FEATURE: Oil massage

KATHMANDU, Nepal (The Kathmandu Post/ANN)-  A woman seeks refuge from her life’s complications in the hands of a masseuse  

Matina sucked her breath in as Nanimaiya drew closer to her back, encircling her with both her arms, drawing circular movements on her abdomen. She sat facing a wall, her bare back turned toward Nanimaiya. The mustard oil helped reduce friction between the calloused palms that rubbed against the flaky skin. It was winter. Their skins were at their worst.

Matina looked like a hermit, sitting cross-legged with her hair up in a bun, the size of a cricket ball. She clutched a stole over her chest, as though determined that that was the part of her body she would not expose. She tilted her head as Nanimaiya’s warm garlic breath bounced off her nape. It was a smell she had gotten used to, even if it wasn’t exactly endearing.

The elderly woman’s hands worked vigorously on her stomach. As the softness of the stomach sank and rose under Nanimaiya’s firm hands, Matina, for some reason felt like she was being put under scrutiny. Her body had changed greatly since the times Nanimaiya used to give her massages. Growing up, weekend massages had been a family ritual. The way the experienced hands invested their trust and care in her body when she was a schoolgirl, had somehow made up for the absence of attention from her parents. Matina had learned to look up to Nanimaiya as her healer of sorts. And to Nanimaiya, Matina was the little girl she never had. But there was only so much to claim to their relationship— she was their family-need, rather than want.

When the oil massage sessions resumed after Matina had become a mother, the entire process of undressing, surrendering her body, allowing someone to come in contact with every inch of her being, felt crass. She felt vulnerable now, unlike the times when she was a little girl who liked to curl her toes and giggle when Nanimaiya tata rubbed oil on her feet. The physical changes she had undergone over the years made her react differently to touching.

As weeks went by, apart from the abdomen, where the flesh seemed to simply relent in all awkwardness to Nanimaiya’s hands, she had actually begun to enjoy being pampered. In fact, she had begun to look forward to that one hour of the day. Only the abdomen, she still could not get used to. Her abdominal muscles would tighten when the hands moved to that area, and yet melt under the warmth of Nanimaiya’s hands. She could not understand why that contradiction from her body and why that must make her feel violated.

The massage was a rigorous process. It tired and resuscitated Nanimaiya at the same time, while Matina drew comfort and strength from it. Nanimaiya’s hands were large, and patterned by calluses and scars. Sometimes, their scrubbing burned the younger woman’s skin. And she loved that burning. It brought her home to some sensations that she had not experienced in any other form for a long time. It sometimes reminded her of how she had to turn her face away some days when Kewal pressed himself against her while she struggled to catch her breath. The burning—he seemed oblivious of it, while she quietly wished he would pass out in a fountain and the ordeal would be over.

Kewal. Like only. Only distance.

Nanimaiya’s hands hardened by labour, were large enough to cover Matina’s back with one span. She slowed down the friction from her calluses to check. “Am I hurting you, nani?”

“No, keep going.” And Matina shut her eyes and imagined Kewal had come back to her for pillow talk. And the movement changed its course. The fingers lingered on the spine. Press. Rub. Press. Probe. And then press again. She shut her eyes and breathed in deep.

Nanimaiya’s breasts crashed against Matina’s back briefly, as she continued to massage. Then a drop of perspiration—almost immediately hot and cold— landed on Matina’s shoulder blade.

“Enough, tata. Let’s do the back now.”

Matina gathered the maroon and gold stole around her torso, stood up and surveyed herself in the mirror, while Nanimaiya spread out the long mattress. The stole was the colours meant for a nun. But with her hair up in a bun, she looked something like the ascetics in the comic books she used to read as a kid. Or maybe a nun with pale skin and sunken eyes? The stole had become dyed in oil that thickened in a patch over the front end Matina always clutched to her chest.

If she had chosen the vihar of her childhood fascination, instead of marriage, these would have been her colours today--maroon and gold. And she might have been spinning maanes in Swayambu or chanting namo tastwo at some vihar in Patan, instead of getting an oil massage. She had grown up believing she was destined to enter organised religion as a nun. But that had changed over the years, and she had responded to social responsibilities and carnal needs and settled for marriage— an institution she never imagined she could fit into. And with that her faith in religion had dissipated as well. She had grown into a person who was perpetually paranoid. About everything.

It frightened her when some nights, Reeti wanted to sleep with her because her room was too cold. The nearness of another human terrified her. She feared the feel of warmth in bed would remind her of things she wanted to forget. She would live like a nun. Without desire. With patience for everything. But that was a lie. She had patience for nothing. Initially, the oil massages tested her patience, too. Then, for the sake of her own sanity and comfort, she had decided it was therapeutic.

