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July 15, 2013

The Art Of Spa Survival

Text by Sitanshi Talati-Parikh. Illustration by Salil Sojwal.

Seeking recognition and success, a young artist woos a patron of art to be ‘discovered’. In an exclusive short story written for Verve, author Rupa Gulab pens a humorous account of how a session in a spa turns into the creative muse that colours the canvas…

  • Rupa Gulab, Short Story
  • Rupa Gulab, Short Story

I was gaping like a goldfish after the phone call. It was from Mrs. Agarwal! Well, not Mrs. Agarwal, the Page 3 Patron of Art herself, but her personal assistant. I was politely informed that her ladyship wanted to meet me. “Whatever for?” I asked, astonished. I couldn’t have been more gobsmacked if Prince Harry had invited me to Vegas for wicked Tequila shots.

The personal assistant said that it was for an assignment, and asked if Friday 3 pm was possible. “Of course it’s possible,” I eagerly burbled, “five minutes from now would also be possible!”

Heck, I would do anything to meet Mrs. Agarwal! If she endorsed me, my career was made – I could bathe in Dom Perignon and throw my father’s grim prediction that I would starve in the gutter right back in his face. Dad still hadn’t forgiven me for shunning the respectable family firm set up by my great-grandfather, despite the fact that I’d said over and over again that his world was too grey for me. He still hopes that someday I will become a chartered accountant – I did pass my exams after all, before I was permitted to go to art school. That was the deal.

I couldn’t get back to the landscape of the turbulent Arabian Sea I’d been working on – I’d completely lost the emotion. Instead, I wondered how Mrs. Agarwal had, um, discovered me. I felt a shivery thrill electrify my body as I imagined Mrs. Agarwal admiring my works of art. Well, work of art, to be precise. Only one of my paintings had been exhibited so far. Yeah, I’m pretty much a loser.

I supressed the urge to call Dad just to crow, “I told you so,” and dialled Shruti instead. You’re meant to share your joy with best friends, after all. Shruti congratulated me warmly. And then she told me something that diminished my happiness – well, just a teeny weeny bit. She’d asked her mum to put in a good word for me with Mrs. Agarwal – both of them were directors at a home for the mentally challenged.

“So she hadn’t seen my Ooty landscape at the exhibition of young artists?” I asked Shruti in a small defeated voice.

“Nope. Mrs. Agarwal told Mum she’d never heard of you, but Mum persuaded her that you were a talent to watch out for,” Shruti giggled conspiratorially. Oh well, euphoria is a highly over-rated emotion, I consoled myself after I hung up. The kindness of a best friend’s mum is what matters most.

I was outside Mrs. Agarwal’s ornate front door at 2.15 pm on Friday in eager-beaver mode. I had 45 minutes to study it carefully – heck, I could have written a 10,000 word article for some fancy interiors mag on how wealth does not necessarily lead to good taste. At 3 p.m. I rang the doorbell and was ushered into a spacious living room that gave me more fodder for the scathing article I had in mind. I shuddered involuntarily as I examined the wall-to-wall paintings. There were gods, more gods and even more gods. Mainly Buddha, Shiva and Ganesh – and evidently done by shoddy amateurs. Only one painting stood out among the godly/ ungodly mess – it was an untidy bunch of flowers. I scrunched my eyes to examine it better and arrived at the conclusion that it was probably done by a child at the home for the mentally challenged. Mrs. Agarwal went even higher up in my estimation – she’d probably bought it to make a hefty donation. I’m an absolute sucker for rich people who help the needy. Azim Premji, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are my heroes. I keep telling Dad that, but he works differently: finding solutions for the super-rich to stay super rich without paying taxes. “That’s more creative than art,” he always tells me defiantly.

Just then, Mrs. Agarwal sailed in. I set the conversational ball rolling by asking her who had done the flower painting. She shrugged. “The chief minister of some state. Can’t remember which. My husband has some business interests there. He paid over a crore for this garbage and we hope this investment will pay rich dividends. Oh and all the other hideous paintings?” she airily waved a hand at the walls and continued, “Done by the wives of his dearly beloved business associates!” She shot a meaningful look at me and laughed throatily.

I think I fell in love with Mrs. Agarwal then. She was warm, friendly and completely bullshit free. We had a lovely chat about this, that, and the other over snacks and at the end of it all she offered me 50 grand for a painting. “Do you have any theme in mind?” I asked warily. “Because by god, I can’t paint gods – I’m a rabid atheist!”

