1985, Borivali, Mumbai
Childhood. No pressure. Gently woken up by parents on a wet Saturday morning. Mumbai rains. Scary but beautiful. And plentiful.
Dad walks with me to the local haircutting saloon. A number of people sitting outside on benches, dunking Parle-G biscuits in chai, reading newspapers in various languages. Discussions still on about 2 events from the last 2 years. Indian winning the World Cup at Lords in 1983 and then the rather grim Punjab riots in 1984.
The barber directs me to the next vacant chair and adds an extra mini-seat on top of the existing chair so that he doesn’t have to bend at ridiculous angles to give me a haircut. The barber takes his time, but does a decent job of making me look presentable. Dad’s sitting in the next chair getting his hair trimmed.
The barber finishes up by applying a generous portion of talcum powder on the face and neck and blowing away loose hair with a hair dryer. Love the feeling of a warm hair dryer tickling the skin. Goosebumps.
Walk home in relative peace, hand in hand with Dad.
1992, Borivali, Mumbai
Sleep in on the weekend. Wake up and nearly scare myself to death looking at my reflection in the mirror. Time for a haircut maybe. No wonder your class teacher and monitor were looking at your head as if it was the venue for the new Jungle Book movie. Trod along to A-One (or some such) Hair Saloon. The Proprietor‘s sitting outside on the wooden bench, getting his mental stimulation via a cutting chai and a copy of the Navbharat Times. He welcomes you warmly and points you in the direction of one nhai (barber) by the name of Shuklaji, Plonk yourself in the rexin seat and swivel to face the mirror. No; face still scary enough, so it wasn’t a nightmare.
Shuklaji starts by spraying your hair (missing mostly) and your face (largely), waking you completely. No caffeine hits needed here. You mumble something like very short, or close enough to short grudgingly. Even if you were impressed by Milind Soman, Rahul Roy hairdo recently, the school won’t take a liking.
The nhai picks up his trusted pair of scissors and an old thin comb (there’s always 2 combs – one thin and the other one, a big whopping one, enough to hold you in your seat if needed) and starts going at your hair as if there were no tomorrow. You can’t bear to watch it, so you close your eyes and drift off somewhere, aided by the melodious sounds coming over Akashvani. Mukesh and his tel maalish, Kishore crooning away to his Dreamgirl. The nhai picks up his pace around your head and soon a pile of precious locks gather at the feet of your seat. The nhai is eager to tell you about his latest trip to his gaon and how he misses his family sometime. The other nhai lighten the mood talking about politics, cricket - the new sensation Sachin Tendulkar, prices of onions (always a topic of debate), and fillums. The nondescript fan in the corner of the room trying its best to cool down things and not blowing away all that hair.
Shuklaji finishes shearing the locks and picks up the ustara to clean up around the edges. Once the hair part is done, he treats your head to a complimentary head massage, complete with knuckle-knocks, presses, cupped palms hit. You are offered a tel maalish, but that’s better left for another day. You pick up a kangi and arrange your hair in exactly the opposite way the nhai left it at.
You cast a glance at the other customers getting their beards trimmed, shaven and finally applied a stick of alum to their smooth faces. No fancy aftershaves or moisturising lotions. Customers with kids with them getting offered a lolly for the little one/s.
That trance like state finally dissipates and you walk out a new man.
Nhai – barber, kangi – comb, maalish – massage, ustara – razor, chai - tea
Back home for holidays. The lanes of Shukrawar Peth and Sadashiv Peth waking up to a cold start. Newspaper boys, fruit and veggie vendors milling about. People walking their dogs/pets and trying to contain them from killing other animals or humans on the road.
My usual barber’s gone AWOL. Hang around for some time hoping he’s only gone away to get his nashta and will turn up. No such luck.
Walk across the road to another barber, who’s precariously resting against an old bicycle, soaking in the knowledge from a copy of the Sakal. His eyes lit up on seeing his first customer walk in to the saloon. He unfurls his haircut apron and wraps it around me. He then proceeds to wash his hands with soap thoroughly, making me increasingly nervous of his prior or post movements. Thankfully, it’s only a habit he’s cultivated, he remarks. He begins with a grand flourish of his arms and reaches for his ammunition. Once he gets going with the trusty pair of scissors and comb, talks turn to the obvious topics. Cricket, Hindi films. Politics. I mention to him I am currently living in Australia and that’s where he spits the dummy. Putting down his scissor for a moment (for both our sakes), he starts “Hey Bhadkhau Australian kay aplya indian poranvar halla karat sutlet? Aapan chaila yanchya cricket team la yevdhe ithe khelun deto, tar hey ka aaplyavar halla kartayt?”
Satisfied that he has cleared his mind, he resumes with his haircut and stops only once he’s cut to his heart’s content.
Walk home still thinking about the barber’s sudden outburst.
2011, Werribee, Melbourne, Australia
Get up early on the weekend. No rest for the wicked (and possibly crazy). A rather disapproving look from your better half makes you reach for the car keys for a visit to the barber.
Line up at John the Barber (precisely that!) and hang around with people with varying degrees of toplessness (at the head). Browse through some rather eclectic collection of magazines, ranging from chick mags to wildlife to motorcars to guns!
John summons you to his witness chair to plead your case. You request (and hope) for some assistance with looking better. “Very short on the back/sides and a little trim on top” you plead. John looks at the evidence and decides to investigate more. Empowered with a good pair of scissors and a decent comb, he starts his trial. A little snip here, a little cut there. Your judgement is being delivered by the mounting evidence of hair around the seat. John takes his law very seriously and even hums in a deep baroque voice as he observes the proceedings.
The room’s always lively with sub trials and delivered judgements and there’s never a dull moment. People talking in wonderful Italian voices, greeting or bidding adieus.
Your plea is heard and the judgement handed down with some nice gel on your head. Acquitted.
You a free man.