City life: Delhi - Relax in muscle ladies' hands

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The Independent Online
LIFE IN Delhi knocks you sideways. Getting thumped on the head, kneaded in the small of the back, jabbed between the shoulder blades, or drummed on the soles is a weekly routine for millions of ordinary people.

To coax a dutiful spouse, daughter, or servant into giving backrubs on a regular basis is not so easy these days, although a traditional daughter- in-law will still press her mother-in-law's feet on demand.

Most Delhi-ites - who start life with a full-body oil massage every day for their first year - expect a percussive tapping and firm tugs, while rhythmic fingers rub away the tension. They won't tolerate a desultory rub. So they hire wandering professional masseuses like Lado, Mooni, or Rupa, whose speciality is a vigorous oil massage lasting an hour. These maalish-walis or "muscle ladies" prefer private housecalls. A good maalish- wali can leave you feeling like a tabla drum after a classical raga.

"Lado knocked on my door when I was first expecting my son," Rohini Bhattacharyya told me. "She's also a dai, (midwife), and I hired her to wash nappies when the baby came. She'd pick him up just above his ears, twist his legs, then give him a slap.

"This was alarming at first but very good for his spine. She taught me how to massage baby and it always calmed him." Rohini now uses the same technique on her arthritic dog. Male customers can get a passable massage on a street corner, while sitting in a barber's chair.

No 10 rupee hair trim is complete without the "shampoo" - old-fashioned Hindi for a serious head rub. Evelyn Waugh, in a letter from India to his wife, wrote how "an aged babu ... took off nearly all the hair on my head and then took my skull in his hands and tried to crush it."

But women rarely use these pavement barbers. "It is not the done thing," said Rupa, a part-time maalish-wali, wiping oil from her strong hands. "People would stare because she is out in the public view." So women look forward to the winters, when they can summon the maalish-walis up to their roof terraces.

Mooni, the maalish-wali, stroked the nape of Ganeve Rajkhotia's neck.

"After a head massage, it's better for me to be at home already. I get too relaxed to move." Ganeve, who scouts out routes for treks in the Himalayas when not recuperating in Delhi, says her sessions on the roof are utter bliss.

Rupa and Mooni look satisfied. They make less than a pound per session, but manage a living with a round of weekly clients. They will massage married men, but not bachelors. "My clients pay me as much or as little as they like," says Rupa.

"They usually ask me back, because I give a good, hard massage. I like to listen to them chatter."

Sometimes she gets paid extra not to spread a hot bit of gossip.