“Peace!” Mrs. Agarwal said with such a deep sigh that her large cushiony bosom heaved dramatically, Bollywood style. “I want to look at a painting and feel completely relaxed, sort of like how one feels after yoga but without tying my body into ridiculous knots.”

My heart lifted. “Ooh, that’s perfect, I do landscapes,” I said chirpily. I was thinking along the lines of a willow-lined pond during a full moon, with shimmering reflections. Or maybe at noon, with the sun shyly peeping in, lighting up different shades of green. There were so many possibilities!

My heart sank when Mrs. Agarwal shook her head firmly. “I hate landscapes, they’re so boring yaar,” she moaned.

I should have backed out then, but the promise of 50 grand for my first commissioned painting held me back. Sometimes artists have to be prostitutes. We even paint lapdogs and favourite kittens coughing up fur balls for money.

We finally agreed on something abstract (even though I hate abstracts) and I left her apartment with a heavy heart and a heavier body. I would have to punish myself severely for shoving all those deep fried snacks down my throat. But who in their right mind can resist crumb-fried mozzarella sticks, nachos, and such-like?

I wasted a full week smearing rubbish on a canvas and wiping it out. My apartment reeked of turpentine and I could barely breathe. I had only two days left to deliver, and I called Shruti out of desperation.

“Inspiration SOS!” I groaned. “Help me think of something that connotes peace!

“Spa!” Shruti hollered immediately. “Go to a spa now!”

“Huh?” I asked inelegantly.

Shruti gently explained. I had caught her while she was reading an article on spas in a dead posh mag and she quoted large chunks of it to me. The gist of it is as follows: oasis of peace/serenity/ and practically every single word listed under ‘calmness’ in Roget’s expansive thesaurus.

I spent a happy hour on Google-search, found a friendly neighbourhood spa and fixed an appointment for the afternoon. And when I entered the spa, I honestly believed that I had arrived at an oasis of peace, despite the fact that the strong lemon-grass infused interiors smelt pretty much like my cheap, synthetic car freshener. It was dark, dank and Chinese restaurant music was playing softly. My Pavlovian reaction was an overpowering urge to eat dim sums.

I was graciously handed a menu. Sadly there weren’t any refreshments apart from jasmine tea and weird juices, so I settled for a foot reflexology followed by a full body aromatherapy massage (Japanese and Swedish style).

I was completely spooked – everyone spoke in hushed whispers, like I was a terminally ill patient with five minutes left to gasp, “Goodbye cruel world”. There were hundreds of little tea lights scattered everywhere – I had to fight my conscience to steal a few for the next protest march in the nation. One vitally important thing missing though – fire extinguishers! This made me nervous because the great Chinese philosopher Confucius had evidently forgotten to say, “From little tea lights grow mighty fires.”

“Is the pressure okay,” the pretend Thai-masseuse asked tenderly.

“Yes, it’s fine,” I winced as she viciously plunged her sharp clawed fingers into my delicate soles while I foolishly kept repeating that idiotic ‘no pain, no gain’ mantra in my head. What I really wanted to say out loud was, “Shouldn’t you cut your fingernails for this job?”

And as for the fusion Japanese and Swedish massage – hell, I paid over three grand to be thrashed mercilessly! Political party goons couldn’t have done a better job. I kept waiting for my mind to drift aimlessly like a lost soul, but all I could focus on was the searing pain. Perhaps peace will finally arrive when they bludgeon me into oblivion, I thought grimly.

I had to hobble out. My soles were swollen, it felt like angry bees had attacked them.

Though I could barely lift my arms, I splashed deep purple paint on my canvas, inspired by the bruises on my delicate skin. The next morning, I wiped the entire rubbish out, hummed “Give peace a chance” and spontaneously threw on pale indigo, the new shade on my skin. By the evening, I had splashed on violent reds and virulent oranges. The only thing my mind was focused on was pain!

And 24 hours before I had to deliver, I flung black paint over the entire canvas in a fit of rage – I just couldn’t bear the smell of turpentine and linseed oil anymore. I stared at the canvas blankly. And then suddenly, it made sense to me!

That black was peace – the peace you see when you shut your eyes after an exhausting day. I painted midnight blue on black and layered and layered it, creating depth and then called Shruti over.

“Most people associate peace with white,” she offered critically as she scrutinised it.

“I’m not most people,” I snapped. “I’m me! And this is my version of peace after that crappy spa torture you put me through.”

