Meeting Mr. Gurukkal
My grandfather used to say that one can learn a man’s character by the determination of a handshake. I’m sure he would approve of Rajan Gurukkal, who squeezes my right hand the moment I enter his store. I’m in Kumily, a small town near the mountains of Tekkadhi in south India, looking for oils prescribed a few days ago by an Ayurvedic physician for an insistent discomfort on my left knee.
I offer the prescription, but Mr. Gurukkal, shop owner and Ayurveda specialist, is not impressed. Instead, he takes hold of my arm and begins rubbing it. “Here true massage,” he says, “not for tourists, I go for the veins, remove all toxins, understand?”
I explain that thank-you-I-only-need-the-oils and reluctantly, Rajan directs me to read the names on the prescription. “What? Me?” I say, “I don’t think I can read it, wait, is this Malayalam?”
He sits down on the wooden chair behind the counter and smiles. Struggling with the scribbled and unknown words, I say something like “meemaathyyaann,” but Rajan understands and brings me a green bottle of something with the exact same name written on my prescription. He doesn’t know how to read words on paper, but understands what this foreign patient needs. He’s also very fast with numbers, writing down the price in rupees on a little piece of paper.
Then he takes my arm again. “Massage’s good for joints, headaches, muscular pains. Many American clients, see,” he points at faded photos of smiling tourists receiving massages: men with men and women with women, as cross-gender massage practice is unusual in this part of India. I suddenly notice we’re not alone: there’s a smiling woman by the door, encased in a green sari. I wonder if she’s Mrs. Gurukkal, but Rajan doesn’t introduce me, just keeps drifting on: “I was born here, 80 years ago. Today, many clients come to see me! My massage very strong, not for tourists…”
I insist: ‘No massage today!” But Mr. Gurakkal ignores me and without delay is holding a pen and an appointment book in my direction: “Not today, so tomorrow? 8AM is good?”
For a moment, I consider setting up an appointment and not showing up. Tomorrow morning I’ll be far from Kumily, anyway. But I don’t fancy lying, so I just sigh with patience, accept the steaming hot chai Mrs. Gurakkal offers and hear as Rajan tries to sell me tickets for a Kalari performance. Besides being a shop owner, masseur and Ayurveda doctor, Rajan is also a master in this old martial art. He points a collection of daggers and swords on a higher shelf, explaining: “Kalari is the oldest martial art in the world, from five thousand years ago! My massage is the massage of warriors, not for tourists, no soft.”
Next I understand. He is proud. I entered his store with a prescription of another doctor, without acknowledging who he is. It is important to sell me something, it is vital that I appreciate what he does. “Mr. Rajan, since you are such a respected doctor, I think there’s something you can help me with,” I say.
Rajan is interested! He stops talking and listen to me with attention. “I have this digestive problem since I arrived in India, you know? Heavy food, too spicy, lots of coconuts…”
He listens gravely, nods and risks a verdict: ‘You are you defecating blood?”
“What? God, no!” I laugh, but the Gurukkals don’t think it’s funny. “It’s quite the opposite, in fact…” I reveal my bloated belly, looking like that of a four-month pregnant woman.
Rajan regardfully touches it over my salwar kameez and suggests, “Gas?”
I agree. The master does not hesitate, rummaging through a cupboard behind the counter to find a small bottle with a picture of a flaming garlic bulb.
I have serious doubt about the diagnosis, not to mention the efficacy of what appears to be hot garlic oil, but there’s no time for questioning – Rajan’s already opened the bottle and is holding my chin up, making me open my mouth. The liquid tastes of garlic, sugar and mint and I can’t decide if it’s delicious or horrible, but the Gurakkals are anxious for an answer so I do my best to look contented: “My, I do feel better already!”
It works. The Gurukkals burst into laughter and clapping. I’m happy, they’re happy, time to go. They lead me to the front of the store and hug me under the deep blue Indian sky. “You must take the garlic medicine three times a day, between meals, for at least three days,” Rajan repeats.
I say goodbye, feeling like an old friend at the end of the visit. I walk down the road amongst the continuous honks of tuk-tuk drivers and without any warning realize that there is a sweet and refreshing taste in my mouth — and my stomach is not bloated anymore! I look back at the Gurukkals to shout “Thank you so much!” Their smiles tell me they understand.