Illustration/ Uday Mohite
The last time I went to get a haircut and a pedicure at my regular Bandra salon, I was jolted into an awakening. The man who did my pedicure was someone new and middle-aged; he looked very dignified and refined. Not the usual cool young guys with tattoos and cocky grins. I was convinced he was a poet, down on his luck. Earlier, I'd seen him smoke outside, in between toes, so to speak, with a pensive air. If he had done just a good or even basic job of it, I would have been relieved. They're just toes, after all. But his revenge on his destiny for making him polish women's toes was to become the best pedicurist in town. He treated my toe polish like a work of art. After he applied a second coat of red toe polish, he held my foot respectfully in his hands, and considered the results. "Kya lagta hai, Madam?" he asked. "Do you like it?"
I had a Pakeezah moment. It was almost as if he was saying, "Aap ke paon dekhe, bahut haseen hain. Inhe zameen par mat utariyega, maile ho jayenge." I was unable to handle his dignity and his devotion to something as mundane, and humiliating, as painting women's toes for a living. Stabbed by guilt, I said yes, yes, it's wonderful, hurriedly paid him a generous tip and left.
Ever notice women in beauty salons? They often show a genuine or studied indifference, when a skilled professional is doing their hair, eyebrows or feet — especially if it's a man. I suspect it's a defensive reaction against a kind of public intimacy with a stranger. They are either indifferent or feign indifference to the sense of touch: they pointedly devour rubbishy glossies, make interminable phone calls, chew gum. And all the while, a man is sitting at their feet, pampering them. If it's a woman, they can let their guard down...or maybe not.
There is an awkwardness as you sit in your high salon chair for a pedicure, and put your feet on the towelled knee or thigh of a complete stranger, rolling up your pants till your knees so he can give you a good leg massage. You modestly try to keep your knees together, but it doesn't work. He applies cream on your legs, massages them, wipes them with steam towels; then he cuts, files and paints your toe nails, using that hideous-looking invention, the 'toe separator'.
I once saw a soigne woman, in her 70s, in a Colaba salon. The salon guy was giving her a head and neck massage. She kept her eyes closed throughout, savouring every moment. It was just a head and neck massage in full public view, but I sensed such a longing for a tender touch, and the masseur seemed to offer such respectful intimacy and tenderness, that I had to avert my eyes, so as not to violate their privacy. I haven't done a survey-shurvey and all, but it strikes me that a lot of women probably enjoy tenderness far more than sex. Most men, who are obsessed with sex, are going to fight this tooth and nail, of course. They wouldn't even know the difference. Sigh!
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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