In the heart of posh Bandra is a unique social enterprise business – a spa that helps its visually impaired therapists stand on their feet even as yours get much needed rest.
The fragrance of lemon grass and a gentle quiet greet my tired feet. I feel like I am miles away from the maddening city I have been commuting through all day. There is stillness around here, almost ashram-like.
Tucked away in a quiet part of Bandra, one of Mumbai’s most ‘happening’ suburbs, is Metta Foot Spa, a unique healing centre that employs only visually impaired therapists. They all undergo a government-recognized six-month training programme in Foot Reflexology, which involves applying pressure to the feet with specific thumb, finger and hand techniques on ‘reflex points’ that relate to particular organs and glands in the body.
The entrance is minimally decorated with marigold blossoms, and the rooms are sparsely furnished. Joanita Figueiredo, who founded this place in 2008, sits beside the phone, giving directions to someone trying to find her way here.
Apart from working as a nurse at a hospital for ten years and a yoga teacher at a school for another eight, Figueiredo got herself trained in Thai massage and Foot Reflexology on a family trip to Bangkok. These experiences encouraged her to open this spa when the opportunity presented itself.
When she began volunteering at Victoria Memorial School for the Blind and National Association for the Blind (NAB), she noticed that the young students she was training in Reflexology here were far more skilled than the sighted people she had trained earlier. She was full of appreciation for their abilities but many of them told her, “Only you say we are good. Nobody gives us jobs.”
Figueiredo could understand her students’ disappointment, so she started taking them to spas and asking the owners if they would employ her talented trainees. “Everyone felt sorry for them but nobody employed them. They said they were high-end, so they could give some money but not jobs,” she remarks.
Guided by her firm belief that the visually impaired should be able to lead a life of dignity and self-esteem, Figueiredo decided to start her own venture. “We got this place for three months, thinking that if our idea clicked it would be great. If it did not, we would have at least made an attempt,” she says. Her initial investment was less than one lakh rupees. She had to spend only on beds. The place was made available by one of her yoga students who was generous enough to say, “Give me whatever you feel like giving.”
The spa, which gets its name from a Pali word translated as ‘loving kindness’, has grown from the tiny experiment it was. It currently employs ten therapists, including men and women between the ages of 20 and 30. The therapists here are sought after by corporate clients who work in high-stress environments and by the well-heeled who wake up to a lazy Sunday brunch at some of Bandra’s posh restaurants. These tie-ups help the therapists earn better and also the opportunity to go out and enjoy fancy complimentary meals.
“When they come back, they still want their daal chaawal. That is real food; everything else is just a fun snack. You know, I always think of them as my spiritual teachers. I am only craving for more but they are content and happy. They show me the thin line between need and greed,” shares Figueiredo.
This quality is evident in the pricing model as well. A foot massage for half an hour will cost you Rs. 300 while an hour-long one that includes feet, back, shoulders, hands and head will cost you Rs. 400. They charge extra on weekends. These rates are considerably low as compared to most spas in Mumbai. Metta Foot Spa is cozy but without any frills. This makes it possible for Figueiredo to keep the services affordable.
What have been her challenges in working with visually impaired people? “Parents in a lot of Indian homes like to treat their blind children as ‘special’, which means that they are taken care of a little too much instead of making them capable and independent. When they came to work at Metta, many of them didn’t know how to wipe, sweep, light the gas or use a Western toilet. It took them a while to learn. In addition to this, they faced mobility challenges because many of them use public transport,” she shares.
As Figueiredo began to understand these challenges, she realized why other spas were reluctant to employ visually impaired people. However, she did not give up. Building their confidence was crucial before getting them to work here. This could perhaps explain why the relationship between Figueiredo and the therapists seems quite unlike that of boss and employee. She refers to them as ‘my kids’.
Today, the scenario has changed. Many of her students at Victoria School and NAB have secured placement at spas. She feels happy for them, especially because the prejudices are beginning to disappear. “Earlier, some people used to ask me how I could be so merciless as to make blind people work for me! I don’t hear that any longer,” she remarks.
Do first-time clients tend to come in with some reservations about the skills of these therapists? Yes, some of them do wonder how someone who cannot see can give a massage. Figueiredo has grown accustomed to this, so she is quite patient while dealing with their concerns. “When people have questions, I usually say that I am a little busy and we could have a chat after they have got their massage. I know that by the time they come out, 90% of their questions would have been answered. The big smile on their face shows that they are not surprised any longer.”
There have been some ugly experiences as well. Figueiredo has come across the occasional client who wants to ‘choose a girl’. She has thrown them out at the entrance itself. Looking wistful, she says, “I remember the first time this happened. I could not stop crying. My friend told me I need to be strong. I did not know then that most places that run in the name of massage parlours are actually prostitute dens.”
A few of the male therapists have been abused by clients. “One of the boys had locked himself up in the bathroom for half an hour. We were all wondering what had happened. He later told me that he was touched in inappropriate places.” A girl working here had a similar experience when she was at the railway station, waiting for her train. Figueiredo remembers that it was 15th August, India’s Independence Day, and someone asked the girl if he could pin up a little flag on her dress. She said yes, and that man took this as a chance to feel her breast.
Such incidents are distressing but they also strength Figueiredo’s resolve to empower her employees. “These are realities. We cannot run away from them. We have to think of ways to deal with them,” she says. Her optimism is balanced by this groundedness, an important ingredient to keep the business going.
Metta Foot Spa is at 18 B, Pali Village, Bandra (West) Mumbai. Landmarks: Hawaiian Shack, Popular Auto Works.
Phone: +91-9870599923, Timings: 10am to 8pm
The Social Enterprise Showcase is a series of profiles on mission-driven enterprises that are working on social, environmental and cultural development challenges across India.