This is Chandra. Aged 24, she works on the beach, providing sun lounger based body massages to tourists. I first got to know her last November, when she was shadowing her older sister and learning how to give a massage. It’s a popular career option here in Goa; you learn from another woman and the only investment you need to make is in a large bottle of coconut oil (about 10p) and a flannel with which to remove the sand from your clients’ feet.
At that point, her sister Geetha (aged 37) was the Queen of the Sun Lounger and ruled her section of the beach with a rod of iron. Geetha had been providing massages for 12 years and charged 500 rupees (c. £6.50) for an hour; while she slapped the westerners around with coconut oil, Chandra would crouch at the end of the sun lounger, watching, learning and occasionally making herself useful by fetching drinks from the nearby beach shack or adjusting an umbrella. The beach shack owner paid her around £3.50 per day for helping out.
On a good day, Geetha would do 10-12 massages and refused absolutely to allow herself to be bargained down on price or to comply with requests, usually, so I was told, from male Russian tourists, for a massage “around the side” – a euphemism for a “private” massage undertaken without swimwear. I learned all this at the time and was impressed by her strength of personality and awareness of her own value.
When I came back this year, there was no sign of Geetha and Chandra appeared to have graduated to Masseuse. When I asked after her sister, she told me that Geetha has returned to Karnataka in order to have her 7th child; I was very surprised, as I’d had no idea that she was pregnant, but Chandra just shrugged and said “she hide it in sari”. Chandra told me that Geetha would be returning to Goa next November when the 2010/2011 season starts and was keen to retain her pitch on that bit of beach, so they had agreed between them that Chandra would take over between Christmas and March – providing maternity cover, I suppose.
Of course, Chandra lacks Geetha’s expertise, so she charges a little less (£5) and is also much less busy – yesterday she did three massages; today, only one. She manages to keep up with her shack based duties so she does earn that money as her basic wage, but she’s clearly worried about cash. Unlike Geetha, she has more time to chat and is grateful to sit next to a friendly face and talk, especially if you buy her a Coke or a bottle of water, or both.
Chandra can’t read or write and never went to school; she has learned (quite good) English and some Russian from working on the beach for the last 8 years. She told me that she and Geetha are the top and tail end of a family of 8 children – Geetha’s the oldest, Chandra is the baby. She also told me that her father drank; he died when she was 13, leaving Chandra, the only child still living with her parents, and her mother, virtually destitute. To help the family finances, Chandra married aged 14 and went to live, as is the custom, with her husband’s family. Shortly afterwards, her mother moved to Mumbai to live with a cousin and find work and Chandra hasn’t since seen her. She had her first baby aged 15 and now has three children – two girls and a boy.
She is extremely proud that her children go to school and can read and write; she wants them all to stay at school until they are at least 16 and to then get good jobs – “never ever work on beach, not be like me!” she said, with great passion and fervour.
Each October, Chandra and her husband leave their children with his parents and take an 18 hour bus journey from Karnataka to Goa. They rent a room in a village about 5 miles inland and live there until early April. Chandra’s husband works in a clothes shop in the nearby resort of Calangute and seems to keep her on a tight rein; he calls her several times a day to see how much money she’s made and she has told me that he’s “not a good man”. One day, she had a black eye; he’d hit her the night before when she returned home with one thousand rupees (about £13.00) less than she’d previously told him she’d earned; she thinks that she lost the money from her waist purse when she opened it and the wind blew the notes away. Like her father (in fact, like many men, according to other stories I’ve heard here), he drinks and, in that regard, Chandra is happy that her children are away from him for half the year, as she tells me that her in-laws are “very good people”.
Back in Karnataka, Chandra doesn’t work and told me that she enjoys being at home with her mother-in-law, cooking and cleaning. Her husband takes work on a day to day basis as a labourer and she says that they rely on their savings from Goa to tide them through between April and October, as sometimes her husband will only work for a few days each week, or not at all.
Goa is full of Chandras, Geethas and women like them; just another aspect of the prism of womanhood in this vast, mysterious country.