I’m at the local barbershop (or, as they call it, “Hair Salon”) for a haircut. Just a regular normal peaceful cut. I do not want my hair colored. I don’t want it frizzified. Or straightened. I do not want to look like something out of Bananarama or the Thompson Twins. Short back and sides, easy on the top – that’s what I always say. I’m eternally wary of what we labeled the tennis-ball cut – from the time in high school when the guy who sat next to me showed up one day with his hair reduced to the same length as the fuzz that covered his pre-shaving cheeks. “Kya karoon, yaar, main kuchh aur soch raha tha
,” he lamented, “aur woh saala kaat-ta hi gaya
.” I make it a point to not surrender myself to such risky reveries. Still, settling into a comfortable chair, eyes enforcedly closed for long stretches, muscles relaxed from the free shampoo treatment, it’s hard to stop the mind wandering.
My earliest memory of a specific haircut is from Sydney, long ago. I remember the barbershop clearly although we only went there once. It had blue modern art décor on the outside, which made me distrust it. The guy had been running some strange clippers along the side of my neck and that had sent shivers right through me. “Hey Stevey, mite, we got a giggla heeah!” the guy had said, and I’d had to suffer the ignominy of having a second guy hold me in my chair. My father hadn’t looked too pleased – “If you wriggle so much you’ll get yourself badly hurt.”
Haircuts were so much more fun in India. There was the formidable metallic throne that one ascended, clearly manufactured with but a single purpose in mind. The knowledge of having graduated to the world of men the day you were no longer made to sit on a wooden plank straddling the arms. The first rough straightening out of ones collar, prior to its being reversed and tucked in (always made me feel a bit of a renegade). The crisp white sheet thwacked open and layered around in a protective cocoon. The odious coolness of the powder the man would whoosh on, carpet-bombing ones neck from a distance. The refreshing cool of the siphon-sprayed water, droplets cloaking ones face obliquely, always leaving you wanting more. The rapidly accumulating crescent clumps of hair on the floor. The stolen glances at the guy in the next chair, stretching back luxuriously with his white lathered chin to the peeling ceiling. The SNIP!-chikchikchikchik as the guy snapped the scissors like a man possessed, slicing the air several times for each actual strike delivered. The odd comfort from that sound, as if one is safe in the hands of a professional. Much the same as when a doctor solemnly administers the cold of a stethoscope to your torso, except that here there’s no existing illness to lessen the feeling of well-being. Then finally, the liberated zingy feeling from running ones hand along the freshly awakened bristles up the back of ones neck. It was a complete experience.
The people were unique, too. There was the barber who came home at the height of summer, the year I had typhoid. He came from Punjab Hair Dressers, Prop. Bishamber Dayal. I went religiously to those guys for almost ten eventful years of my life. Major changes happened in every other sphere, I grew to recognize words such as tonsorial and alopecia, but every time there, the experience was the same. “Musheen chalaana, bhaiya, buh-laid mat lagaiye
,” I learned to say when the threat of AIDS became real. One time I deviated and got him to cut it as short as possible all round. “Jitna chhota kat sake.
” When I arrived home that day even our lovely dog didn’t recognize me. I identified some true friends that time – they were the ones who didn’t ask me why I did it. To all the others I said I did it because of the weather. It was mid winter. The teachers at school didn’t look too happy, but it wasn’t against the rules. They’d been going on against long hair. (“School ke bachhon ke baalon mein tel hona chahiye.
”) I stuck with that style for a few months but gave it up when it proved high maintenance. Once the short cut hairs grew beyond an inch or so, the center of the front spread out like a Japanese work of art, as a consequence of which it had to be attended to like a bonsai. My friend malapropped his nemesis the geography teacher and called it an alluvial fan. It was fun while it lasted.
