Harold Jaffe’s Dispatches from India – November 29, 2015

Ayurveda (MRI)

Back and upper legs aching after a month in sacred Kashi.
Memo: Do the American thing: some kind of exercise every day.

The small gym, called Bob’s, is two stories above a mobile phone
shop and a mysterious venue called Aryan Academy.
A dozen helter-skelter machines, scattered dumbbells, two tread-
mills, one with unopened cartons stored on it, fierce air conditioning,
too-loud Hindu hip-hop music, and about as many trainers as
clients, including Bob, a large man for an Indian, steroidal, with a
large tattoo of Lord Shiva on his right tricep.
Bob’s not going to work.

The nearest yoga studio via tuk-tuk is seven and-a-half kilometers of
maddening traffic and pollution from my lodging house.
I pencil in yoga studio as a last option.
Brisk walking exercise through the narrow, littered streets murders
the lungs, while dodging traffic and sidestepping cows, dogs,
donkeys, goats . . . distresses the heart.
Stretching and crunches on the floor in my room helps but isn’t
nearly enough.

Another lodging house guest, from Bulgaria oddly, suggests
Ayurvedic massage.
Ayurveda is an ancient holistic medical practice and Kashi is one of
the foremost Ayurvedic centers in India.
Investigation yields several studios in Kashi, one, Sri Ganesh Spa,
fairly close by.
The charge for an hour of Ayurvedic massage is 750 rupees, about
11 US dollars.
I phone for an appointment asap, engage my usual tuk-tuk wallah,
an older man but a desperado in traffic as you must be in Kashi.

Sri Ganesh Spa occupies the second floor of an anonymous,
typically crumbing structure not far from Assi Ghat.
The first floor is given over to KK Kapoor’s House of Fancy Light.
I climb upstairs to the cramped waiting room, dimly lit, large silk on
the wall containing a devotional image of Sri Ganesh, Lord Shiva’s
elephant-headed son, remover (but also creator) of obstacles.
The 30-ish Indian man behind the small desk in white tank top and
white trousers talking on the mobile motions me to sit.
Ayurvedic herbs are showcased in a small dusty cabinet above the

I hear a woman’s voice speaking with authority in Hindi from the
next cubicle and assume she is a masseuse.
I’d prefer a masseuse, but this is India.
A male client will have a masseur and a female client will have a
Transgender client? You will have to consult Sri Ganesh.

The man puts down the mobile and motions me to follow him.
I remove my shoes in the small vestibule then move into the
cramped massage space containing two narrow tables side-by-side.
I undress, put on a kind of loin cloth, then lie down on my tummy
and close my eyes.
A sitar is playing a delicate raga, softly, as if just for me.

He begins with my feet addressing the pressure points forcefully in
the Chinese fashion. I imagine a Siamese cat who sees me from a
distance and darts toward me joyfully, but it is a baby macaque
monkey that jumps into my arms and licks my face, and I hear the
plaintive single note shriek of a scavenging homeless dog side-
swiped by a tuk-tuk, the driver does not look back.

Now the masseur is working on my calves and lower thighs, using
an oil that smells of cardamon, exerting a lot of pressure on my
legs, and a slim Muslim girl in fashionably faded jeans with a burqa-
type veil covering her face is piloting a motor scooter in crazy traffic,
talking and grinning into her smartphone through her mask. Wearing
the explosives taped to her body she boards the crowded bus in
Jerusalem and the ensuing detonation is a dirge on an oud
which resembles a lute. I hear the plaintive single note shriek of a
homeless dog sideswiped by a tuk-tuk, the driver not looking back.

The masseur loosens the loin cloth and kneads my buttocks and
lower back. He adds pressure by putting one knee on the massage
table. A clutch of Dalits, untouchables, very dark, barefoot, with rags
around their heads, are walking north to south, from Tulsi to Assi
Ghat shouting into their mobiles. They live in an impoverished
hamlet without electricity so they have to travel seven kilometers to
a village with electricity to charge their mobiles.

It is now the tabla’s turn; the percussive rhythm intricate but clean,
easy to parse, soft, becoming softer, I hear the plaintive single note
shriek of a homeless dog sideswiped by a tuk-tuk, the driver
not looking back.

The masseur has both knees on the massage table as he kneads
my troublesome back, sacral to lumbar. Providentially the sitar and
tabla are playing together, in and out of each other, softly. I feel the
hard therapeutic kneading and am almost asleep, when he inquires
in English: “Okay?”, meaning “Is the pressure tolerable?” “Yes,” I
whisper. The boys and men who stack the wood, bind the bier,
straighten the burning corpse with long bamboo poles, sometimes
having to puncture the dead body, are Dalits and they look the
same–black, thin as reeds, rags on their heads, barefoot or in filthy
flip-flops. Dogs, cows, pigeons poke at the charred rope and burnt
wood with bits of corpse on it. Black vultures and Siberian gulls
circle overhead at different velocities, gulls darting and screaming,
vultures higher, circling slowly, silently. If they descend too close to
the bier the gulls gang up on them.

He is working on my shoulders and neck, then moving to my head,
and the leopards are killing more Indians in the northern jungles
than before. Officials want to cull the leopards. It turns out that the
times the Dalits go into the deep woods to evacuate corresponds
with the times the leopard hunts, namely early morning and dusk. A
Dalit teenage girl was in the woods at dusk when she heard a big
cat growl; happily she had her smart phone with her and phoned her
father who along with other Dalits charged into the woods with big
sticks. The leopard vanished. The question is will the Dalits teach
themselves to evacuate at different hours to avoid the leopards or
will they lobby to get toilets in their shanties?

Now I am turned around, and he is earnestly at my toes. Hard to
distinguish this “Ayurvedic” massage from pressured hybridized
massages I’ve gotten elsewhere. The sitar and tabla have given way
to popular Bollywood music, as if elegance belongs to my back and
banality to my front. Except for the Dalits, virtually every middle-
aged or older Indian male has a protruding belly. The Dalits are skin
and bone like the cows, goats, like the brown bedraggled mutt that
had the dignity to emit that plaintive single note shriek in protest as it
was sideswiped by a tuk-tuk, the driver not looking back.

As I am leaving the studio the masseur points to what he calls a
steam room—a structure that resembles an MRI tube where your
body is doused with Ayurvedic herb-infused steam.
I say maybe next time, thank him, tip him, leave.
That night my back actually feels worse, but the next night it feels
somewhat better.

On the way back to the rooming house from the massage studio, I
tell the tuk-tuk wallah to be careful about hitting animals (though it
was another tuk-tuk wallah who side-swiped the dog).
He looks back at me uncomprehendingly.