This weekend I experienced two sides to Delhi that were at completely opposite ends of the spectrum. The first was a beauty parlour and the second was volunteering for a waste management company (literally collecting litter) at a ladies only marathon. Like I said, poles apart.
As we have by now established, when it comes to Delhi I am old school, I shy away from the modern in favour of traditional or more cultural. So, despite having tried a couple of new trendy and rather expensive beauty salons, it is the old school salon that I have made myself a denizen of. The new salons, or should we say ‘’spas’’ may be glitzier, more trendy and have a younger more fun (only occasionally) set of ‘specialists’ but I find the treatments to be merely cosmetic and rarely serve their purpose. Therapists are lackadaisically trained, little follow up is done, half the time they have barely cut their teeth and tend to do treatments by rote a degree more lackadaisically than their training. You may end up with a pretty colour on your rounded (and still too long and ingrowing toe nails) but that it about it.
My first experience of an old school salon, which incidentally exist still as slightly shabby, rarely promoted parts of a five star hotels, was when I exited the jungle after eight months. To say that my feet had gone tribal would be an understatement. By and large I had lived in flipflops, the ground was dusty and dry, each time I filed the dead skin and embedded dirt from my feet the conditions meant that my heels just split and were too painful to walk on. I soon gave up. My feet may have been unattractive to look at, but I could walk, and that was more important. So it transpired that, eight months later, a friend in Delhi took one look at my bulbous, ingrained and distinctly unattractive feet, shouted, ‘’Vinod my dear, you need Vinod,’’ picked up her phone made a quick call and bundled me into her car, shouting to her driver, ‘Imperial, as quickly as you can.’ It seemed that my tribal feet were in danger of causing a situation akin to a natural disaster and had to be dealt with without delay.
The Imperial salon, which has since been overshadowed by its new and far more swanky spa, was and still is one of these old institutions. They may look shabby but there is one thing that makes them special, the ladies of Delhi, and I don’t mean any ladies of Delhi.
No, these are the old money, old school ladies who know what they want and will settle for absolutely nothing less. They are a fearsome bunch. They are also incredibly fair, battle axes they may be, but they give credit where due and tip incredibly well. The result, a bunch of therapists who know and respect their clients and will always give an excellent service;after all, it is invariably worth their while. Not only that, they are not merely cosmetic. Old ladies feet, hands, jowls and greying hair I feel must be the same the world over, they need special attention, and that day mine certainly got it. I was to discover that in the feet department, these guys are more in tune with chiropodists than nail painters.
Vinod sat me down, offered me tea, carefully encased my knees in a warm towel, inspected my feet from various angles, placed another warm, rolled towel beneath my neck and offered me water: this would take time. My feet were placed in bubbly, scented water at just the right temperature and I tried not to squeal as, through the reflection in the mirror, I saw him insert a new and incredibly sharp blade into his cut throat razor. My old school Delhi lady friend nodded in approval and sipped on her tea, served in her favourite bone china cup and saucer. The lady next door, was forcibly diverted from staring in horror at my feet by a tiny, yet menacing looking Malaysian therapist who was bearing down on me with a cotton reel. Threading. My friend looked from her to me with a certain look on her face, realisation dawning and I was momentarily distracted from my terror of the cut throat as I started to fear for my mono brow which by now rivalled Freida Kahlo de Riviera’s. It wasn’t just my feet I had neglected in the jungle.
An hour later and my mono brow was back in two perfectly shaped arches and my feet, whilst not being as good as new, were as good as they would get on this visit. Apparently mine were the first feet Vinod had come across in all his time (and he was a third generation ‘footist’) that needed two attempts to get them back to normal. However, my ingrowing toe nails had been gouged out, and thanks to the parmesan style shavings that the cut throat had produced, I was a good inch shorter and no longer had to hide my feet in solid shoes. My visits to Vinod became regular, not only did he get them back to normal on his second attempt but I discovered that he could take one look at my feet and determine whether that month I was suffering from back pain, stomach issues, headaches, you name it. The guy was incredible. He also, started throwing in 15 mins of acupressure each time I visited, free of charge, and I would literally float out of the salon, all the way to 1911.
