Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Haircut

Waking up in summers across the world means different things. In Delhi, if you sleep on the roof in a mosquito net, you wake up drowning in your sweat. On a jute string cot in Khategaon district in Madhya Pradesh, you wake up at 5 to flies droning loudly around your face. The flies must've been explorers in their last incarnation. They love the uncharted territory of your nostrils. In Sweden, you can see the Sun. Isn't that nice!? The Sun is not much of a problem here, in Bengaluru like it is say, in Hyderabad.
Waking up in Bengaluru summers can be like waking up in a season different from the one in which you slept. I remember my first day in the new flat I rented. The landlord overlooked putting the fans up. It was a sultry night. Opening all the windows helped with ventilation a little, at least from the sides where a building doesn't stand at a handshake distance. The one hallway in the flat, between the bedroom and living room seemed coolest. That's where I spread my sleeping bag to sleep on. The sleeping bag has seen a lot of dirt on my camping trips. Never before though was it subject to such  streams of sweat trickling off my neck and ankles as it was that night. Packs of dogs screamed and howled between their panting. It was a three inch dangling dog tongue night. Sleep drew over me while regret over having picked this flat bounced around the block.
A little over six hours later, I woke up in Spring. The sleeping bag gobbled me in overnight. A breeze cooled off my neighbourhood. As I sat up in the sleeping bag, I didn't let its mouth sag to my waist. I liked my own warmth cocooning me. What a contrast from last night! Washing away the warm aura in a bath sounded like a terrible idea. A little akin to handing over your favourite, worn down, stringy T-shirt to no one in particular.
I stood for a moment, which my watch told me later was ten minutes, in peace, contemplating absolutely nothing, in my empty flat in a cool stream of air. Only the Koyal sang summer to me. The decision had been made. I would delay the bath. To justify this pig-like behavior (as I remembered Amma calling it), I decided to go get a haircut. Sunday promised to be the right day to get one.
I sauntered through rugged gravel roads. Through traffic consisted of rickety old Atlas Goldline bicycles, Audis, Ford Explorers and Renaults. As you stride, listening to a podcast, a 150cc motorcycle zips past, inches from you and about a foot away from a pothole. At the main road, one walks with a confidence that there can be no accidents in traffic. Vehicles, just never reach that critical speed. Pedestrians, dogs, cows, two wheelers and BMWs share the same footpathless, two-way, 20 ft road in a slow and clamorous crawl.
Exhaust and horns sweep away that comfortable aura I woke up in. A mantle of living among people, lot's of people remains. And thus I reached the saloon.
Yes, a saloon. That term that middle class southerners in the US cringe from, adorns this barber's shop. It's a smallish room with large wall to wall mirrors, oppositely placed at waist height. A really old, tinny looking vacuum tube type television is poised precariously at one corner of the mirror. There was no one there. Nor was there electricity.  It's already that time of the day when the word 'sunshine' ceases to evoke joy. I break a sweat in this 'saloon'. I've known barbers to be moody. They step out once in a while for a cup of tea and a chat with the neighboring storekeeper. Our hero, the owner of this saloon, is missing. While I wait for his return I settle down into a little nest of magazines. Our hero has an odd choice of leisurely reading. There is a collection of ancient Cosmopolitan and Femina issues with some Sports Star magazines piled at one end of the bench. The clientele here must have very broad interests to read a woman's views on a "hundred ways to please your man" and then to peruse the happenings in the Indian Premiere League. Or they just like to look at pictures. Who am I to judge... or even care?
The smells from the gutters outside start perking up with the sun climbing the sky. A little dog stands at the door, panting. It is two inch dangling dog tongue right now. It pants and looks at me and blinks its half closed eyes. The smell and heat fail bring out any love for this fellow being. I look at the opposite end of the room where a curtained door stood. Something seemed to ruffle the curtains. But no sound or human emerged.
A generator whirred from the shop next door. Diesel vapors and exhaust wafted in. I like that smell. It feels clean somehow. It felt like a time to read some commentary on Australian players in the IPL after having defeated Indians in the World Cup semifinals. No, it felt like a time to just stay occupied without getting excited.
A couple of Sports Stars later, and an hour that felt like two later, I looked over at the dog in the door.. It slept in the door like it owned the place. As people walked past, it barely opened an eye. I figured it was the reason the barber has such confidence in the security of his establishment. The dog's attitude though, was similar to the lackadaisiacal master of this house. He was still not to be seen. It was near lunch time. But then, the man himself, appeared in the flesh. He smiled so widely that I could think no ill of him. Behind him though followed a little boy who didn't want to step over the dog. The barber nudged the dog with his foot. It walked over to the next shop, and slept right in front of its door. What compels a dog to be in the way, all the time, is anyone's guess. The boy walked in and so did his Daddy behind him. "Uh Oh!" I thought. Part of the beauty of respecting age is that you have to be benevolent to tiny twerps, even if you have the right of first service. This is what the Dad was going to ask of me: To let this poor little boy get a haircut please, because, afterall, he has a small head and  the haircut would take no time. The dad exactly this, with one facial expression that lasted a second. I looked down at the boy, his eyes open wide looking at me. I felt big hearted in that moment, and fooled in the next, when I let him get his haircut. But anyway... whaddyegonnado?
