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.