Barber Shop

91 Comments

There was a time, long long ago, when I used to look forward to getting my hair cut at the local men’s”saloon” (Rs 10 a cut) It was not so much the act of cutting the hair that I liked but the delicious waiting, sitting surrounded by an ocean of beheaded hair, hair hair everywhere, leafing through the eclectic collection of reading material the “saloon” would have—consisting of Stardust, Filmfare and many of its august brethren (The saucy Hindi mystery novels I didnt much care for I accept). It was precisely because of these magazines that I would go on Sunday mornings, when the crowd would be the largest,  the lines longest, the maximum loss of study time possible. As I waited, surrounded by naughty film magazines not allowed at home and hemmed in by refined men getting their underarms trimmed, I was convinced that Heaven must be something like this.

It was during those mornings, as the cassette player blasted out Jhankar-beat-mixed songs and Bappida-r iconic “Chale aana tu paan ki dukaan pe saare teen baaje” (a line I always wanted to tell someone but somehow never got around to) and its “Pa-pa-pa Paan Paan Paan” refrain, that my mind set flight away from the world of men blackening their hair or getting a champi tel maalish or a warm wet shave.

And alighted in dream worlds of Rajesh Khanna and Tina Munim, of Reena Roy and Mohsin Khan. Hours passed as I turned the pages,my heart beating fast,  reading “Dimple’s Shattering Confessions” or examining ,with the interest of an art connoisseur,  pictures of Sonu Walia in “Akarshan” or wondering the future of humanity with “Marc Zuber–Is He the Next Big Thing?” or understanding how in a solar eclipse a small body can cover a much larger heavenly one by studying carefully Mamata Kulkarni’s famous “hands in front” picture.

Sometimes while looking intently at pictures of Neeta Puri in “her hottest photo shoot yet” I would suddenly be startled on discovering neighbourhood uncle sitting close to me, glancing over my shoulder with an angry expression on his face. Looking down in embarassment at having been caught  gaping open-mouthed at pictures good kids did not, I would put the magazine down by my side only to have uncle pick it up quickly and start leafing through to the center. Which is when I would understand why he looked angry in the first place.

The shop was owned by three Bihari brothers, all of whom looked identical with big dacoo-type moustaches, gruff and taciturn men, all of them afflicted with that disease that all barbers have—-they refuse to cut your hair beyond a certain point, threatening that your hair will stand up if they snip one additional strand of hair. That I have learnt, is just a threat, delivered in order for them to move onto the next customer and for you to need a haircut as soon as possible. Since I loved coming to the barber, I would play along. Which made me their favorite. I was quick and easy.

But my favorite was a boy they had brought from the village, younger than the three brothers, with a barely-growing moustache who was also in charge of getting tea for the other brothers from time to time. I liked him the most not because he was a good hair-cutter (he was the worst in the store) but he was the most crazed Anil Kapoor fan (he would dispense change by saying “One two ka Phour. Phour two ka one”) I had ever seen. He had stuck four pictures of Jhakass in the store right next to pictures of Ganesh and Laxmi at which he would look reverentially from time to time, no doubt because Mr. Kapoor is considered the patron saint of those who spend their life with hair. And if a song of his “hairo” would come on the radio, he would shake his head Anil Kapoor style as his scissors started snipping madly in the air, causing tremors in my heart as I came to realize the truth of the song “Zindagi ek jua hai” , fearing for my ears.

Once I came to the US, I however started dreading going to the barber. First of all, a hair cut in Stonybrook cost USD 13 + tips which was godawful amount of money for a graduate student in 1999. On top of that, the only nearby (walking-distance) hair-cutting place, colored almost totally in pink and silver,  was manned by 50-plus women, who were unfailing polite but kept on talking while cutting your hair—about the weather, about the strawberry patch in her house, about how her grandson didnt quite like football—to which I was obliged to make some polite exclamation or a “That’s marvelous” where all I wanted to was to left alone, contemplating the effect on my finances on losing USD 13 + tips. There was this time in Rochester I was seduced by a shop which advertised 5 dollar haircuts. Going inside I saw my “hair-stylist”, a teenage girl in full Goth attire, who within a blink reduced my mane to a vision of post-apocalyptic forest-land with clumps of hair standing up amidst patches of near-barren ground.

For the past few years in Maryland, I have found a guy who is fairly decent. He hardly talks and that is his greatest asset. He does play the “hair will stand up game” but I am pretty insistent in getting my way.