She thought deeply, sighed, and immodestly said, “Well then, you need an excellent writer like me to present your case in a brief essay – and make sure Mrs. Agarwal reads the essay before she looks at the canvas, okay?”

I nodded dumbly. I had reached the stage where I just didn’t care anymore.

The next day, I got Shruti’s mum to deliver the canvas with the essay. I couldn’t bear the idea of witnessing the look of incredulity mixed with disappointment on lovely Mrs. Agarwal’s face. Also, I was certain she wouldn’t slap Shruti’s mum!

“Loser! Loser! Loser!” I taunted myself during visions of Mrs. Agarwal plunging a kitchen knife through the canvas with a maniacal gleam in her eyes. I was dead certain she wouldn’t buy the flowery essay on sleep that Shruti had shamelessly pinched from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: innocent sleep/balm of hurt minds/blah blah.

I moped around the house aimlessly, then wandered out to the balcony and gazed at the sea. It was low tide and ugly plastic packets were liberally scattered on the sandy shore. Just as well that I’d decided to give up art, I thought bitterly.

My phone rang and I shrank when I glanced at the caller identity. It was Mrs. Agarwal and she was frightfully persistent. About 30 rings later I reluctantly answered it and whispered a hoarse hello. Mrs. Agarwal started screaming – just as I’d expected.

“You, you, you bloody genius!” she hollered. And then she proceeded to gush like a waterfall during a good monsoon year, screeching that my depiction of peace was brilliant, inspired and she was going to recommend me to all her friends.

After I hung up, I rushed to the spa and fixed an appointment for exactly the same treatment as before. The pretend Thai-masseuse who almost murdered me chirped, “Nice to see you back, madam.”

I smiled warmly right back. “Oh this is not for me, I’m getting a gift coupon for someone and I want you to do it, okay?” This, to my mind, was the perfect present for Shruti.

She nodded, looking very pleased with herself.

“And make sure that the pressure is extremely intense when you work on her, understood?” I sternly wagged a finger under her nose as I said that.

Admittedly, I did feel a little guilty after I walked out with the gift coupon, so I stepped into the neighbouring mall and splurged on a tiny bottle of perfume for Shruti.

I would give it to her after her spa treatment – as a get-well-soon present.”

Q & A with RUPA GULAB

DO YOU TALK AND THINK THE WAY YOU WRITE?
Yes! Even when depressing things happen to me (and they frequently do), I always manage to see the funny side. I would much rather laugh than cry. I hate feeling sorry for myself, I really do. Look, we’re all going to die so we may as well enjoy ourselves while we’re alive.

SOME OF THE BEST NOVELISTS HAVE DABBLED IN SHORT-STORY WRITING TO VARYING DEGREES OF SUCCESS. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT TELLING A SHORTER STORY?
The truth: I never even flirted with the idea of writing short stories till Verve asked me to write one in 2005 and another in 2010. So the credit (or the blame) goes to you! Soon after, Penguin asked me to write a short story for a YA anthology and after that was published, I felt fairly comfortable with the medium. My latest book, I Kissed a Frog, is not strictly a collection of short stories. It also has diary entries and parodies of fairy tales. I prefer to think of I Kissed a Frog as vignettes of modern love and friendship: snatches of different women reacting to different situations in a realistic manner (I’m attracted to character flaws, which is why I can’t do gorgeous hunk falls in love with pretty but daft girl). And I still haven’t decided whether I prefer writing short stories or novels. I think I enjoy writing both.

DO YOU EVER THINK OF DOING SOMETHING DIFFERENT? LIKE WRITING A DARK BOOK OR…
You’re a mind reader! A deep, dark story popped into my head a few weeks ago – I’m tempted to follow it through, but I have to confess that I’ve become terribly lazy these days. I would much rather express outrage and scorn on Twitter than do anything useful.

IS HUMOUR A LARGELY UNTAPPED EMOTION IN INDIAN WRITING IN ENGLISH?
Humour is making an appearance (finally!), but most Indians like it comfortably straight, sort of Bollywood style. They just don’t get sarcasm – they find it rude. Irreverence doesn’t appeal to a largely hypocritical society, and as for irony, well, as someone on Twitter said (I forget who), ‘Indians suffer from irony-deficiency.’ This does make my life a little difficult because I mainly do satire.

RUPA GULAB IS A FREELANCE WRITER, COLUMNIST AND THE AUTHOR OF GIRL ALONE, CHIP OF THE OLD BLOCKHEAD, THE GREAT DEPRESSION OF THE 40S AND MOST RECENTLY, I KISSED A FROG.

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