Sunday, June 20, 2010

A trip to the barber shop

Five weeks, that is my frequency.  Has been for years now.  At week one, the head still looks sharp and military.  By week three, it looks full.  By four I feel like shampooing every other day, and by five, it is out of control waviness.  Time to visit Mr. Scissorhand.

"I have this great barber" says my Dad.  O-oh.  This is not going to end well.  "Let me introduce you to him."  We are in his car, with him at the wheel.  My mind is racing.  Where is the escape route?  Should I jump out when the traffic is light and making a run for it?  Two problems with that - (1) his car doors don't open unless the ignition is turned off - damn you auto technology!, and (2) traffic is never light.  "Mm-hmm", I mumble, "Maybe we should go for some ice-cream?".  "I put some in the freezer only yesterday.  This guy does a great job.  Just tell him my name, and he will give you a special cut."  That's all I need, a special cut from a local barber, whose only skill, if my dad's past favorites are anything to go by, is going to be the ability to ignore inflationary realities and charge a price out of the 1970s.

"It's that one over there" says my Dad, dropping me off, "go around the corner".  'That one' happens to be a small, dirty blue, tin roofed establishment.  A few months back, I would have taken it for a porta-potty, but of course, we don't need porta-potties in India.  The world is our bio-degradable potty.  So it is probably what my dad claims it to be, the place where I am going to be shorn of some of my hair, and all of my dignity.  I turn the corner, and peer at it anxiously.  Look for little things.  Signs that the guy inside isn't a maniac with scissors and a ear-fetish.  A crowded, cracked wooden bench outside, a chai store next door, loud tinny music from the '80s (doubtless the worst decade in Hindi film music).  Nope, nothing yet.  I look up.  India is a land of unintentional humor.  'Good Luk Hair Dressers' the board proclaims.  Good Luk indeed.

The bench outside is crowded.  Everyone is sipping dirty half cups of steaming chai, and sharing pages of one overused Urdu newspaper.  Maybe they are busy, I think hopefully.  But no such luk.  Seeing me, a man with either a week long stubble, or a really puny beard stand up and says, chalo, ready hai.  I step inside.  When I say 'inside', I use the word loosely.  What separates the space from the 'outside' isn't entirely clear.  Now there are benches, and chappals, and chai and newspapers, and now there are barber chairs.  We are 'inside'.  I sit stiffly in the chair, looking for a few inches of tablespace where I can place my glasses.  'Kya karna hai?' the man with the stubble / beard asks.  'Haircut,' I say meekly, afraid to ask what else I could possibly get done in this place.

Here is a thing I love about India.  You don't need to know too much to get along.  People are happy to make assumptions on your behalf.  This is no Starbucks where you have to make fifteen decisions under time pressure and intense staring just to order a cup of coffee.  I say 'haircut' and he gets down to it.  Out come the scissors - not, I might add, from a glassful of antiseptic solution, but from his dirty drawer, a place where hygiene might go to die.  Out comes a robe, white speckled ominously with flecks of black.  He starts clipping energetically.  Or to be more precise, he starts clipping lethargically while having an energetic conversation with one of the newspaper guys outside.  The indecipherable and unworthy music I had heard outside is coming from a speaker right above my head, so he needs to really shout to make himself heard.  And I am surprised I can't hear the guy regularly at home a few blocks away.  Halfway through the cut, I feel the scissors go dead.  No action.  I open my eyes.  Our man has stepped out to his friend, to make a particularly important debating point.  Ambling back slowly, he is lazily combing his beard ... with the same comb that he then shoves into my hair.

A sweet smell of oils is in the air.  I turn around to see my neighbor in barber-ity slumped in his chair - seemingly halfway between an orgasm and death.  His barber is giving him a maalish, hence the smell.  The man is kneading his scalp with an energy that would make the softest aata for chappatis at home.  He is massaging the face, rolling the eyebrows (nobody told me they massage eyebrows!), patting the cheeks.  Through it all, the man in the chair is making a persistent, low guttural groan.  If the barber had asked him to sign away his family wealth at that moment, the man would have been only too happy.  "Karna hai kya?" asks my man with the stubble / beard, seeing me staring open mouthed.  No, I shake my head.  Lasting effects of an upbringing in a guilt-based value system - if something feels so good, it can't possibly be right.

