Sometimes, to truly experience history you need to live it, not just marvel at what’s left behind. If that involves prancing around your underwear while a guy who could easily have been a pehelwan, tries to pin you down and cover you in soapsuds, so be it.
I head to Imamwada - a Persian neighbourhood in South Mumbai - to ‘truly experience’ the only functioning Turkish Bath in the city. For the uninitiated, a Turkish bath (also called a hammam) is a community bath house where the visitors can expect an organ-rearranging massage followed by a soothing, hot water bath. Built for the city’s Iranian immigrants, the hammam is currently fighting a losing battle for its existence. With its original patrons - the Irani populace in the city - rapidly declining in numbers, the bath house is no longer a profitable business. The crumbling exteriors of the building don’t help either. So before its gone forever, I need to bathe away my inhibitions at this historic landmark.
Armed with the ridiculously scant information that is available online about this bath house, I step inside. The interiors are standard issue for a traditional hammam. The room that greets you as you enter is the Sarbineh (the dressing hall).
The Sarbineh aka the dressing hall. Strip down here to keep your clothes dry.
A rectangular water tank (that surprisingly has fish floating around in it) occupies the centre. Built into the walls, around the water tank, are deep recesses where the customers and attendants can rest after a refreshing bath. Even though it’s the middle of the day, the resident attendant – who seems to be in his late fifties – is in deep sleep in one of these cavernous nooks. Can’t blame him though; the cool and quiet confines, along with the lack of business, must be strong sedatives.
I wake the attendant by knocking on the table near the entrance. Instead of displaying urgency at the sight of a rare customer, he gets up slowly and starts sifting through his belongings to look for a pouch of tobacco. It seems to me that I am an irritant rather than an expectation. I ask for a massage followed by a bath. He labours his way to the table next to me, picks out a metal token (indian bureaucracy zindabad) and while handing it over, asks me to take my clothes off. As I am undressing, the attendant slowly concocts an oil mixture for the massage.
The masseur mixing it up while the visiting chaiwallah catches his forty winks
After I strip down to my Frenchies (that suddenly feel a size or two smaller), I am asked to follow the attendant to the Garmkhaneh (the hot bathing hall) though a door at the end of the Sarbineh. The bathing hall is almost the same size as the previous room but is split into two parts – the stone-tiled Khazineh (the empty space where all the action happens) and reservoirs for holding hot and cold water. Before I can take in my surroundings properly, the attendant asks me to lie on the cold, moist floor. I try to make small talk by asking him his name. With his mouth still full of tobacco juice, he manages a barely audible “Mohammed”. Questions about his hometown reveal he’s from Sultanpur in Uttar Pradesh and came to Mumbai when he was 10 years old. The conversation soon fizzles out because of a lack of interest on his part. He obviously just wants to provide me his services and retire to his hole-in-the wall chambers.
Fortunately for me, his initial inertia has transformed into a swift routine.
He starts off by kneading my face as if it is dough, and then moves down to my arms and legs. My body starts loosening up. The awkwardness that I felt initially, soon gives way to a sense of relaxation. I am then asked to turn around and lie on my stomach. As soon as I do this, the attendant steps up on my back and starts pacing across its length. I thought being treated as a doormat by my boss would have prepared me for this but boy, was I wrong! If this wasn’t enough, he decides to move from my back to the back of my thighs. It doesn’t stop there; he pulls my feet over the back of my knees, crosses them and pulls them back even further, shaping my body into a human crossbow. My city-bred, brittle, body lets out an audible scream. With my embarrassment and massage complete, the attendant steps out of the hall to fetch a bar of soap for my impending bath.
The stone-tiled Khazineh where you lie down for the masseur to have his way with you
Lying oiled up in anticipation of a man in his fifties to whip up a nice lather on your body isn’t an average workday scenario. But I am too invested and naked to give up now. The attendant comes back with a used bar of soap, that still has a curly or two sticking to it, and his own version of a loofah. He starts scrubbing vigorously, making me feel as if he is wiping away some permanent stains off my body that only he can see. The fact that he is slowly eroding half my epidermis doesn’t seem to bother him. He grunts sadistically as he skins me alive. I guess these guys follow a strict ‘Leave no filth behind’ policy around here. After lathering me up from head to toe, he fills a bucket with lukewarm water from the adjoining reservoir and splashes it on me with all the detachment that one would associate with a carwash. Tossing a (still wet) towel towards me, he signals the end of my session. Some advice to all the readers who wish to partake – Get your own towel!
The crumbling edifice
Changing into a dry set of clothes, I can’t help but feel sad for this place. It’s a piece of history that deserves better. I try to imagine a time when this place must have teemed with homesick Iranis discussing the lives and lands they left behind, their plans for the future, their day-to-day gossip or even just to take a nap in the middle of a stressful day. Stepping out in the dust and grime of this fast-moving city with a glow on my face, I want to hope that this Persian testament, to a life more laidback, survives and soon gets the heritage status that it thoroughly deserves.
Words and photographs by: Avijit Pathak