Well, it wasn't the first. The very first head massage came with a haircut, a magical experience in Jaffna in 2013. The second, a few months later off the Galle Road in Mount Lavinia, was almost as good as my first experience. How do barbers in Sri Lanka know these things? But my vintage, village head massage in Mihintale set a new precedent. A couple of days earlier I had asked my driver – guide, Mr. Amara, where I could get a head massage. He took me right to the place, a hole in the wall barber shop next to the village tea room. It's name was something like "Sexiest sexy." Do you sense my skepticism? Anyway, it was closed. "That's the best place in town" Amara told me. But each time we passed the place, its shutters were down. Anyway we were very busy with our research on small tank landscapes. We were barely in Mihintale and when we were, we were dead tired.
Amara took me to what he considered the second best place in town, across from the university entrance. They were busy and it looked like they scowled at him so we took a rain check. This was my last day in Mihintale and it did look like rain, so we decided to part ways until evening. I took a slow walk to back to "Sexy" and voila, it was open.
A couple of customers were already in the shop so I just stood outside the door, conspicuous as the only foreigner in Mihintale. "Come in, Sir," I was told so I took up the invitation.
The first customer that morning was a very young girl maybe two years old. Her father held her in his arms while her mother stood close. Mr. Assanta shaved a horizontal line around her head just above her ears. Then he shaved everything under it and trimmed the hair above. Never a peep out of the little girl and her parents were calm and present with her. Both parents were smiling and beamed with pride and warmth of family. It seemed like a kind of celebration or rite of passage but how could I know? I don't have a word of Sinhala, something I hope to remedy soon.
The family paid and arranged themselves on a scooters outside. They held the baby in between. Both parents wore helmets but not the child.
Next customer was a surly looking teenager. Just a few words between him and Mr. Assanta and a quick trim. Then the teenager sort of dissolved into the back of the shop. You are with people but alone in these places. So many unknown relationships and interactions and movements. It's hard enough to decipher the people we know and with whom we share a common tongue. What about the social constructs in a place where you're the alien?
These differences melt away though, during certain interactions. And this was one.
Mr. Assanta invited me onto the barber chair, a rickety affair but steady enough for what was to come. In front of me his glass work shelf was arranged with orange marigolds and deep yellow cosmos flowers. He told me, "No English," and I grinned back as I pointed to my mouth , "No Sinhala." Both of us smiled and contact had been made.
The only words that came were his as he cut and sheared his way through my thinning locks. Pointing to his plastic electric shearer, frowning, he said "American, no Chinese. American." Checkmark. Onto my list of things to bring next time. Pack barber equipment. But I'll have to find antique shearers. Won't everything we have be from China?
He kept pointing and telling and I'm pretty sure I got the message. But where was the massage? "Medium short, Sir?," he asked as he went to work on my unruly mustache. Nice job but no massage.
I thought the encounter was over when the oil started flowing and my shirt was unbuttoned. More oil, many fingers on top of my head and suddenly it was quite a different story. In a minute my head felt like it was spurting oil from the top and the more he worked it the more a mysterious cold emanated from the very crown of my head.
Soon my head was reduced to a small stone being thrown around a rushing stream as Assanta's hands worked back and forth, around, and seemingly through my skull. Another kind of oil and more work through my shoulders, along my arms, and between and through each finger, ending with a snap of closure. What was this? Not the pallid head massages of yore! His hands seemed to grow as they worked vigorously, aggressively down my chest, grabbing, kneading, squeezing, releasing. Back up to the head, a whisper, "Please relax" and a neck crack. Where was I? What was this? And all silence. The stream at rest, gentle waters lapping against the oiled rock, my head. But in a new incarnation.
I opened my eyes and saw a changed Assanta (his name means "uncountable"). Larger by a few inches, he had a look in his eye that explained something to me.
I first heard in Ritigala that the monumental public works projects in ancient Sri Lanka were accomplished by people in an altered state of consciousness. Somehow they achieved superhuman strength and understanding in a trance. I realized this might apply to what I just experienced. Even as a stranger to his culture I could see that Mr. Assanta was acting way outside the boundaries of the persona he used for his previous customers. The fact that he treated me with respect was beyond doubt, even when his hands and fingers were working overtime in unexpected parts of my body. He was doing professional work and his profession took him to places hidden, places of power, and places of efficacy. I think he did the work in some kind of trance.
Later Amara told me Assanta was from a village and caste whose people specialize in head massage. Whatever he gave me for the Rs. 400 (about $3) he asked for so meekly was something old, something handed down and well polished (like that rock in a stream), and something I will try to repay in kind to the people I know.