My first desperation haircut was the evening before the first day of my MBA job. Suddenly I realized with a shock that all the assembled rookies looked like smart young bankers. I looked like a hippie coming off a happy summer. I made a jump for the nearest barbershop available. “He cuts each hair individually,” suggested a co-recruit helpfully. I located the said merchant. It was only later that it struck me that that said strategy may actually not be the most efficacious. It turned out to also be the time I realized how bad a bad haircut can be. And I learned why my helpful recommender - and soon to be roommate and good friend - bore the nickname Random. Lots of learning.
My first haircut in the US was in the boondocks of Maryland, at a chain barbershop right next to a store I used to call the Rugged Worehouse. The nice lady who attended to me used a plethora of musheens and wrapped the job up in less than ten minutes flat. That was it? I felt cheated. “Next time, just say you’d like a Number 4,” she said with an American smile. “Number 4,” I repeated, doubtfully. I had no idea what that meant but I committed it to memory. Never used it since, but now I’m telling you. What I did know then was that I was walking out eleven dollars shorter. Sticker shock: that was almost fifty times as much as I’d ever paid in my life.
I had never paid more than ten rupees before. The most expensive haircut I’d ever heard of was sixty rupees. That extravagance had been indulged in by this clean-shaven Sikh guy who lived a couple of doors down from me in the hostel. He was one of my closest friends, and he was prone to doing strange things. Once he’d gotten so fed up with work that he’d climbed up the wall. We suddenly realized he was calling us from the roof, asking us to throw his slippers up to him. So what could we say to his pre-placement sixty buck splurge? He was also the one who used Lakme face wash. A hard core cut serd who was dating a former Miss Punjab. Maybe that’s why. They’re now the proud parents of two wonderful little surdlets, just like those in the old Bajaj ad. But I digress. That ten Indian rupee haircut budget bumped straight to ten US dollars plus tip, and that’s what it’s stayed. Hong Kong is slightly better since they throw in a shampoo treatment. But then last summer I was in Gurgaon – orange-coated overstaffed yuppie ripoffs sucked out 175 straight for nothing special. I felt like a bit of a freak that day – my hair wasn’t even shorter than usual or anything.
I remember walking around in Spanish Harlem looking for a suitable boyber. Three of them on Amsterdam Avenue, all looked weird. Walked into Melvin and Pat’s, went back a couple of times, but these weird Latina teenagers kept running in and out – who let them into the Drones? Then I found Ari’s, run by this guy Aristide who was apparently 91 years old. That was according to the newspaper cutting in the window; must have been dated. Ari hung around the place and made small talk with some folks who’d come in to get their nails done or whatever. His staff did the actual cutting, and they were all striplings from the next generation. There’s nothing nicer than a plump matron stroking your head and chattering away, saying words like Dearie. A grad student needs to feel loved. At the least it’s an improvement on the belly of the plump Punjabi pressing into your shoulder, back at Bishamber Dayal’s.
Then there’s the music. Barbershops have never been silent places. Here in Hong Kong, of course, it’s all about the 80s. Right now Phil Collins impinges onto my consciousness.Take a look at me na-ha-ha-howThere’s just an empty pla-ce
Twenty years after I first heard it, it finally strikes me – the bugger was singing about his scalp. My mind goes back to “Hazratpur se… Tinkul, Hunny, Babli, Mohan, Ram Partap aur Shreemati Kumud Shiriwastaw ke liye, pesh hai filum Umrao Jaan se yeh geet, In Aankhon Ki Masti.
” Vividh Bharati. That was something else. Wonder how I can turn it on now – the soundtrack that wasn’t there.
” I wake with a start. The man is talking to me. “Gecka-winshy?
” I grunt acquiescence, and allow myself to be led into the alcove to get a rinse. My man for the day Billy (Bill-lee) hands me over to the winshy lady. Then he gets me back, sits me down and zaps a last few meditative stragglers from here and there. Funny how much attention they pay to the neck, which I’d say is the least noticed part. He settles my hair with a proprietor’s pride. The latest in a line of colorful curators. I’m allowed to rise, the Teflon dressing gown helped off my shoulders. No white sheets here.
I walk out, lighter again from the shoulders on up.
Coming next – Nail-cutters I Have