“Metta Foot spa by the visually impaired was born out of anger and not as a well-planned social enterprise start up”, says Joanita Figueiredo, the founder director of the Mumbai based social enterprise. Ironically, Metta, a Pali word, means unconditional love, benevolence and kindness and has nothing to do with the emotion of anger. In 2008, Joanita, the veteran nurse turned sophisticated yoga trainer and reflexologist found that there was no taker of visually challenged trained masseuses among the luxury spas in the city of opportunities. She felt angry and a pain in her heart at the apathy of the so called rich and elite towards the grave issue of empowering the physically challenged people in India. She decided to go solo to start a spa of her own where visually impaired masseuses, trained by her at the school for blinds by National Association for the Blind, India (NABIndia) would be employed to provide the special massage services. The word Metta came to her mind inadvertently while she was searching for a name for the spa. Written in English, the word first caught her attention while browsing through a magazine in Pali language in Thailand. When she researched its meaning, she felt it as a befitting answer to the lack of awareness and efforts towards the potential of visually challenged people becoming financially self-sufficient and productive members of the society.
“The birth of Metta Spa transformed me from a high flying expensive yoga trainer and reflexology therapist who would have perhaps charged even for this interview ten years back to a mellowed down person. I realised the ground reality of difficulties physically challenged people face in our society to sustain themselves with dignity,” confesses Joanita.
Today Joanita feels Metta foot spa was destined to be born at her hand and her life prior to that was just a prelude to curving out her way to this enterprise. “I worked from 6am to 9pm as a yoga trainer and a reflexology therapist for top end clientele of Mumbai. It brought everything I wanted, from chauffeur driven car to Solitaires in my life. I never knew what it was actually preparing me for,” she shares. During a hard earned holiday at Bangkok she discovered the rejuvenating benefit of Thai foot spa based on reflexology – a technique that used pressure by hand, thumb and fingers on “reflex points in the foot that relate to specific glands and organs in the body.* She wanted to learn it and soon got the opportunity too from another expert masseuse called Falguni back in Mumbai. She was practicing it on her clientele and making lots of money when one day in 2007 she got a request to train the visually impaired students at NAB the Thai massage technique during her lunch break. “I readily agreed to do that abandoning my afternoon dose of Bold and the Beautiful and Santa barbara”, chuckles Joanita.
A year after, when she could not help her blind students get employment in the fancy spas of the city, she left her lucrative business of freelance yoga training to start Metta Spa. Joanita began in January, 2009 with the help from one of her clients who very benevolently provided her the empty bungalow she owned without charging any rent in the initial few months. Joanita invited and offered the senior citizens in and around Pali village areas of western suburb of Mumbai a reflexology therapy session there for free to initiate her students on professional spa service. Pleased and overwhelmed by the sincere and expert service they received from these blind masseuses, the senior citizens went ahead and spread the word about it. Due to lack of fund, Joanita could not avail large scale publicity except distributing some fliers. Later she arranged some fund by selling her personal valuables and launched the spa officially in a rented space first at Pali village in Bandra West and then shifted to its current location at Hill Road, Bandra west, Mumbai. Till today Metta has kept a low profile and grew mostly on word of mouth and some press coverage that came its way. So far 40 visually challenged people learnt and served at Metta Spa and successfully cut out a livelihood for themselves.
Justifying its name, the down to earth spa not only provides employment to visually challenged men and women from economically weaker section of the society. It also has its customer base among the middle class people who cannot afford to go to expensive and exotic spas. “I feel the Mumbai women who get up early morning and after finishing all the household chores and packing lunch for all the family members run and catch the crowded local trains to go to work every day deserve Metta’s service to their sore and aching feet more than anyone else. Same applies to the middle class Mumbai men who break their backs to make the ends meet”, states Joanita. She often invites the senior citizens visiting the bank in the same building where Metta is located to take a foot massage for free as she feels their weak, tired feet need it the most. Hence the maximum fee of Metta’s service has still not crossed INR 500/-. The main idea behind Metta spa was to create a platform where these blind men and women who trained themselves into foot massage and reflexology get a moderately decent employment and can earn up to eight to ten thousand a month. After five years into this massage service, they become confident enough to go ahead and either start their own business in the small towns or villages in Maharashtra or other states they come from or apply for government jobs. The visually impaired masseuses at Metta spa also provide their services now to top corporate houses, at events and five star hotels under Joanita’s supervision.
“We do receive cynic, untoward reactions and queries from some individuals with convoluted mind-set regarding our business and the staff. But the blessings of our customers touched by the wholehearted service of our masseuses exceed them far and wide.” It was evident from the young pregnant lady customer walking out of the spa with her husband after a massage session beaming and at the same time ruing that why she did not come there much before.
Joanita also encourages her visually impaired students to offer their massage service once a week at a very nominal price such as INR 200 or for free to people from lower income groups such as at UCDC (Urban Community Development Centre, Bandra West, Mumbai) and old homes who cannot afford to pay and avail it at the Bandra centre. She has also taught them to save for themselves through recurring deposits in the bank and save 1% of their salary every month to donate for the people living in worse situations than them.
Just a tiny spot light above the non-descriptive reception table and the pitch dark space submerged in soothing oriental music, the fragrance of lemon grass oil accentuating the serene ambiance at Metta Spa where Joanita welcomes you to a simple, peaceful, unpretentious world of warm and earnest service that takes away all your fatigue; you too are bound to experience a cathartic feeling, besides physical relaxation after a massage session. All the pent up anger and frustration will melt away at the hands of these masseuse, who cannot see you, but feel your aches and pains. It’s truly Metta.