A driver fetched me from the Guest House and took me to the local salon in Gurgaon, the CyberHub city just outside of Delhi. That’s the way they do it in India.
Foreign cities always have a strange smell. It’s the first thing you notice. Down the stairs, deep into the salon was no different. It wasn’t just a chemical smell of hair products, but a combination of “old building with old equipment and who knows what” smell.
I sat in a worn out black chair with a square porcelain sink for my feet. I was there for a mani-pedi. Cold water went into the basin with a large squirt of pink antiseptic. Next came bowls of hot water from the sink, enough to make the water lukewarm enough to soak my beach trodden, sand-in-the-cuticles, rough-heeled feet.
A tray emerges and comes over the chair to chest height with a basin in the middle. The same procedure ensues. Water and pink antiseptic. I motion “no pink antiseptic”. Not long after, pink liquid soap is squeezed into both basins and the show begins. Three people surround me. “Tea coffee? Water? You want deluxe spa? You want crystal scrub?? “No thank you. I say. Just the normal. They all look disappointed and get on with their jobs of digging into my cuticles with “first client of the day” force. I wince while watching Bollywood music videos out of the mirror in front reflecting the tv behind me. Then it shuts off.
First I see a broom of long soft grass brushing the floor, moving bits of cut black hair and string into a pile, but no person. The male pedicurist vigorously scrubs my feet and calves with soap on a scrub brush , while the manicurist does the same with my hands and forearms. It’s a pleasant kind of torture as they smile and wag their heads, like I should be “very much liking”. The owner is busy tending to the puja, her alter to Laxmi- the Goddess of wealth. She lights long thick purple incense, strong enough to overcome the before-mentioned smells. A fresh marigold garland is put over the shrine. This is India, I think. Not Bangkok, not Marrakech. Not New York- although it could be.
Out from behind the stall comes a beautiful girl, squatting on the floor as she moves her broom and scoops the dirt pile into a bucket. She stands and the folds of her colorful saree show the length and breadth of her slim form. She is a village girl not much older than 15, her features simply classic.
The manicurist gives a decent massage to my hands and forearms, then takes a hot towel that has seen better days and wraps it around my hands. The pedicurist tries to sell me on the crystal spa because my heals are “very much needing” he says, but I say no thank you. I have barely understood their three words of English and they have barely understood mine, but we manage by imagining what the other one has said and smiling. He sets out to make sure that my heels and feet are smooth as silk and proves to me later, that even without the “crystal spa” he has attained perfection. If I could have, I would have said to him “who needs crystal spa when I’ve got you?” I notice that the manicurist has forgotten to file my nails on the right hand. The pedicurist finishes the job for her, while she does eyebrow threading on another customer.
The village girl stoops and now mops the floor by hand. She hardly understands what the shop keeper is saying and goes about her mopping. She disappears to empty the bucket of dirty water. It strikes me that the most beautiful person in the beauty salon is doing the dirtiest work and it makes me wonder if karma will cut her some slack the next time around. Her cinnamon colored skin, clear and smooth. Her mysterious ebony eyes tell stories of her far off village. Her long black hair falls down her back in a swoon. She moves gracefully and confidently as if she were back in her village carrying a jug of water on her head. Yet, she is shy and no eye contact is made. She could be from the slums and not from a village at all. The ancient and the modern colliding. She has my heart.
The Nepalese money keeper gives me change for my 1000 rupees. The service had cost me 8 dollars total. Tips are offered. The biggest tip should have gone to the girl. The lowest seat gains the most merit. But she was gone. And there I was, a patronizing American with brightly painted toes.
I was swiftly driven back to the Guest house by the Nepalese.