Continuing my mission to improve the local economies of developing countries through wanton self-indulgence, I traveled down from Goa to Kerala, the south-western Indian state famed as the home of Ayurvedic medicine.
Ayurveda is an ancient Indian system of traditional remedies and treatments which aim to create harmony within the natural rhythms of the body to relieve stress and ailments. A central tenet of Ayurveda is the oil massage. Deepak Chopra’s a big fan.
While I generally try to avoid lapsing into whims of new-age mumbo-jumbo, I am a sucker for a decent back rub, and as a part of my mission, I knew I would be obliged to partake of one of these massages, even were it only for the benefit of the masseuse’s coffers. Little did I realise this would truly be the sole benefit, as I unwittingly entered into this cruel act of oily flagellation.
The Ayurveda lady seemed nice. She was 50-something, with glasses and a blue sari. When she brought me into the dingy back room in the hotel, I trusted her. When she told me to strip naked, I squirmed slightly, but told myself not to be so culturally inhibited. If the notoriously proper Indians of lore had no reservation in baring all in front of a stranger, why should I?
I lay down on a plastic table, flat on my back, staring up at the cold fluorescent strip light above me. It was somewhat like a plastic baking tray, and I the uncooked slab of meat preparing for my roasting. I breathed deeply.
The nice lady produced a plastic bottle and poured what felt and smelt like cooking fat over my torso. And then she started to rub. Vigorously. Two firm, rough Keralan hands basted me like a human-shaped chicken fillet, up and down, neck to ankle, faster, harder, scarier. I tried to go to a happy place. I pictured myself back on a Goan beach, cocktail in hand, sun gently warming… Never had an overly vigorous application of sun tan lotion felt like this, though, even on the worst case of lobster-burn, even with the worst hangover.
I was jolted back to my greasy reality as the masseuse flipped me onto my tummy and I squelched my battered self against the plastic baking tray. The basting continued on my back, before moving to my head. Further oil was applied, rather unnecessarily I thought (at least I wouldn’t need to use conditioner in my hair for another month, I mused) before the lady began slapping me in the head. Repeatedly. Hard. I felt my brain cells begin to die. I could hear them screaming at first, but then they faded to silence, and I felt myself moving to a Zen place, where I heard nothing, felt nothing, was drawn to a bright white light. Was this the secret of Ayurveda? Or was I about to pass out? I hoped for the latter.
The white light disappeared as the lady told me it was time to shower, and I believed my endurance was finally over. My sado-masseuse, however, entered the bathroom and, having scrubbed shampoo into my eyes, chucked a number of buckets of ice cold water over my head. This was the grand finale, it seemed. At the end, she smiled. I smiled back, cowed, timid, broken. She asked for a tip. I handed her a note. I left the room slowly, gently, head bowed.
Back in my hotel room, I sat on the floor of the shower, trying to scrub the grease from my tenderized skin, rocking slowly back and forth. I started to doubt my ability to fulfill my mission.