Sadly Vinod has left and I have been searching for another such specialist and I think this weekend I found him, no longer at The Imperial, but at the ITC Maurya, another hang out of the Old School Delhi Ladies. However, delighted as I was to finally have found someone else who can deal with my feet, I was also reminded of another thing these salons are the master of; the unfailing honesty with which the therapists operate. Now I think that this may be a foreigner thing, as I don’t think that they would get away with it with their usual clientele but this weekend, with the promise of dinner with an old flame, I thought that I would not only go for my usual pedicure and eyebrow threading but also my first ever facial.
Over the course of the next couple of hours, I lost count of how many times I laughed out loud, the therapists were amused as well as bemused, in their eyes they were just being honest. I found them hilarious. It started off innocently enough.
T1 (Therapist one) – Very bad feet, ingrowing. Very paining.
I nodded in agreement, not much else to be said, simple fact stating. It took a while, he had to get a pneumatic drill out for the ‘’ingrowings’’ but all in all, a successful hour.
I asked for tea. Jasmine, green or mint were the options given to me.
‘Pukka chai?’ I ventured…. Proper local Indian mixed chai?
‘Ahh, but not as healthy madam, very more fattening.’ This accompanied by a raised eyebrow, I daren’t mentioned that I have just lost 4kgs. I stuck to my guns, chai was delivered, albeit with sugar on the side.
Old School Delhi Lady arrived with two accompanying staff, one carrying her bag and opening doors, the other’s sole purpose as far as I could see was just to bow and scrape. Beyond her entourage, her arrival announced by a large litany of complaints against the hair dye, cut, manicure she had had previously and with threats of dire consequences should things not be MUCH improved this time. Ahh, familiarity, I smiled and asked my therapist how long she had been coming, ‘Over 20 years madam, and never once been happy.’ I smiled again, but not for long.
I was being prepped for eyebrow threading. T2 peered at me, wobbled her head, got stuck in, then just before she finished her final flourish, said, ‘Madam, moustache?’ My newly defined eyebrows shot into the stratosphere. I pondered for a quizzical moment but then declined, having never noticed that I had one myself in over 40 years. However, I am now trying desperately not to give into paranoia.
For my third and final bout of Indian honesty, I was taken into the facial room. Lights blazed down on me, blinding me, interrogation style. I asked if they could be turned down, after all, wasn’t this meant to be relaxing? I mentioned it to her. ‘No madam, we have to be able to see all your blackheads and whiteheads for removing. Delhi very dirty, very toxin. Lots of work.’
Was this just me or all people suffering Delhi’s pollution?
She peered closer.
‘Actually madam, not many blackheads, not many blackheads at all.’
I was temporarily surprised, momentarily it turned out as she followed up with,
‘Yes, not many blackheads, all whiteheads, yes just ALL whiteheads,’ and with that she attacked me with a cloud of steam.
Concentration took over, silence ensued. Their followed a very peaceful thirty minutes as she worked away. I was almost lured into a false sense of security. Then just as I was dozing off I was rudely awakened.
‘Now madam, coming shock, ice on face, need to close ALL those open pores.’
I left the salon feeling a world lighter. My feet were sorted, my face no longer weighed down by overhanging eyebrows, my white face no longer plagued by white heads (not that I had ever noticed those to be fair either) and with a smile on my face. Good old fashioned Old School Indian directness, not a hint of embarrassment nor sense that a line had been over stepped. It’s an honesty we aren’t used to, a directness we in the west find embarrassing but it is just one of the things that I love about India and that will keep me going back to old school salons time and time again, after all, their parting shot was,
‘Actually madam, you have very good skin, no need to rush back like most ladies, you can leave for four weeks.’
And that made my day.
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