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June 3, 2010 / zanzi

A Close Shave with a Hot Blade

Charlie is a friend of mine. Came to India from France a couple of years ago and spent his time smoking pot and making short films. He was supposed to study physics or something as well, but that obviously wasn’t his mandate for himself. The first thing that struck you about Charlie was his leaning towards being a junkie. He’d spent time running up walls and whatnot, and when he wasn’t on Skype with his girlfriend, he spent time figuring out how to enjoy life with other women on the scene, or what there was of it in this foreign country. You wouldn’t have thought it, but there was something that scared Charlie. He confided in me once – “When that guy comes leaning in, why, he could kill you, man!”

Charlie never stepped into a barber’s shop a second time, not in India anyway. He was too afraid of a fellow he didn’t know wielding a sharp blade on his throat, scraping off whatever scraggly growth he managed to accomplish in his inimitable blonde way.

Alex wasn’t quite like that. He came in from Canada with a cocky attitude and a big grin. If you didn’t immediately like the guy, he’d bring you around to growing fond of him anyway. Like an eccentric habit, he grew on you. Alex changed the way I think of barbers forever. With a typical lopsided smile, he tossed up a thought out of nowhere. “Nothing beats a close shave with a hot blade,” he mused. We were a few pegs down and the thought didn’t quite hit home until the following day, but I think it was clear right away that the chap was on to something. Ten rupees, or a quarter dollar, sure can’t buy you a shave most places the way it can in India.


Suddenly the afternoon wasn’t hot and muggy any more. The breeze outside wiped the sleep from my eyes. Clouds had taken away the worst excesses of the summer sunlight, and if the sub-continental plateau was baking in May, it certainly didn’t show in my backyard. A pleasant drive later, I hopped on to the entrance step of The Club, closing the car door in the same movement. These clubs are roughly the same across medium-sized towns across India – family places with a swimming pool used mostly on summer evenings, equipped with wooden badminton courts in various stages of deterioration, and boasting other facilities depending on how well-off a phase of existence each one is in. This particular one had nice grounds but ongoing construction work, and if I had any intention of finding out whether it was blessed with tennis and squash courts, I wasn’t going to be allowed the chance.

Family barbers know irritatingly much. This one was waiting right at the entrance, as if he had been expecting my visit. He had a good few years behind him, too. Not that I had been entertaining hopes of a professional trained in the latest styles and holding a certificate from his most recent skill upgrade, but here was a stentorian old-timer. It soon became clear we was used to having his way too. To an ebullient query from my family elder – “You’re open today, right?” – pat came the response “Am I doing this from today, or what?”

I let myself be steered through winding corridors. My dear ascendant ventured forth another query – “The air conditioner is running, isn’t it?”. I almost winced as my host for the afternoon shot back “Am I doing this from today, or what?”. As we approached the end of a passageway, a door on the left yielded to his greyed hand. It was bright inside, and a blast of cold air greeted me. I was bid adieu and left in the hands of the veteran barber, to whom I clarified that I’d like to have a shave first, and would then decide about having a haircut. If he was offended, he didn’t show it.

It’s customary to ask for a new blade to be placed on the stick the barber uses, but in this case it was difficult to be sure when to make bold and request it. I was placed in a position of submission in the pushback chair, surrounded by mirrors and a bewildering assortment of bottles and scissors. Water and cream were sloshed liberally over my face, and then my whiskered assailant picked up his weapon. It was then I realized there was no choice – this was a dinosaur used to working without use-and-throw blades – I was going to get the sort of blade that is sharpened on a stone wheel. And boy, get it I did. The first few pulls across my cheek I expected to be left with a hole gaping into my mouth.

But his was clearly a practiced hand and a perceptive mind, despite the half-century behind him. “Coming from where – America?” he asked, clearly not impressed with my unkempt appearance. “No, from Chennai,” I whispered, guessing that he had never seen anything outside of north India and that a city that far down south must be as unknown and caricatured an entity to him as America. Exhibiting a steadiness doubtless born of endless conquest, he continued to wage war on my thick beard, decimating all in the wake of his swishes at first go. This after a month of fertile endeavour by my facial weed. As if this were not enough – horror of horrors – I gave a loud hiccup.

I laughed embarrassedly. “Bad time to get – hic – the hiccups,” I ventured, to be greeted by momentary silence. “Turn your head upwards,” came the disapproving reply, expressing disappointment that I wasn’t being sensitive to the finger-taps on the side of my head. I turned. He yanked. More beard came off. More cream went on. I closed my eyes and resigned myself to my fate. Hic. I wasn’t going to let him cut my hair if I could help it.

All at once my face was on fire. I realized he had applied some sort of cream. A herbal concoction. I’d been through this a few times before, and could detect the scent of eucalyptus oil. All good. The cooling effect began, and spread, aided by surprisingly nimble fingers. I made a mental note that he must be ticking off the ‘Rs. 15’ sign on the sheet that displayed the rate for a face massage. It sure feels wonderful to pay for a service one is receiving without asking for it. Whatever pretence of autonomy I might have maintained left me. Another cream followed, enhancing the cool feeling. “Hiccupping stopped, eh?” he chuckled. I wondered if I could start warming up to this ancient man. “Feeling good, I hope?” he said, and then emptied out some of the most venomous aftershave I have ever experienced on to his hands, rubbing it into my freshly-watered face till it burnt something awful. He wiped it off with the towel that by now had a mixture of several creams on it, not to mention some traces of previous adventures. Then out came a powder puff and he began dusting me up.