I put myself in the place of that boy for a second. Before a haircut, the spray of water on one's head on days like these, felt so grand. Part tickling and part relaxing. My barber back then would spray a couple more times for my enjoyment. That fun of sitting in a spray hasn't gone away though. It's still a lot of fun. The memory was also helping me survive this steady stream of perspiration at joints of all appendages. I wished dearly the barber had invested in another fan in stead of this tiny, tinny TV which had been on for a while now. Psychologists would love the behavioral effects of this device on our hero. It was quite amazing. It was amazing in the British sense of the word, not the sense across the pond. The TV extended a certain pull on this man, chopping hair off the little boys head with special scissors. Such hypnosis is rarely seen. The crappy daytime rerun of a drama had a vice like grip on the barber. He'd snip some hair for less than a minute and then look up at the screen. Within seconds the look turned into a stare and his eyes suddenly lost all emotion. The scissors and comb remained suspended in air all this while. And then, definitely not in response to the woman crying on screen for her cheating husband, he giggled and came back to the hair in front of him and started cutting again. He started cutting and kept at it for another two minutes before the same behavior repeated itself. He'd stop cutting, look up the screen, space out, giggle and get back to planet earth. The longest stretch of cutting hair that I marked on him, between the TV meditations, was about four minutes. After a few rounds of making contact with his alien master, or whatever he was doing, the barber looked out the window and gave another exceptionally warm smile. Even the word warm made my stomach turn because it was that hot right then. In walked the hero's friend, his sidekick and partner in television hyponses! This man... or boy... or man-boy is a fixture at this shop. He's a little like the welcome sign outside the shop: Perfectly useless, but always there. He came in sat in the nest of print media.
The addition of another person to that steam pot of a room was suffocating. It was past lunchtime. I was hungry. A cup of tea from a neighbouring shop sounded like a good idea. It was hot, and a hot tea was still the way to go.
The told the barber I'd be back in one minute. That's how long I estimated it'll take him to finish the little boy's haircut: fifteen minutes. My tone may have been sharp. Pleasantness had drained away from the day which was on its second leg. The second leg of a Sunday, is traditional nap time in my family. But here I was just looking onto a lazy street with little traffic right now. I heard someone speaking in Marathi two doors down. I love being able to listen in on conversations and appear as though I haven't a clue what's being said. Most conversations are mundane, something about there not being enough water in tank or the car being parked too close to the gate. I feel no guilt on that account. Besides, it's some relief from this boredom our hero has put me through.
At the shop, I was fully prepared to find the boy and his dad having left, the barber and his bud lost in the timeless beauty of that shitty television. And yet, the man was at work. At least in that brief window of time when that saw my coming. In the chair in front of him, sat not the sweet boy, but someone he might grow into. The barber no longer had scissors and a comb in his hand, but a razor. The father of the child, was now getting a shave. The barber looked at me as if I caught him cheating with him my wife. The Dad looked as though he were my wife. We exchanged stares for a good minute. And then, the Dad did that thing... that pathetic, second long, expression that so very clearly says to all us Indians, just another minute, please adjust.
I silenced a wail in my head. As my gut bayed and chest shrank, my mouth stretched, trying desperately to effect a smile. I figured it's alright. The barber can't space out during a shave. A confrontation demanded more energy than this was worth.
I sat at the end of the bench where the nest was not. The sidekick was asleep, snoring, in fact. The barber seemed to focus on the man in front of him completely.  There were swift swoops on the face cleaning away chunks of foam. The cheeks were done, the neck was done, the mustache swept clean off the face. The neanderthal looking Dad, was now baby faced. He got up, paid and left with his son. This had to be the quickest occurrence of the whole damn day! The barber looked at me. I got up. I almost did. My breath was heavy and I couldn't move. I couldn't move a muscle. "Saar!" called out the hero. I breathed heavily and felt trapped. I could not move. My breath got heavier. So much so, I was going to suffocate. Was this a heart attack? Could smoking really give me a heart attack at 30? I heard a snore from myself. It wasn't a snort, but a snore. The second time it happened, I opened my eyes. Damn dream!  The dad's shave was done. The friend was settling into the chair for a haircut.
Without uttering a word, I was on my way to the flat. The whole city had the aura of a bad omelette: Icky, sticky and smelly. The decision to never return to this "Saloon" had just been made. A resolution to not see another barber for a whole damn year was made too. My head swam in the heat. At my mirrorless flat, I dumped a pale of water on my head and in a woefully painful succession of strokes, shaved my head.