Needless to say, I no longer need to go to the barbershop for my share of “other woman” scandals and hot pictures—-I get them off the front pages of TOI. And perhaps my barber-friend, the inveterate Anil Kapoor-fan, has now changed beyond recognition watching his hero on “Twenty Four Season Eight” on FX and swearing by “Slumdog Millionaire” instead of “Benaam Badshah”.

Who knows?

Because in today’s world, a kiss is just a kiss. A sigh is just a sigh. And a barber’s just a place where you cut your hair.

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91 thoughts on “Barber Shop

  1. I know what you mean, Arnab. Despite the “value added” service we are supposedly entitled to (if we could just upgrade to the next level), our ‘social services’ have become rather functional and exclusive. The pizza lady at the local Greek place wouldn’t even hold my pizza box after she passed it over the counter while I shoved change into my purse, because in MA it is illegal for shop-employees to handle food that has been sold.

    If you want that human touch, especially if you want a chat about your favourite literature, I suppose you’d best sign up for a slot at the Whore of Mensa’s poor cousin :D

  2. Ah – lovely! The mention of Marc Zuber in the morning brightens up the day considerably.

    BTW, it was said that Feluda reads Illustrated Weekly while waiting at saloons and I was left wondering which exalted hair-cutter this was.

  3. I suppose some customers would even want the barber to talk to them. I don’t. I like a quiet snip-snip as much as the next guy. Barbers should be like bartenders, talk to those who wanna talk to you, and let the others be. This post brought back memories. Getting your hair cut on a Sunday after watching the Indian team lose another match, hearing every uncle tell us exactly how Saurav should have set the field or played that shot…

  4. They should have a manual for those of us who come to the United States. I’ve faced so much awkwardness at the barbershop (saloon a bastardized version of salon we called it back in Bengal) that I’ve been meaning to write on this too.

    Barber: What can I do for you?
    Me: Well, I want a haircut. This is a barbershop, isn’t it?
    Barber: Yeah. But what number?
    Me: Number? [slowly realizing that I don't speak shop-talk] Uhmmm… whatever looks good.
    Barber: No I mean what number on the sides and on the top?
    Me: [Silent and showing my ignorance]

    (for those unaware, the barber will put clips on a razor and these are numbered by how much they of your hair they clip off. In grad school I was a number 2 which was very close. Now, I’m employed so more of a number 3).

  5. “Because in today’s world, a kiss is just a kiss. A sigh is just a sigh. And a barber’s just a place where you cut your hair”

    Superb peice of wordsmithing.

  6. Ah, those Sunday mornings! I would even pass my turn, until I was done with the magazines :-) Beautifully captured.

    But seems to be written in a hurry. Lots of typos/grammatical errors. “It was not so much so the act of cutting the hair that I so much liked…” – one too many “so much”s in a sentence and the second so is not required.
    “started dreaded going” – dreading.
    godaweful

  7. Awesome!
    I grew up in Punjab and you in Calcutta. But it’s amazing that our experiences are so similar, well actually totally same!

  8. No wonder! A lot of US junta would probably like to go “bald” (and save on frequent barber trips!)

    … Meanwhile, if there is a someone called “Billu” as a neighbourhood barber, you can try going to him … Maybe, you’ll get some discount (considering that your fan-ness index of SRK is near the maximum permissible value :)!)

  9. And how i thought that i was the only one to indulge myself in this practice in my childhood days!! And that’s how i have been an ardent devotee of ‘Filmfare’. I have been reading this magazine since i was in 8th standard.

  10. Liked this post!

    Are all the barber shops and our experiences the same throughout our country :-)
    My dad always used to always give us poppins whenever we went to a barber shop, all the more reason to visit it :-)

    The barber shops in USA are useless..they do not even give a champi :-)

  11. I think this barber experience is same all over india…..this is another awesome indian thing that unite us….what say GB??

  12. @Tanul

    You know why Phani beat you to being first? Because Phani enjoyed being first not writing essays about how silly it looks but let me do it… :).

    GB,

    This was a fun read. Great.

  13. this article is All right, a gentle stroll down the memory lane, redolent of cheap ‘odecolon’.

    in barrackpore, neither bhaben (eponymous saloon) or singheshwar thakur (national saloon) keep magazines. A few old newspapers may be there. actually, all the patrons, rono (6 yrs), amit (12) right up to sudhin jetha (78) in wheelchair, are supposed to talk loudly to each other about sports– sehwag, dekho dada, sachin keo tekka debey! in whispers the men discuss politics. rono, of course, demands kurkurey.

    bhaben smiles at me as i walk by. he doesn’t speak. Nah, he doesn’t even ask. the patrons meekly lay their heads in his hand. poor rono will get the same hedgehog haircut till he moves away. when he will come back on his infrequent visits, he will, no doubt, sport a streaked ponytail and glare murderously at bhaben.

    vidal sassoon is an unknown name in this part of the universe. people have heard of habibs, but think that he serves beef kebabs.