I stand up, daring to look at last in the mirror.  Well, he hasn't messed it up.  I won't have to skip work on Monday.  'Kitna?' I ask, keeping up the laconic image.  He pauses, a moment too long.  Damn, I shouldn't have asked.  Now he is going to fleece me.  'Tees' he mumbles, and then louder, looking me in the eye this time, 'Thirty'.  Thirty bucks.  A haircut, a story, music from the '80s, the day's headlines in Urdu, seeing a man in heaven.  All for seventy cents.

I walk home jauntily.  It turned out OK, didn't it?  "How much did he charge you?" is the first thing Dad asks as I enter home.  "A good price" I say, keeping it enigmatic.  "I told you", he says. "You should have given him my name.  He wouldn't charge you a rupee more than fifty."  Yes Dad, good luk with that.


  1. Lonesome Tango21 June, 2010 15:59

    Brick and Rope, I have been reading your blog on and off for a while now and I like your style of writing. Your book reviews have proven useful, giving me helpful tips on which books to read and which to avoid.
    Lately, I see the change in the subject of your articles and support the trend. There are several books by Indian authors describing the life of Indians settled abroad. I think your articles start an interesting trend of the experiences of the R2I population. Keep it up!

    BTW, not sure which city you are in, but, I am sure you know that there are other options for hair cutting in most metro cities nowadays. There's one type that will give you the same haircut, sans the germs at a few hundred rupees, while the "hepper" versions promise to leave you feeling lighter not only on your head, but, also in your wallet.

  2. Nice story. Are you growing a traditional Indian 'stache now that you are back?

    BTW, Twilight: Eclipse opens next week! I am going on 7/1 at 8 p.m.

    Also, Pramodh and Soumya are getting married that day in Madras. :)


  3. 生存乃是不斷地在內心與靈魂交戰;寫作是坐著審判自己。....................................................................

  4. Hi Brick and Rope,

    I have mentioned this post to many of my friends in the last few weeks and have been able to generate quite a lot of laughs based on it.

    A few of the questions/comments from those discussions are as follows

    1. Almost universally all the men said that you should go ahead and get the maalish. All had done that atleast once before and highly recommended it. Let me know how that goes.
    2. They also warned that you should not get the last part done where the barber holds your head and snaps your neck to each side (kind of like how Bond kills the bad guys)
    3. Most of the women couldn't relate to the post because none of them had ever been to a barber shop in India. Another indication of how the society in India is still very segregated based on gender.
    4. To give the women an idea of what you were describing, I had to google "mtv eena meena deeka massage barber" and show them what was being referred to (first link from the search- google still rocks).
    5. For some reason, this great Indian tradition of the maalish doesn't seem to be offered in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. No one knows why. One person actually said that he had received a maalish in Cochin, but from a barber who had settled there from Bihar. Maybe they too have a similar guilt-based value system!

  5. 知識可以傳授,智慧卻不行。每個人必須成為他自己。.................................................................

  6. @ Lonesome Tango - Welcome to commenting on B&R. I am really enjoying your comments, so keep them coming! I really do have to try more civilized barber shops ... how is the Habib or Hafeez or whatever chain of hair cutteries, do you know?

    @ Christine - The 'stache look is gone for good - and high time too! How was Twilight?

    @ Smoke & Mirrors - I do hope to gather enough courage to get the maalish one of these months. I am scared to death of the neck snap thing ... don't think I can deal with it.

    @ Wierd chinese / japanese characters guys - Cut it out, will you?

  7. JS,
    Loved your post, totally enjoyed it.

    Also, think Smoke-and-mirrors comments deserve to be posted as the next post.

    And then, for the third post in the series, please please go to a barber that sits under a tree. He will probably have a ear-cleaning fellow next to him too - you can get that dine too, both in thirty rupees.


  8. Eclipse was the best Twilight movie yet. It followed the book better than the others and the actors seemed to have matured into their roles finally. The last book will be done as two movies bc it's the longest book and just had too much for one movie. Both movies are in production right now.


  9. Smoke and mirrors/J- just watched mtv eena meena deeka massage barber. Too funny.

  10. Really amusing J! A recommended I read this post, and I obediently clicked. I love your 'non-book' posts :)
    Hope things are unfolding onion-like in your new setting and here's to you enjoying every moment!

  11. Hilarious post this one...true picture narrated in apt words and the best part was - "You should have given him my name. He wouldn't charge you a rupee more than fifty." Yes Dad, good luk with that.