Just when it was all over and the face towel disappeared from view, I was covered with a larger one, this time with bits of hair all over it. “How do you want your hair?” he probed, as all thoughts of a polite getaway receded into nothingness. I swallowed a sigh. I thought back to my last haircut. It had been in one of those plush unisex saloons that are blossoming across the metropolises of this country like almost any retail chain tends to these days. At 150 rupees, it wasn’t the cheapest bob. To make things worse, my girlfriend had put forward a very convincing argument for me to get my back waxed, so it was pretty much a thousand rupees down a very polished drain that afternoon. But the fellow was darned professional. The head honcho of the saloon was assigned to me. It’s amazing what calling ahead and getting a reservation can do for you. He admitted the only guy who’d come in there for a full body wax had done so because he’d lost a bet, but added reassuringly that he did have some chaps who came in every month or two to have their legs and back done. I think he hiked the rate when he saw my back and shoulders with an admirable two decades and more of growth on them waiting to be violated. Even so, we chatted along amiably, and soon the deed was done, and we got down to the business of cutting hair. He was good, and though I suspect the layering he did amounted to thinning out my hair at the back, not being particularly informed in matters of such sophistication I gave him the benefit of the doubt (he even threw in a L’Oreal shampooing, which helped). In any case, I came out of there to many hugs from an adoring girlfriend who even carried my shoulder-sling for me lest my armpits felt too tender.

I swallowed a sigh, and ventured forth valiantly – “Long at the back, short on the sides, do what you like with what’s left at the top.” Then I almost choked on it as he proceeded to lop off some of my longest locks at the back. At least, I would have choked, if I hadn’t already been having trouble breathing from the water he had sprayed all over my head without warning. I peered at the mirror through the thick mist surrounding me, to make out what form of devastation my black foliage was being subjected to.

We were both speaking in Hindi, but clearly not talking the same language. He had got all of my hair down to pretty much the same size, say an inch, and I think out of pity if nothing else, decided to ask me what I thought of it. A sense of inevitable subjugation got the better of spluttering rage, and I meekly surrendered to the powers that be with a comment that my reflection offended my sense of symmetry. He told me to not bother with such minor details, which he would get down to taking care of at the end. So there was an end, I noted, with some satisfaction, having given up dread a long while ago. Then he picked up the shaving blade-of-sorts, and scraped around the base of my neck. Whatever hair had grown back since my waxing now found itself being lopped off in an uneven wave that then proceeded up to my ears.

I have a secret. It fascinates barbers, and by the same token serves as my guide to the degree of evil manifest in each one of them. It is a birthmark behind my right ear, which looks a bit shocking at first glance, especially to someone who has been viewing me from above for a good half-hour and is caught by surprise. These barbers are a breed used to symmetry, even if this particular specimen wasn’t. However, in this case he decided to make a big deal of it. Pulling my ear at right angles, he peered down closely, blinking those dull eyes behind thick glasses. His bushy grey eyebrows rose an inch, and I said dryly that it was the will of god or suchlike.

“Hiccupping stopped, eh?” he retorted, nursing his penchant for repeating pet lines. I wondered idly how many customers he had had to contend with, as the decades rolled, who continued to hiccup as he grazed their jaws with his blade. I even felt some sort of weird thing bordering on affinity with this man, who walked about the dark corridors of The Club and hung around at its deconstructed entrance, waiting for customers who came back week after week, sometimes with unsuspecting family in tow. Then he brought them trotting obediently behind him to this bright breezy operating theatre. In some ways he was not very unlike me, trudging the dark familiar corridors of an existence I have grown habituated to. I, too, seek in my own naïve fashion, to guide my people to the light, such as I deem it to be.

I wondered if he saw the irony of these designs. My family elder walked in at this point, just as my conqueror unknotted the towel from under my collar and swept it off my lap. With a grand gesture, he posed the question – “Recognise this young man?” I took a last look at my reflection in the mirror at the back, tentatively touched my hair, which he had brushed back with a brush that felt like a hard wooden knob. and got up gingerly for the impending appraisal. I was met with cries of delight, and a surprised whoop. A wallet was pulled out. “How much can I give you?” said the proud patron, and “Only 80 rupees, sa’ab,” came the simple answer. Of course there was little point in noting that the man had worked in an ample tip. It would have been petty, too, considering that at university my friends put stickers up on elevator doors saying “I’d rather cut hair than develop software for 10 dollars an hour.”

We walked out, ascendant and descendant, and there was a breeze about. The swimming pool looked a pretty sight, absolutely quiet at this hour, with pretty flowers and the greenest grass you ever saw, and water lapping at the sides. Getting into the car, we bid farewell to our barber escort, who asked about everyone in the family, one at a time. My chap at the unisex saloon had asked me a question too – whether the girl I’d come with was a friend or my girlfriend. This visit was much more legit. A curious mixture of the vast array of details that go into the making of an Indian identity swam lazily in front of my eyes. I was a young man on my way up in the world, and that is where I belonged, ensconced in a little family with its own little cares and worries, and barber. Whatever seeds of protest might have been sown, this was a determined attempt to cut them out along with the overgrown hair.

As the sun set and we returned home, an old David Crosby song popped into my head. “Almost cut my hair / Happened just the other day / It’s getting’ kind of long / I could’ve said it was in my way / But I didn’t and I wonder why / I feel like letting my freak flag fly”. I wondered whether my freak flag was still fluttering on the breeze. I hopped up the step, entering the house and closing the car door in the same movement. As everyone crowded around admiring my new look and saying how much better I looked and how nice it was to be able to see my face again and how fair my skin seemed now, I smiled.

Then I put the CSNY song that had been running through my head on the old gramophone. The LP clicked with a few scratches and whirrs, like well-loved things do, and the evening darkened outside. We sat down in the garden, my family elder and I, as the song played itself out. “I’m goin’ to find a space inside a laugh, yes / Separate the wheat from some chaff / Oh, and I feel / Like I owe it, yeah, to someone.”



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