  14. Bar bar poraar moton article :-)

    I used to go to the Presidency Hair Cutting Saloon in Ballygunge Phari when I was a kid & read the IlLUSTrated Weeklies there. I recall vividly the notorious Osho ashram issue with the photos of the naked sanyasins.

    Remember the joke about the Italian saloons, run by the street corner naapits who would make their customers sit on a brick as they did the tonsorial honors?

    Hair cutting in the USA is watching someone run a lawnmower over your scalp. If you aren’t careful you will end up looking like a marine. And pay $10+ for your troubles (though I found someone last week who got it done for $8 – I am going to ask for a discount now as ost of the hair is falling off on its own anyway).

  15. Filmfare was far too polished , or at best ‘TOI’ish i would say . The barber shops kept a certain ‘mayapuri’ for their exalted clientele. Needless to say it was india tv of film mag world. these days, the barber shops run music on 9xm , or if you are lucky, hindi news channels on TV’s. video has indeed killed the paper star, sadly.

  16. I think there are some barber shops (like the one in my locality in my hometown) where you get wiser just by listening to the barber talk to his assistants or some daily customers. They talk anything under the sun and have healthy discussions. It is the best place to be if you want to know the latest update/info/rumours about your locality. The barber is the best informed person. Also I dunno whether anyone had the experience of cutting hair in an ‘italian’ saloon. Since my dad works in coalfields and we used to stay in the company quarters I only had access to these italian saloons there (italian coz they make you sit on 2 itas (bricks)). I would avoid siting on the bricks just after he shaved someones beard coz the he had the habit of smearing the shaving cream on his arm thereby cleaning the razor. Also I hated the cloth he used to cover me with. So I used make a big cone out of the newspaper sheet and cut out the apex. That would be the opening through which my head would come out and the newspaper would cthen cover me.

  17. Arnab, i am a great fan of this site and start my day by looking for updates:)

    Can you please post more on Prabhuji please, afterall he is still on a roll be it television or films like Veer

    Cheers
    K

  18. haha there is no place like barber esp my King’s Hair “Dresser” in Kanpur, Vishnupuri. Here is my Hair cutting experience in Germany http://tinyurl.com/yfntj2s [In Hindi]

    BTW not only the barber even friends and family would tease even if a single strand on your head arose in revolt: “Chor ke baal khade hote hain”

  19. quite funny article. i had same experience of cheap hair cuts and non stop blabbering of hair dresser and most of the time comment i use to hear was..dont u talk much ??

  20. I had to come back to add a comment! As a kid, as I’d be sitting in the barbershop I’d be wishing I was old enough to get a shave. Not for any other reason other than the block of alum (photkiri) looked so cool and refreshing. :)

  21. jus got my hair cut yesterday.. cost me a whopping $20 with tip.. granted it was a pretty good haircut but converting it to INR (900 Rs) is outrageous.. could have had 90 haircuts with the bihari boys.. i should’ve gone on oak tree road in edison where this desi lady cuts it for $6 (and no tip since she understands both of us are desi) :)

  22. And there would be so many laundas coming in and going out and sharing with the barber some tidbits which you would try to listen to….those guys just came in to look at the mirror and borrow the comb to run in it through their oily hair and gawk at some ladij passing by….

  23. Thanks for the memories! Lovely read. When I was a kid, there was no internet and hence I had several misconceptions about words in languages other than my mother tounge. As an example, I thought that badan in Hindi meant boobs (remember jadoo tera nazar, khusboo tera badan),and that a salon, a close phonetic cousin of saloon, was a saloon where beautiful girls went to get their triangles shaved after which they got the missing o from rich guys.

    I agree with almost all that you have described, having experienced them first hand. And the best part of it was no tips Mention should also be made of alum, the antiseptic used there. Actually, there was a ladies tailor shop on the opposite side, and in those raging hormone days, I could not but help cast a sideways glance to see girls and their blouses getting measured up, much to the chagrin of the barber. The film magazines were sometimes so appealing that I once offered my turn to another guy to savor some extra time with it. You could not, after all, sit down again to look at it after the haircut. I have heard from people at least a million trillion times about how a haircut costs higher in the US, and many of them failed to see the reason why- labor is costlier there. You cannot get that one made in China, you see. Initially i detested the machine, but now I admire the precision and evenness of it.

