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Visiting the Untouchables of India - Page Two

My friends and I are treated to front-row seats as a rug retailer unfurls hundreds of hand-knotted silk runners. His offers are a bargain but bartering is catchy and I love being in control of how far I can stretch my money.

I walk to the counter with three purchases and four more employees come running - one to ring me up, another to use my credit card, another to bag my items and a fourth to open the door; a caste system at play guaranteeing a job for everyone. My Kashan carpets are truly beautiful - canvases too pretty to deck my halls so instead will deck my walls.

'Torture or Treatment'

Following our shopping excursion, the girls insist we pamper ourselves at Prakriti Ayurvedic Center. I labeled a blog 'Torture or Treatment' when I wrote about this back in October. Here's the synopsis: four over-shopped girls enter the massage center with therapy on our minds. Ayurvedic is all the rage in India, especially among German tourists. It cleanses the body of stress and tension and rejuvenates energy levels.

I rarely afford myself the luxury of a massage so I'm not sure what to expect. Two Hindu ladies who speak Tamil and very little English escort me to a back room.

"Please take off your clothes, Ma'am." I pause. Off comes the shirt, shoes, socks and pants.

"Please take off your clothes Ma'am." I pause again. There's not much left but here goes. Off comes the jewelry, glasses, a hair band, and the skimpy stuff.

"Please sit here, Ma'am."

"I'm blind without my glasses so you'll have to help me," I insist. This better be legal, I think to myself, as hot oil is messaged through my scalp and soft Indian tunes warm the silence.

Buffing, Lubing and Polishing

"Please lay down now, Ma'am." I stretch out on a rock-hard message table build with etched mahogany wood. It's really beautiful but it reminds me of an execution chamber. Oil is poured from my feet to my face and the human car wash begins. Up and down and side to side, I'm rubbed down like a 16th century rajah.

Feet have pressure points but mine tickle so badly I laugh myself off the table. The ladies aren't amused. Indian versions of Broom Hilda and Helga have work to do. They toss me over on my backside and repeat buffing, lubing and polishing every crevice.

If you can hang on until this point, and that's a big if, there's no sense in turning back. Stress and tension aren't going anywhere and now the smell of peanut oil has me feeling nausea.

"Please come to shower, Ma'am." Finally, I can scrub this stuff off and be done with all this craziness.

Not so fast. The ladies offer proper cleansing and bathing techniques even in the shower. I went from feeling like a rajah to a hospital patient. I'm truly at their mercy until my clothes are belted back on. With dripping hair, I walk into a room full of friends sipping hot chai with relaxed looks on their faces.

"That was amazing!" smiles Krista, "I can't wait to go back".

"Yes, I feel reinvigorated too" repeats Melissa.

I pause. "Good God, who are you people?!" I shout. Then I think to myself; "I'm the only one who didn't like it -- maybe I should be asking myself that question."

I need more nan.

A Visit to Bollywood

After Mumbai's Bollywood, Chennai is the second most prolific film-making center in the country. There are more than 100 theaters, most of them showing films in Tamil but some with English subtitles.

We're asked to remove our shoes (Hinduism at play again) before entering the cutting floors and busy sets. Our tour guide shows us a music video clip with a national pop icon defying traditional values. She's dressed in loose western clothing parading between scenes. Typically, women still dress conservatively in every part of Indian, wrapping themselves in Benares saris and silk brocades and hiding their beautiful hair.

The pop music icon on screen represents a new generation of young Indian girls abandoning their roots. I need help with my tripod and the owner of the studio snaps his fingers in defiance. It's not his job to help me so he beckons someone of lower stature to play grip. He's not a Dalit but a Shudra. He rushes over to me, lowers his head in respect and graciously hauls my gear for the next three hours. He expects nothing in return, but I slip him a few rupees anyway.

Welcome Reception

Following the movie studio tour, it's time for dinner and a welcome reception at a large empty dining hall. An entertainment crew offer us henna tatoo body art and advice on how to tie a sari. It's tempting not to don a sari or for men to do the same with a dhoti. Both are light ankle-length colorful cloth that deflect the heat better than denim.

This country is sweltering hot and though I don't mind my food that way, the humidity has ruined too many shirts already. I'm so busy shooting my documentary at the welcome reception I'm last in line to enjoy chappati, paratha, poories, dosa, and kachori.

A student from Semester at Sea, is fitted for a sari.

While shooting, I need to interview the wealthy owner about the food he bought. He's willing to talk about the dishes but refuses to uncover the tin lids because, again, it's not his job. He snaps his fingers and a lower class worker comes running to assist. I'm so angry with his treatment of others and refusal to do it himself, I'm tempted to abandon the whole interview. But then I remember income is being provided to someone who might not otherwise have it if it weren't for this rich individual.

The whole philosophy is complicated and needs further examination before I cast aspersions (no pun intended). After the interview, I eat on the floor 'guru style' next to the Shudra worker, barehanded, with banana leaves as plates.

A One-Woman Mime Troupe

Following dinner, one of Indian's greatest Bharatanatayam dancers jumps up on stage. This exclusively southern dance demands undivided determination and control. It's usually performed by one woman, alone on stage, gracefully dancing bent-kneed. Her dynamic facial expressions and hand gestures hypnotize the crowd. She reminds me of a one-woman mime troupe and I can't take my eyes off her. It takes incredibly skilled footwork and leg muscles to move so fluidly for hours on end.

Eighty-five percent of Indians practice Hinduism. It's so intertwined into everyday life it's impossible to separate. Knowing this is crucial to coping with children and elderly sleeping, eating and dying in city streets. Read more

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