Rajasthan: not for social graces or a self-esteem boost

''No husband?" the one in the red sari asks. I assume she's being rhetorical because I've already answered that question several times. "But you are so old," says another in pink, who's asked me twice if I'm married. I scald my lips on my chai just for something to do. "Very old, madam," says the one next to her, who - like me - looks to be in her late 30s. "And no husband?"

I've come here for a massage.

On paper, these women appealed to me; my guidebook described them as four enterprising sisters living in the old fort town of Jaisalmer and specialising in ayurveda. In the flesh they also appeal - loud and bountiful Rajasthani women, proud mothers and gracious hosts. Yet their candid questioning of my life's choices could be considered confronting.

But I've been in this conversation before, in so many places.

When drinks and the inquisition are over, I'm led away between two sisters. I'm surprised to notice that, although these women seemed larger than life when we were sitting talking, they actually just come up only to my shoulders.

We enter a small, windowless room. The turquoise walls and ceiling are painted in such high gloss that they are reflective in the bare-bulb lighting. A ceiling fan thumps away at top speed overhead. The room is full of brightly coloured things on multiple shelves and I'm trying to identify them when one woman slams the door shut and the other orders me to remove all my clothes and lie face down on the mat.

Then it begins. As I allow myself to be pummelled and rubbed and prodded by these women - these strangers in this strange land who don't seem to understand, or even want to understand, what makes me tick - I think about how thick a traveller's skin needs to be; how much resilience is required to stay psychologically intact when you venture away from the place where your idea of normality is no longer recognised or supported; when you choose to be somewhere where your idea of normality is completely foreign.

I also realise, as I'm scrubbed with salts until I sting all over, that I'm able to handle the judgments of others out here in the wide world far better than I used to. Somehow my sense of self - perhaps from being nourished enough at home and challenged enough when I'm away - has gradually strengthened.

The massage ends with a block of ice being rubbed over my face then taken away just at the moment I can't breathe any more. Then the process is repeated several times and I begin to feel I'm in a cycle of reliving my own birth.

Then it's over.

We all stand and I'm dazed from the intensity of the massage and a little disconcerted under the powerful revolutions of the low fan, but strong in myself and ready for the next test.

"You have a small chest, madam," one of the women tells me, eye-level with the offenders. Her similarly endowed sister turns her head to stare. "Yes," she agrees with a critical frown. "Very small."