    My barber back home simply refused to cut the hair on my neck to above a certain level for precisely the same reason yours wont go shorter. And sure enough, you were reminded of the barber chamber once you swiped the hair on your neck. I admire the Indian experience as a memory, as I found out on my last visit, that my US stay has made me sensitive to the dirty cloth they use to cover you, the water they use to wet your edges before they use the razor, and the incessant sneezing coughing and guthka, thereby making my latest experience a not so attractive one.

  24. “as his scissors started snipping madly in the air, causing tremors in my heart as I came to realize the truth of the song “Zindagi ek jua hai” , fearing for my ears.”

    LOL, that was a classic one.

  25. reminds me of the hair cutting saloon I used to go to in Bangalore. The shop had all the standard filmy magazines like all other shops. The one big diff. was that every picture of an actress had a rubber stamp on it stating ‘stolen from XXX hair dresser’

  26. I have not yet seen a ‘Nayi’ in US who quietly goes about his/her job
    I live in Maryland too, not too far from your place. and each time I have to endure polite ramblings of 50+ women

  27. Top notch as usual GB!

    I remember the troubles I had to go through getting my first hait-cut in the US. I had absolutely no idea what number I should ask for…I said something whichever was at the top of my head and there she goes…in silent terror I watched her mow down my scalp…producing a perfect ‘kawdom-chha(N)t’. And that was right before pujo. I think some of the folks at BAGC might remeber me for my awkward hair-do! And to think that I had to pay 14 dollars for that!

  28. Wonderful post….I had gone back to old memories of Sunday morning of a haircut at my pet Nayi ki Dukaan…..with loads of Filmi kaliyan & Mayapuri (coming from hindi belt, there was no stardust!!!).

    Still go to that place when I am in hometown for old times sake. sigh….good old days.

  29. @ Shan: “…and each time I have to endure polite ramblings of 50+ women”

    50 women talk to you as you get a hair cut? That must be distracting for the barber (or barber-ni) :-)

    One of the barber shops I went to in Palo Alto had Playboys discreetly kept at one side, away from the bachchas.

  30. In comparison to other places, I believe OakTree is the cheapest place.
    Same service I get for $6+1 by Shantimasi :)
    Man how I love Oaktree :)

    Wonderful Post GB.. Keep it up!!

  31. I remember my first hair cut in US was in the university barbershop. I paid 13+tips (in 2001) and had the same grad student woes as Arnab described and like many others have the same back home nostalgia about the ‘saloon’ experinces. There was a black dude with a comb stuck in his afro who asked me what # I needed. Like in Anirban’s experience I was unsure but had the advantage of an desi friend along with who had a semester experience under his belt and had tips for me. I remember many friends of mine (especially gulti’s)with their vast knowledge base of the US would actually arrive here with a clean shaven head from their well timed visit to Tirupati.

  32. Awesome post Arnab Da,
    I have been following your post for few months. Like you, I am a great fan of ” Yehhh…appun Suraj, truck driver Suraj” Mithun da. I watch “Dance India Dance” just because Mithun Da is there in all shows.
    I was hoping to see some interesting comment on this coming of age Mithun Da!

    Sonu Walia….She was really sexy, liked her in Khoon Bhari Maang!

  33. Is the Bihari barbershop a phenomenon throughout Bengal or the whole country? I make it a point to get a cut only during my vacations at Naseeb Saloon in downtown Siliguri for 10 bucks. Even now. I travelled through half of Bangalore to get the nearest possible experience to my childhood days. Totally identify with the situation above.

  34. A bit off-topic , but M F Hussain has been conferred with Qatar citizenship which he is likely to take up following the inaction of Indian authorities in facilitating his return. GB, have you ever wriiten a post about him and what are your views on this?

