She waddled in, as she’d promised me, a day after Ira was brought home, a week-old mewling with vocal cords which, when stretched, could beat the decibel levels of a siren. Ira and her mother needed a masseuse for post-natal recovery and my inquiries had revealed that she was the best in the neighbourhood. “Book her immediately. She is in great demand,” a neighbour warned. “Just tell the watchman. He will know where to contact her. Don’t haggle. She’s worth every rupee you will pay. Her hands work like magic,” she added. The reverence with which she spoke of her convinced me that the masseuse was an other-worldly creature, who went by the earthly name of Maalan. Everyone called her Maalan Maushi (aunt).
My doorbell rang the day Ira was born and was still at the maternity hospital. Outside the door stood a mountain of a woman. She had covered her head with the pallu of her sari. One would have expected a larger head, considering that I couldn’t have measured her girth by encircling both my hands around her waist. Her breasts rested on her stomach whose layers settled on each other with ease. She looked like a woman who had borne and nursed a hundred children. Her feet would have attracted many a Chinese man. They were like those of a little child that hadn’t taken its first steps yet—unaffected by the weight of her body. Her eyes conveyed mixed messages. They were sunk deep into their sockets and the half moons under them cast shadows that stretched down to her cheeks, creating an aura of sadness. But, her pupils emitted a strange light that seemed to hold the knowledge of the world and that made you want to look deeper. She could be an enchantress, I thought, as I opened the door and welcomed her, relieved that the lady had sought me out while I had spent restless days thinking of how to trap her before the competition did. The watchman had kept his word: “I’ll send her, madam, don’t worry,” he had promised.
“Water,” she said, before I could ask her to sit. “It’s too hot outside.” “Sure. Will you have some juice?” I ventured. “No, no, no, no,” her words looped, as if I had offered her poison. “Some tea, then?” I asked, expecting a tirade. “Yes, tea should be good, but do add enough milk,” she instructed. ‘So, this is how her magic works,’ I thought, as I hustled inside to brew some tea. As she sipped the ginger tea from a sunny, yellow mug that held a generous quantity, she smiled. Never have I been prouder of my tea-making ability. “I charge but I deliver. You won’t find a masseuse like me anywhere. Ask around. All the new mothers will tell you how I have firmed their sagging stomachs. Fat just melts under my hands,” she declared, slurping away. “Yes, of course,” I acknowledged. “You will soon see,” she seemed to threaten. “I’ll be there the day the baby and mother arrive home,” she assured me. Grunting, she heaved herself up, cupping her knees with both her palms, bracing herself for the discomfort that showed on her face, before her knees experienced it. I heard them creak and pop. She was, I surmised, around 64 years of age. “I’m not young any more. I’ve crossed 60. My knees have started giving me trouble,” she informed me, grimacing. I was right. As I extended my hand to help her, she stretched out her palm to stop me. “I will manage. Nothing has affected my work. You will see,” she assured me, and swaying from side to side, her buttocks creating their own rhythm, she thumped her way to the door.
A week later, she sat in the nursery scrutinising little Ira’s face. “She’s dark. But, don’t you worry. Three months in my hands are enough to change her complexion,” she declared. “It’s okay, she takes after her father,” I remarked, annoyed at the masseuse’s colour prejudice. “What do you know?” she thundered. “Men want fair wives. We can’t take chances,” she struck me down and asked for baby oil. “You’ve got this brand?” she thundered. “Doctors don’t recommend it anymore. It’s got a chemical that ruins the baby’s skin. I’ll use it today but it’s risky. Get olive oil tomorrow. If you don’t believe me, ask the lady paediatrician at the hospital. Dr Kane. She is the best. She also knows about me. It’s because of the two of us that the babies in this complex are healthy,” she boasted. I know when not to argue. Nodding my head, I handed Ira over to Maalan Maushi. The infant howled and wet her sari. “Ha, ha, haaaaa! Maalan Maushi guffawed. See how clever she is! She knows her mother will gift me a new sari. This is a good omen,” she said. Ira went on protesting as Maalan Maushi’s hands glided over her tiny, hairy little body, arching it like a little dolphin. The bath was an ordeal, punctuated as it was by Ira’s cries and Maushi’s ha-ha’s.
As she wiped Ira dry, Maushi fell silent. I didn’t know what to expect. “You know, I love massaging little babies. I was born to do this. I’m sure it goes back to another life. I know every muscle, every nook and every crevice of the human body so well. My hands move on their own. My mother used to tell me that, as a child, I would go to neighbouring houses and massage and bathe newborns,” she boasted. Instantly, she kindled my interest in life after life.
