Our son sent us a picture of our grandson, seated for his very first haircut. There he was, staring at a strategically placed raised television screen in front of him, as the “hair technician” went about his business. While the little guy was engrossed in a Peppa Pig or Paw Patrol show, the baby curls were snipped off and our cutie was transformed into a little lad. Not a peep out of the toddler, for which he earned a stuffed toy as I recall. His father on the other hand, had bawled his head off when we jointly suffered through his first visit to the barber (no hairdressers / technicians) over three decades ago.
Growing up in India, it was mandatory for us to visit the barber shop every two weeks or so. Father’s instructions dictated that hair must not fall over the eyes, ears or cover the shirt’s collar! It was much later in life that I gathered courage to flout this rule, largely because I lived away from home and also since The Beatles were influencing global youth!
Our Nangal township barbershop had four wooden chairs with red faux leather seats, each facing a row of mirrors mounted on the wall. A bench set against the opposite wall provided seating for those waiting to have their hair cut. Each barber had his (there were no female hairdressers, at least in the men’s salons those days) paraphernalia displayed on an aluminium laminated counter top. Straight razor blades lay immersed in jars full of Dettol, a stinking antiseptic that smelled like well, Dettol (it was that universal and omnipresent!) The pièce de résistance was the “ustraa” (clipper) that the cognoscenti would not permit the barber to use on their scalp, “Ustraa nahin, sirf kainchi-kanghi” (“no clippers, only scissors and comb”). This contraption was a set of spring-loaded aluminium clippers operated by hand. The adept barber would continue to click the ustraa or a pair of scissors – if this was the preferred tool, as he cocked his head to one side to zoom in on a lock of hair here or an obstinate strand there and dexterously snip it away. It was a fascinating routine to both watch and hear.
I recall being especially petrified of the straight razor blade that the barber would vigorously strop on a leather thong after each use. After the haircut, a final “edging” would be performed with the razor, to scrape the hair off the nape of the neck, and behind the ears. I would sit ramrod straight as ordered, scared that any involuntary move on my part would leave me bereft of a body part. A piece of alum was used as a coagulant to stem the bleeding when nicked by the razor blade; it was effective but stung like mad.
Gathered adults would pick up one of several vernacular dailies (local dialect newspapers) set aside by another reader and use a headline to join in an animated discussion. The busy barber – specially one older than the young apprentices – was viewed and respected as a reliable and knowledgeable purveyor of news (and gossip). In days of yore, barbers also functioned as match-makers and for a fee, arranged many a local marriage in the community.
The best part of the visit to the barber’s shop was the “champii tel maalish” (head and shoulder oil massage). This involved dripping a long stream of extremely sweet smelling “aamlaa” (Indian gooseberry) or the pungent “sarson ka tel” (sesame) oil from a bottle held high above the recipient’s head. Slathering the oil around the head with agile finger tips, the masseur would suddenly switch to using his palms for vigorously rubbing the oil into the scalp; just as quickly using interlocked fingers as a sledgehammer, he would proceed to deliver a rap of steady blows on the customer’s head. The fingers would then gradually descend down the nape of the neck and across the knotted shoulders, pulling and rubbing in turn to help relax the muscles. There was hardly a head that did not droop sleepily after a few minutes of this routine!
As a young officer of a “prestigious English bank” I did not wish to be seen in a humble establishment such as the local barber shop. So, my vanity caused me to spend almost half my monthly salary getting my hair cut, head massaged and washed at the “Men’s salon” in one of Delhi’s oldest “Five Star” hotels! It was more style than substance.
In Canada, for the past two decades I am back to being a regular at the local Barber Shop operated by a few Italian men who have aged alongside me. A couple have passed on or retired and are now steadily being supplemented by newly arrived men and women of Lebanese and Iraqi origin. The nature of the banter is no different from the conversations that took place in another part of the world many years ago, although the tools of trade have changed and there is no champii massage on offer here, regrettably.
As with so many other things … including persons … here today gone tomorrow …