Published: Verve Magazine, July 2012, Features

We’ve taken great strides in the personal pampering space. Gone are the days of the kashti-sari-wearing maalishwaali bais. Herald in the age of exotic, fragrant scrubs, anti-ageing wraps and BlackBerry massages. But it’s not all fun and relaxation in the spa-going netherworld…

Upper-class Indians have inherited a special gene (assisted by years of sedentary lifestyle and ghee-chawal-laddoos) that contribute to their bodies becoming so packed with soft adipose tissue that they find it difficult to withstand a good maalish. When the bai turns up with her sari tucked out of way, her glass bangles tinkling and her tobacco in place, you know you are in for one major masochistic-ride. Knots you didn’t know existed get squeezed, muscles you should have used but never got around to working out, get plummeted and your bones actually creak. They make tuk-tuk noises as if sighing under the pressure of pressure. Your skin is rubbed so hard it turns red from the friction and it automatically sheds its dead cells and self exfoliates under the angst. The bai’s hands are now hot from all the massaging and your skin gets a quick-and-ready spot sauna simultaneously. For a perfect steam-finish, keep the tropical air in and switch the air-conditioner off.

Those who can’t withstand the tender care – or sadistic advances if you please – of a home-grown maalishwaali bai, prefer to make their way to the chic spas dotting the landscape with a masala mix of herbal tea, soothing music, water fountains, dim lights and carrot scrubs or honey wraps. And nope – that’s not an accompaniment with the tea to nudge the stomach into a contented stupor, as the motherly-types of yore would have suggested. A wrap is a less layered sandwich and more be layered and sandwiched as you begin to look, feel and smell like a smoothie that no one will ever venture near. These are meant to do something clever and wonderful to your skin – on the exfoliating path – which would make you glow and shine like a beacon. It’s no wonder that soon-to-be-married girls flock towards being wrapped before they are unwrapped.

You lie down on a bed (which would have a thermal blanket) – we are back to the spas and away from the mating ritual – and then a wrap product would be smoothed onto your body. The products could be anything from eucalyptus, honey and rosemary to mud, butter or clay. Or you could have minerals or special ‘vitality’ or ‘anti-ageing’ solutions. Then you get wrapped in plastic sheets. Wraps started with linen and have ended up with plastic – much like most of the world, and to the great stress of environmentalists. (Maybe they could use this treatment to de-stress?) The great spa eyewash is all that talk about mud wraps in the same breath as weight loss – not exactly a proven fact. While the loss of bodily fluids (through the heat/sweat) makes you feel lighter, you put all that weight back on the next time you eat or drink. So – a word of advice, spa-goers – when you choose your treatments, remember that it’s about being pampered – not about losing weight. A wrap on your body isn’t going to fix the problems started by the wraps you eat. Just cotton down to the fact that you are going there to relax and make your skin feel completely moisturised.

‘Moisturising’ is the kind of term that always has so many implications. It never fails to remind me of a sensational experience, related in shocked whispers by a dear friend. She was sold on this excellent mud bath spa, celebrating the open air and nature among the undulating Californian hills. Pre-paid package for two, and terribly romantic at that. At a rather delicate stage when they were escorted to the actual treatment area, she balked at the fact that she was to get into a big mud pond, in her birthday suit. The best part being – every other person who had had the treatment previously had also been in that very same pond. Sitting in there for the better part of an hour. Maybe even experiencing an odd call of nature…or two? Shuddering as she related the tale, she bathed and re-bathed and bathed again, trying to mentally and emotionally scrape off the ‘moisturisation’ that her skin had just experienced. Maybe that’s why scrubs became an important addition to the spa-going experience?

I’ve never quite understood the charm of body scrubs. Freshly (you hope) grated and mashed edible items layered on the entire body and slowly finding their way in orifices they should never be introduced to, setting up a massive itch and tickle which you try to combat with wriggling…. Your upper limbs are of no use – they would just scatter more of the food material around if moved. So you lie there in the semi-darkness, hoping whatever the products are supposed to do to your skin are working their magic rapidly, and hoping even more that the helpful lady who quietly and gently buried you under all that food – enough to feed a few hungry children – would soon reappear and save you from this self-inflicted misery. You actually get the time away from your smart phone to think – about your life, your choices, and who you really are as a person. It is a really cheap price for so much potentially destructive self-reflection. Or maybe the whole point of a scrub is to actually work on your will power – to make you a stronger person from within, while the veggies your mama told you to eat are now decomposing on your body. Call the food police! Now!

At what stage these treatments become de-stressers, I have yet to figure out. These over-priced lie-there-and-relax spa elements are always more complicated than they look and more trouble than promised. What about all the time and effort you have to put into washing yourself after? You can’t help but imagine the spa staff – after having swiftly completed the layering and covering – all gathered in one little corner snickering about another sucker. After all, there’s nothing like a good scrub or wrap to give them a nice long tea-break – and a hefty tip. So basically, it’s all about who’s smarter. The ones who get massages obviously know how to get their money’s worth. It’s a cut-and-dry deal that requires no reading between the lines or dreaming about stabbing someone. You pay for a massage, you get a massage. The ones who choose gently exfoliating scrubs and ultra-trimming infinity wraps are the benefactors of society and the patrons of the good life – they have truly discovered the mysterious worth of paying for just lying there covered with substances that you can’t see – just feel and smell.

Massages are all about getting things just right. The room temperature, the volume of the instrumental music – they never have music with lyrics, it’s as if they want to exhume the inner poet in you as you lie there deftly putting words to the lilting melodies. And most importantly, what has to be just right is the pressure. Working out those knots developed over years of laziness and excessive use of digital devices is a painful task. As you spend hours hunched over that elusive Excel spreadsheet on your laptop while attacking your smart phone simultaneously for the night’s dinner plans, your shoulders and arms are slowly ageing – this was not the workout they expected. Technology has impacted the world in so many ways – and particularly the spa industry. Masseuses are in demand and propound the benefits of BlackBerry massages for your hands, hot stone therapies and tension-relaxer points. Ideally, they should mildly suggest more time playing a sport and less time Facebooking, but it wouldn’t quite be in their place to do so. Instead, you find, it is a great opportunity to market their annual massage and pain-containment packages. Sometimes, you miss the good old maalishwaali. She would grin with her half-broken tobacco-stained teeth and soothingly coo at your aches and pains and suggest taking it easy.