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”.
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.