Matina’s belly felt bloated. Ahead of her period, she always felt like it would burst, like a dam holding back millions of cusecs of water. She lowered the stole to look at her stomach in the mirror. The stretch marks shone like they were patterns on a tiger’s back. Maybe her spirit could turn into one, she imagined. A tiger that did not need to be held or loved. Just a fiercely independent being. But how could she know tigers did not need love? She kneeled down and stretched herself on the mattress, her face facing downward. The carpet smelled ancient. How many layers of history in those years of dust, she wondered.

A frustrated Nanimaiya interrupted her thoughts.

Ka, if you don’t let it down now, I’m going to have to pull it off you, nani.” And she tugged the stole off Matina’s back. Nanimaiya made quick concentric circles with her palm, on the small of Matina’s back. How different that felt from how Kewal sometimes liked to brace here exactly there, like he was telling her he was there to get her back. Lie.

Aya, not so hard, tata!”

“A woman has to abandon all her shame, when she becomes a mother. Does it hurt here?” Matina wanted to forget she was a mother. At least briefly. Why did they have to constantly rub it in, like there was no other life possible for her besides motherhood?

“A woman’s body becomes very delicate after child-birth. That’s why you should wear full sleeves and cover your head all the time. Even if it’s the month of Baisakh-Jestha. But you will not listen!”

Their conversations repeated like a pattern every day. Nanimaiya would tell Matina what it meant to become a mother and then start talking about her sons who did not help her, and her mother-in-law, who was forever cribbing. The topics ran a parallel pattern with that of the massage. She would do the abdomen first, then the back, then her limbs. Children, mother-in-law, husband, dear life. By the time they arrived at the limbs, Matina would also have said a few things about memories she carefully tucked away from her family and friends. Nanimaiya would respond to her thoughts in the movement of her hands. As the memories grew sadder, her grip became firmer and the warmth spoke something of longing.

“What to do, nani? Life is full of dukkha.”

To Matina, her time with Nanimaiya in the privacy of her room had become her sole comfort. It was the only time of the day she felt un-rejected. Nanimaiya would crack and laugh at her own jokes, while Matina would smile. The only other comfort, if it could be called that, was when the baby would fall asleep after being fed, leaving the room cloaked in silence. Rest of the time, the baby would purr and groan like he was an offspring of some animal, instead of hers. Sometimes, she would lean in close to the little face and inhale. The smell that spoke of a hundred things different, would fill her with tenderness—and her eyes would fill to the brim.

Throughout the night she would follow his movements round the clock. Every hour, the alarm had to ring and the baby had to be fed. The snatches of sleep she would slip into during the massage, made-up for those hours of vigil.

“Your hands are magic, tata. They take all my pain away”, and she slipped into her dreams. She surrendered her limbs to Nanimaiya who continued to make all kinds of movements with her palms, lessening her pain and creating small spectrums of heat that healed. As the warmth lulled her into sleep, the movement of Nanimaiya’s hands transformed in her mind, into those of Kewal’s. She tried to fight the sleep back because something seemed wrong about falling asleep like that. It was an engaging moment of struggling between not wanting to fall asleep and not wanting to wake up. She struggled in her mind to separate Nanimaiya’s hands from those of Kewal’s. But the hands merged as they pressed, kneaded and caressed her back.

“You have to become strong soon, so that you can take care of babu.” Nanimaiya said as she rubbed the calves. “Your legs are going to hurt later if you don’t take care of them now.” Nanimaiya’s cheeks blushed like they were close to bleeding as she worked her hands on the legs. Her hand moved up Matina’s thighs and then down. Up and then down.

Through all her hardships, Nanimaiya had remained beautiful and formidable, Matina thought, as she watched the red of her cheeks.

“My toes!” Matina laughed.

“You haven’t changed!” They laughed together.

“Do you think I’m beautiful, tata?”

There was often that moment when the question would pop-up and the masseuse would have to employ hard-work to sound convincing. She saw that the carefree little girl she had known had turned into a dejected woman, who constantly sought assurance.

Tata, that’s enough for today.”

Nanimaiya picked the steel bowl containing oil. It had started to gather soot in its dents from being reheated every day. She shut the door quietly behind her as she left. Matina stood-up and wrapped the stole tightly around her torso and glanced at herself in the mirror. The woman in the reflection was frail and small. Like a child with an old woman’s face. Maybe a mal-nourished child with thin limbs and a bloated tummy? And then she thought, how dare she! How dare she compare her state with that of mal-nourished child? How dare she take Nanimaiya tata’s presence for granted?

Her heartbreak was not worth being compared to hunger or toil.

Her heartbreak was petty before these real sufferings. Pale. So, how dare she!

She felt like she wanted to run to Kewal then. She wanted to run into his arms, fall on her knees and ask him to make love to her. She lay prostrate on the bed next to babu. His cheeks radiated like they were wearing blush-ons. As tears started to run, she longed for Nanimaiya’s hands again. She longed for their movement on her back, shoulders, thighs and on the sides from where her breasts began to rise into little mounds.

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