Wisdom at my Feet
Whenever I arrive and depart from Mumbai I have a one stop ‘makeover’ at the Taj Hotel's salon in Colaba. After passing the security check, a grim reminder of the events of 2008, I enter the rarified air of Mumbai’s finest hotel and, without a sideways glance, I pass the discretely expensive stores lining white marbled corridors and welcome the blast of cold air that greets me as I go down the stairs into the surprisingly understated salon. I cannot remember how I discovered this oasis amidst Colaba’s bedlam but I would not go past it. Nobody does feet the way that Kailash does. More than one hour of washing, soaking, skin removal (with a new blade unwrapped in my presence), filing, massaging, buffing and polishing and his promise is more than met. I have feet with skin as ‘soft as a baby’ and nails, that seemed beyond salvation, now worthy of any hand-made golden sandal from Pioneer Footwear on the Causeway! Kailash is my hero – since my first pedicure ten years ago an insipient and sometimes nagging ingrown nail is banished from my right big toe! My newly burnished feet then float me into a traditional, all natural, Indian facial, threading and waxing with Margaret or Lily whom I alternate to avoid any hint of favouritism. But it is the wisdom gained, the gossip whispered and the insights into the lives of everyday Mumbaikers that I love the most. I learn about the public transport system, wages, the gap between rich and poor and the latest about various family members.
On this last visit I learned about the ‘God Particles’ from my Hindu friend Kailash (news of this did not reach me in Bhuj - the subject of lack of rain was uppermost). He gazed dreamily as he massaged the sore points on my right sole (and maybe soul) and waxed on vaguely about dark matter and a machine in Europe. ‘This is nothing new’ he almost whispered ‘all knowledge is written into the Vedas’. Qantam physics and the ‘Dancing Wu Li Masters’, God and science, the human condition and the eternal question and he flatters me when he tells me I understand such things. Meanwhile the large Saudi Arabian gentleman in the next chair complains constantly about trifles and his aching feet, and the shouting from a nearby cubicle is attributed to another having his back waxed. Saudis come in droves during monsoon – for the rain. At the Godwin Hotel where I normally stay, I love this time of year, sharing a crowded lift with unsmiling white robed men and burqa–clad women whose eyes I cannot quite read. Later, when the men have gone off to do whatever it is they do, I am invited by burqaless women into rooms crowded with shopping and extra beds where I am plied with sweets and tea and quizzed about my life in Australia. We are complicit – women sharing whispered intimacies in the best possible way.
Margaret, on the other hand, is strictly Roman Catholic and has an equally strict hand as she deftly removes the long hairs from my legs. I save them up because she is so good, fast, efficient and painless and her treatment somehow lasts. She gossips in the kindest way and with some envy tells me that Kailash is ‘very rich’ for he is soon off to Ireland for three months where his son manages a salon. I do not disillusion her with tales of global economic woe. She then tells me in one long sentence that Tom Cruise is in the hotel, that the ‘God Particles’ are merely made by mortals and not by God’s hand, that her ninety year old client recently had her eyes ‘done’ and that she herself will soon retire. I drift off as yet another layer of jasmine scented oil soaks into my Kachchh parched skin. Bliss. Whenever my tour groups finish or begin in Mumbai I recommend a treatment or two – booked well ahead before we travel and at half the cost of the Australian version.
My last stop for this final day in Mumbai is the GPO and after an argument with a fractious taxi driver I head for Shakil’s wrapping stand. He is another hero who rescues me from the insanity of the postal system and is a truly good man from his unruly beard to his large, gnarled, flat feet. He once posted a package on my behalf due to the sudden closure of the GPO; he estimated Rs4000/- and the next time I landed in Mumbai and switched sim cards in my phone there was a message informing me to collect Rs1800 as he had guessed wrongly. The Karmic spirit indeed flows across creed. This time we efficiently wrap, fill in and photo copy customs forms and he leads me to counter 3 to avoid the queue. The clerk is sitting sipping chai, fiddling with papers and studiously avoiding our presence. Shakil Pir Mohamed raps sharply on the dirty glass partition and demands service.
‘This post office staff’ he tells me loudly enough for all to hear ‘once they have the government chair they do as they wish to do. They never cares about the customer!’ His own chair is a rickety stool on an uneven pavement on one of the busiest corners in Mumbai and from which he conducts his business – demystifying the postal system. He rarely sits except to stitch. He does care about the customer.