the end of a cooking class in Udaipur, when our instructor tells us about his brother’s Ayurveda massage centre, where the staff are trained in the art of therapeutic healing, I am intrigued. “No funny business,” he says. “Women massage women. Men massage men. When do you want to go?” “Put me down for three o’clock,” I say, and Dorothy, a fellow traveller, takes the one o’clock appointment. Before we leave, our instructor urges us to try the synchronized massage. “It’s definitely the most relaxing,” he says.
Just before three I arrive by tuk-tuk at the massage centre and wait in a small office with a window that faces the street. I pick up a brochure from the counter and read that Ayurveda is a holistic healing system, first perceived by the Hindu God Brahma that is “extremely applicable in today’s world with its increased psychological stresses.” Dorothy enters the office, limp from her massage. “How was it?” I ask. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced,” she says and plops into the chair beside me.
The brother of the cooking instructor leads me down a dimly lit hallway to a room where I hang my clothes on a wall hook and lock my valuables in a small wooden box secured to a shelf. The only towel in sight is spread out on the massage table, ten steps across the room. I feel ridiculous as I stand in my birthday suit wondering what to do with the key, while two women line up bottles of massage oil on a table. Soon one of the women gestures for me to come forward, and pushes me down onto a small wooden chair beside the massage table. I tuck the key under a corner of the towel. The other woman pours oil into her hands and begins to massage my head with great force. My dry hair soaks up the warm oil as quickly as it is poured over my scalp, and goose bumps ripple down my arms and legs. I stare at the woman’s worn sandals on the cracked tile floor, and my body submits to her kneading hands.
When the head massage is over, the woman pats the faux leather pad on the massage table. I climb up and settle onto my back, and the two women move down to my feet. Without a word, each woman grabs a foot and pulls on the leg, and my heels land on the table with a thud as if I were seeing a physiotherapist who was trying to determine if my legs are the same length. Then, with no warning, two sets of hands fly from the tips of my toes to my upper thigh and back down to my toes. They repeat this action three or four times and then, without a word or signal, they change the pattern; their hands, slippery with oil, pull on my toes one at a time.
For an hour and a half these two women massage every part of my body, limb by limb, front and back, allowing no room for modesty. The only sound is the swish of hands on flesh. How do they time their movements? Do they count? Do they wink at each other or nod their heads? Each works on one side of my body, and their hand movements and continuous pressure are always in sync; the meaning of “synchronized massage” becomes clear. I fight the urge to laugh as four hands glide over my chest and down my arms. I close my eyes and concentrate on the fragrance of the herbal oil. Jasmine? Marigold? Rose?
At the end of the massage the two women wipe down my body with coarse towels. I say, “Thank you.” I retrieve the key from under the towel and shuffle toward the corner of the room where my clothes hang on the hook. I feel like someone has secretly extracted all the bones from my body.
Back in the office I pay for my massage, press my hands together and say, “Namaste.” The cooking instructor’s brother smiles and says, “Please, come visit my jewellery shop down the street. I have many lovely things.” I am too relaxed to resist the sales pitch, and I follow him down the street where men stand in groups in front of small shops that sell pashminas, purses, sandals and miniature chess sets. One of them calls out, “Madam, step into my shop, madam. It costs nothing to look.”