Then, taking a deep breath, she said, “I smile, but my heart cries.” Her voice was a whisper. She was powdering Ira’s body now, after reprimanding me to replace the brand of the talcum powder I had bought for the baby. I waited. “You know, every time I massage a little girl’s body, I remember my eldest daughter. How I held her gently and massaged her with love pouring out of my hands. My husband was a useless alcoholic. I brought her up with no support, got her married,” she revealed. “Where is she now?” I asked. The light in her eyes dimmed. “Tai, her husband turned out to be a monster. The day I went to fetch her home, she immolated herself before I could reach her house,” she wailed, wiping her eyes with the edge of her pallu. I placed my hand on her arm. By now, she had clothed Ira and was swaddling her. The infant was already puckering its lips, wanting to be fed. Handing her over to her mother, she said, “After my daughter’s death, I decided that I will not be an ordinary masseuse. I will use my hands to make girls strong. My massage will give them sturdy bones and nerves of steel. They will never suffer at the hands of their husbands,” she bellowed.
I looked at Maushi with new-found respect. Here was a masseuse whose craft had a larger purpose. Who would have connected a regular massage with social activism? As Maushi wiped her feet, I asked her if she would have lunch with us. “No, no. The food is ready. My son’s eldest daughter cooks for all of us. Six of us live under one roof. My son, his wife, and their three daughters. The eldest is a graduate,” she informed, her face lighting up. “That’s wonderful Maushi,” I remarked. “Yes, I want to educate them all. They won’t become masseuses like me or cook in other people’s houses like their mother. Not that these are bad jobs. God knows that they feed us and keep us alive,” she said looking up at the ceiling, expressing her gratitude. “One must move up in life,” she advised me, the light in her eyes, shining bright now. I nodded, tongue-tied in the face of Maushi’s wisdom. I saw her to the door. As she slipped her feet into her rubber slippers, she spoke. “I have bought a moped for my daughter-in-law. It saves so much of her time and energy. She manages to cook in more number of houses that way. My granddaughter manages the house in our absence. The moment I reach home she will heat the food in the microwave. We will eat and I will have my afternoon nap. I’m done for the day. Have been out since six-thirty.” As the doors of the lift closed, Maushi waved. I waved back, admonishing myself for being so taken aback by her revelations, especially her initiative to harness technology to make her family’s life easier.
A week later, having come to know that I was a journalist, she threw a volley at me. “Do you know Aishwarya Rai? You are a paperwalli na?” “Maushi, I’m not a paperwalli. I edit a women’s magazine,” I corrected her. “And, I know of Aishwarya Rai. But, I have never met her. Why do you ask?” I replied. “Can you please find out when she is due? She is expected to deliver soon. So beautiful she is! What an actress! I have seen three of her films,” she said. “But, how does that concern us, Maushi?” I asked. Her eyes flashed. She looked at me with the scorn reserved for the dim-witted. “Why don’t you understand? I would like to massage her and her newborn. It is unfortunate that I live here, so far away from her house. She lives in Juhu, doesn’t she?” she asked, her face reflecting her disappointment at the distance between her and Aishwarya Rai’s abodes. As I gaped at her, she said, “If you can get her phone number, I will call her up and speak to her. I tell you, had I been living in Juhu, Amitabh Bachchan would have definitely called for me to massage his grandchild. God knows who will massage them now, the poor souls.”
I think I was turned to stone for a moment. I remember not being able to blink or open my mouth or breathe. I didn’t know whether to laud the lady’s cockiness or strike it down. I wasn’t sure it wasn’t her faith in the magic in her hands that was making her want to reach the stars, in this case, literally. “Well…er…ahem…I cleared my throat, took a deep breath and struggled to find words. “I won’t promise you Maushi, but I will try,” I ventured, knowing well I would do nothing of the sort. No, I did not want to come between Aishwarya Rai and Maushi. Nor did I think that the meeting was improbable. In a world of infinite possibilities, anything can happen. My motives were more sinister. I did not want Aishwarya Rai to come between Ira and Maushi. If Aishwarya and Maushi discovered each other, the latter would abandon us. Where then would I find another masseuse who would strengthen Ira’s bones and give her nerves of steel?
Ira is a three-and-a-half-year-old dark, wiry, lovely little bundle of energy now. Maushi has massaged many more babies and their mothers since. The last time I met her she had moved to a newly-bought apartment. “I got it cheap, for just a few lakhs. A proper flat it is, with three rooms. It is now under the Gram Panchayat. In a few years, it will come under the jurisdiction of the Thane Municipal Corporation. Then, its cost will go into crores. It is a good investment. The three of us—my son, daughter-in-law and I—we will pay off the loans soon.” “Great to hear that, Maushi,” I replied, as I watched her limp on to yet another house. “One must move up in life,” she had advised. I raised my hand to salute her. Only, she didn’t see it.