Sanjay Subba beats his customers back and shoulders with a nice, even rhythm. He fist-bumps the back area from top to bottom and pushes the neck backward to straighten the spine. He then rubs the tips of his fingers on the scalp and just like that, an hour long massage has come to an end. Subba can’t revel in the satisfaction that has washed over his clients face; he can’t see. He lost both his eyes to chicken pox when he was three years old. In search of work, this 26-year-old Darjeeling lad then travelled to Mumbai, only to sell cotton buds at railway stations and temples. Subba’s luck changed when he became a masseuse at Mettaa Foot Spa however.
15 visually-impaired massage therapist work on the first floor of a Bandra building on Hill road. Former nurse/yoga teacher Joanita Figueiredo, the founder of this spa, huddles them all in for a photo but not before they have washed their faces, worn their sunglasses and put on some make-up and accessories. What began with four visually impaired students in 2008 has become an institution within itself. “I was a nurse in the ICU for ten years. I want to move from curative medicine to preventive medicine. I had a dream of being a nurse in America and had gone to Kuwait to apply for my exams but the political situation there forced me to come back to India. I took up yoga and learned naturopathy and started taking classes for people. I wanted to do them for free but it didn’t take with people. I hiked the price to Rs.500 and I was the most sought after teacher, such is the mentality,” she said.
A foot spa on a Bangkok trip changed Figueiredo when she felt that there was a deeper science behind it all. “I learned foot reflexology for six weeks in Thailand and then a teacher taught me Thai massage in Mumbai, which I paired with Yoga. My teacher taught one blind person for free for every able person she taught. I was paying double the fees but I minted even more money than I could imagine,” she said. When a call for volunteering arrived from Victoria Memorial School for the Blind and National Association for the Blind (NAB), she gladly took it. “I realized that they were much better than I could ever be. Honestly, they were so good at their practical and I haven’t seen such diligent therapists in my life,” she said. She was in for a rude shock when her students did not find employment with any city spa. “They told me that I keep telling them that they are the best but nobody hires us. I just took them all in my car and we went to every spa in the city. Most felt bad and just offered money as pity but nobody wanted to hire them. I was so annoyed because they want skirt-wearing, English speaking therapists which these people are not,” she said.
Mettaa, which means loving compassion in Pali language, was born out of anger. “I just took four of them and my teacher gave me her bungalow keys and we started our own spa in Bandra. For the first month, we just gave free service to Senior citizens. With their blessings, here we are today,” she said. The employees here still give free massages to senior citizens as a part of their ‘Seva’ or service towards society philosophy.
Figueiredo encourages these therapists to take up government jobs and complete their education. “It is mandatory for them to first learn about the human anatomy and physiology and what pressure points to press. They need to take the course to qualify but they will not be able to do massages after five years. Their thumbs will give up, it’s an occupational hazard. Many of my old students have taken up good jobs and come to work here on weekends because they like to. Many have bought their own homes with tips and earnings. Many of the present ones are working and studying at the same time,” she says. The therapists earn anywhere between Rs. 10,000 and Rs. 20,000 per month based on experience.
Today, these visually impaired therapists have taken group holidays together, pooled in money and bought their madam (Figueiredo) a smartphone and even keep up with the latest technology. Figueiredo does everything a mother would do for her child. She calls them her ‘bacchas’ and gives them tasks to do. “I teach them everything. Cooking, cleaning toilets, taking care of their bodies…I have even taught them about safe sex, safe periods and have also shaved the armpits of these boys as the shirts they wear can create issues. We celebrate Christmas together. Go for Mass, get drunk on the 24th of December and have a great time,” she laughs.
Life as usual always turns up with tricks. After many interviews with various media houses, Figueiredo just turns them down now. “TV channels don’t understand how harsh lights of the camera affect them. A girl shot a short film on them and the lights just made them sick. Her movie got selected for Cannes I heard” she says.
There have been instances where they have been robbed or sexually assaulted. “Some male clients have the audacity to ask me if they can select which girl will massage them. I just asked them to select my left or right sandal. We usually offer our services at weddings and functions and once we were told to go away from such an event. An old man said that the presence of the people was ‘Apshagun’ for them. A bad omen. I just think it was their loss,” she admits.
Subba was robbed when he was travelling to his village to get married. “A man stole my small bag that all my money was in, Rs. 16,000 of it,” he said. He doesn’t seem regretful about it though. Life has brought a lot of cheer for him as he got married earlier this year. “My wife and I live together in this city,” he said. He completed his education till tenth standard and moved to Mumbai 5 years ago. “I got in touch with an NGO that taught me massage for a year. I was with them for two years and then joined Mettaa. I like it here. I don’t have to stand and run in the sun all day like I used to,” he says.
24-year-old Seema Pokle has been working here since 2 years and is also studying in college. “I am from Pune but came to Mumbai to study and do a job. This is my first job and I am very happy. My friend used to work here and suggested that I join too. I took a three month course at Victoria School and I got it after an interview with madam. I don’t have any fear when I am here as someone is always present at the reception. Madam solves my family problems and talks to my parents when I need help. In Pune, I am just holed up inside my house as my family doesn’t let me go anywhere but here I do everything by myself. I travel from Dombivali every day to come here. It is a total four hours of travel,” she said.
They can climb trees, beat people at chess, go for picnics and do anything they want to. With sound financial advice from their madam, they invest and save money in the bank right beside their spa too. In many ways, they embody the work that they do—when the right pressure is applied to the right point, issues get resolved on their own.