  35. Nice post ………… i guess everyone has his own hair-cutting experience ……. this post refreshed my memory too. That ‘maximum waste of study time’ bit was brilliant :)

    In kolkata there still exists a special category of road-side Italian saloons (where the customer sits on an ‘eet’ – a brick). i never had the opportunity of getting a cut there though.

    yes, most barbers in kolkata still hail from bihar.

    with hair-cutting memory coming alive, i just want to share here my experience with a Bong barber in New Delhi’s JNU. during my post-graduation, Bhombol-da was my barber in JNU (btw, just to clarify – i am no leftist, although i studied in JNU). He & his brother used to run the shop. unlike ‘hair will stand up’ barbers, bhombol-da was quite the opposite. as per JNU folklore, Bhombol-da’s eyes used to light up the moment he saw an incoming customer with a mane. some even said he used to drool in joy at the sight of a hairy customer. and once he got hold of his victim, he would certainly do his lawn-mower act. any amount of pre-cut instruction / request / pleading would fall on deaf ears. Bhombol-da certainly oblivious to the fact that his compulsive hair-cutting disorder was detrimental to his own business :)
    haven’t been to JNU for a long time & so have no idea how he has been doing. Hope Bhombol-da is doing fine for himself & his business.
    if anyone from JNU is reading this blog & if s/he happens to read my post & if u have any update on Bhombol-da pls do post it here. Thanks.

  36. Taposh’ my saloon – had the latest issues of “sananda” on their desks- which i used to devour – i remember aparna sen had just started editing that glossy bengali magazine then – had some great photos’ of debashree(young) & moonmoon etc – nice one gb .. keep ‘em coming’ .. it was 5 taka then .. now in the UK i go to a pakistani guy who charges £7 which’s not bad in UK standards- as normal barbers’ charge from £10 upwards- Qadir is not bad – retains the asian touch ..

  37. In my place, none of us would understand those angreji stuff so the magazines were Mayapuri and Cine blitz in Hindi version. People would wait for their turn to peep into something they would never get to see for next month or so, definitely not in their households :-)
    10 rupee for a haircut and 5 for a divine tel maalish.

  38. You are such a hypocrite….if you are so pissed off about US (which comes out in most of your posts) why the hell are you still there….this is very common to all Desi’s staying in US….they wanna keep their foot pinned in the land of opportunities but surely will always stick to saying ohh gone are those days..yada yada yada…..

  39. Mesmerizing.

    Also, The barbers all over India are Biharis too right? I mean I’ve had a haircut in Orissa, WB, Bangalore, Delhi, U name it :)

    I always wondered why i never ran into a friend at the barber’s. I never did. Even though our entire cricket team of bacchas used to go to the same barber.

    Good times :)

  40. Wow! This sounds so familiar. I could swear you are writing about Jugnu opposite Saturday Club! Three biharis, hindi film mags, young ‘intern’ in charge of getting tea….the musty smell of Old Spice…I could go on…

  41. GB, Rs 15 haircuts brought back some nice memories. Not withstanding the smelly “nai ki dukan” reeking of aanwala oil, cheap shaving creams and a collection of FEM beauty products fit for skanky hookers, in my age magazines talked about Madhuri’s hair locks and buffs, Akki’s girlfriends and who slapped whom in whose party. Of particular remembrance, with startling clarity, are the omnipresent Mayapuri’s flashing Mamata Kulkarni’s juice-less juggs comforting Govinda’s thighs in a position only imaginable in one’s after dark dreams. All in all a wholesome erotic experience for a average middle class 5th grader. Hair cuts are not spicy anymore in the U.S.!

  42. “heaven must be something like this”…? a tad too much hyperbole here…disappointing. u don’t have to try this hard.

  43. I loved this post. I still pay 10 rs. for haircut and still have many other experiences but not with magazines but ppl talking with each other abt interesting things. Love the whole process and ambiance and characters.

  44. Pingback: Barber Shop! « Akshar Smriti

  45. …….Sonu Walia in “Akarshan”……..
    oooooh!! Still remember the time when we bunked our school to look at Sonu Walia in Akarshan. while the entire movie was as bad as any other Akbar Khan movie, The scene next to waterfall made our day, and we went back again :-)
    Thank you for reminding those good old days!! Sigh!

  46. I live in US now but make sure that I plan 2-3 trips to my barber during my 1 month vacation to India.

    Thanks for bringing back Bhooli Bisri Yaadein.

  47. GB back in form – super post! And FYI, in Houston I get a $4 haircut (& $1 tip) although need to sit through the endless chatter of the Vietnamese ladies – Taao ma, naka ja ma !!

  48. Anil Kapoor was such a dude! Was watching “Yoon ghoor-ghoor-ghoor ke nihara na karo” the other day – hes awesome in it!

  49. Read this post in february and came back again to re-read it now…..whenever i feel nostalgic,longe for my home and want to be with the memories of the old times i come to your old posts…GB do u ever re-read your posts when you want to remind yourself of the golden times that has just passed away……

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