Minority report | Home delivered insight


Minority report | Home delivered insight

Some women in my neighbourhood had been repeatedly advising me to try the services of a female masseuse who apparently came to the colony armed with a large, matronly bag holding skills that relieved her clients of common aches and pains.

“She just charges 200 for an hour but she will rid you of your backache,” the lady next door said, seeing me walk up the stairs with one hand on my back.

With due respect to experts from the spa, massage and relaxation industry, and the ever tired urban population who “lurrvvves” massage menus (someone else’s exultation, not mine), on offer at all salons these days, I must confess to being a massage atheist.

The very thought of lying down, deliberately usher in positive thoughts, breathe easy, or worse, sleep while someone is rubbing oil into your limbs, makes me want to hide behind furniture.

But despite a disdain for being “pampered” (such an infantile and capitalist word), I decided to try the skills of this highly recommended Shakuntala.

A booming voice answered the phone, asking me half a dozen questions.

She wanted to know if I was fair or dark skinned, or had “chaalu chamdi” (ordinary skin, she clarified later, not foxy tempered, haha), if I was fat or slim, what was the length of my hair, etc. Other details: does the room have an AC where you will get the massage done, which oil will you use?

I was taken aback but got curious.

Later, when the big-built, brown-skinned, salwar kameez-clad Shakuntala arrived, indeed with a matronly bag that could have held six adult diapers, I asked her what use she had for the colour of my skin and the length of my hair.

The latter was simple: she was trying to guess the time a head massage would take; but about the former, she surprised me. “Dark skinned madams are hard to please,” said Shakuntala. “They first want a massage, then a whitening scrub and body pack, and are never happy with how much ever I scrub their bodies, so they tip less,” she said.

She added that even “educated” women don’t understand that massages are for relaxation and for curing pains. Beauty is a different “thing”, she insisted.

That said, Shakuntala got into a sales pitch about herself as a “home delivery beautician”. That explained that fat handbag of hers, I thought in an uptight way—it carried prescriptions, perhaps, for “dark-skinned madams”.

“You are so tanned, aren’t you worried about your skin tone?” she asked me without the remotest embarrassment that she could be politically incorrect, if not out of her professional line in asking me a personal question. To make a strong case for her home facials, Shakuntala then went on to unabashedly critique the lines on my face. It was irritating and funny.

Last Sunday, watching what was probably a repeat edition of Barkha Dutt’s popular talk show We the People on NDTV on our ongoing love and hate relationship with fairness creams and the “Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful” campaign launched last year by the Women of Worth organization with actor Nandita Das as its face, I thought of Shakuntala.

Many “educated” people routinely speak of caste and class associations with dark skin. The demon in such narratives is a fair and successful elitist and the victim a poor and dark survivor.

These debates, while absolutely pertinent, usually involve the educated upper middle class who comment on society and its gaze.

We forget to worry about the gaze of those like Shakuntala and their notions about body image and skin. Do some of our deeply held social prejudices emanate from there?

Surely there is a trickle-down effect in a capitalist society where the choices and decisions of the elite and the rich are aspirational, but the model of the “unhappy, dark-skinned madam” coming from a masseuse who lives in Nithari village in Noida carried resentment, the shade and intensity of which was unexpected for me. There was a stereotype in that phrase and it involved the words “educated” and “dark-skinned” in a disturbing combo.

Could there be a trickle-up we ingest from those who work around us and help us live our “pampered” lifestyles? Do we start speaking the language of their prejudice?

Next time, before making bookish assumptions that invoke the educated and well-to-do to be the only ones responsible for change and influence, or only blaming the makers of fairness creams for being crass capitalists, I will think a bit more about the criss-cross opinions a society shares through its finer webbing. It may be worthwhile figuring out who’s influencing whom, and in what degree.