Hairy Tales

I went for a haircut today, and while the lady was carefully trying to reduce the messy set of (rapidly diminishing) hair into a manageable and effervescent bunch, I started to let my mind wander (as is common) and for some reason it chose to stay with haircuts.

My earliest memories of haircuts are those in which Appa took me to this place in Chembur — Star something, I forget — where you had to go down one level from the ground floor to enter the saloon. This was a male-only place and we generally went on Sundays, when the crowd there was unbelievable (yes, even if you were from Bombay). We’d sit on the provided benches, while I tried to overcome boredom by staring at people around me and leafing through the sports magazine from eons ago. I’d be surrounded by a sea of grown men, their heads furnished with varying amounts of hair with colors ranging from the drab black to the more glorious steel-grey. Men would be seated on the traditional saloon chairs, their hands raised, their shirts off, their banians showing, as the barber would, without the slightest sign of unease, proceed to shave off the last vestiges of underarm hair that bothered them so. Men would be lathered up and then shaved with the razor, the barber holding the instrument of Sweeny Todd’s choice delicately, his pinkie out, curled slightly. The constant snip-snip of the scissors would be heard over the steady hum of the air conditioner which tired to rid the waiting men of the sweat that they the sultry city had induced on their way in. Finally, it’d be my turn, as I would be beckoned and my dad would mutter a heavily accent “chota karo”. Just two words and the barber would be off, scissors working furiously on my (then) thick and dense hair, as soon as he had wet it enough using one of those squeeze-spray things. I’d see strands of it fall on to the white bedsheet that he had tied at the back of my throat, without bothering to ask me if the cloth was choking me. The hair would fall, and I’d be done. A minute to look in the mirror was all that I got before the next customer would be pulled up. Sometimes I’d get two minutes as the barber would joke about a shave. I’d look at the other shavers around me wistfully, and then crack a sad smile. He would simply spray off my hair from the scissor and give the sheet a quick jerk and it’d be on the next guy, as we made our way to the payment counter. My dad would always tip the barber personally and then we’d be off for a nice long hair bath where Amma ensured that the last offending stray hair caught in the crevice of my ear was also gotten rid off.

As the lady continued snipping and telling me about her family of 10 siblings back home in Ethiopia (I made small talk about how much I like Injera — yes, I do like Ethiopian food), my mind wandered to the first haircut I had in the USA. This was a small place on Guadalupe, just off Dean Keaton in Austin, right next to the university. I walked in one hot afternoon to find myself in a small, cramped place, where a lady — the only barber —  had just finished shearing off the guy in front of her. I went there because the place was cheap — 10$, well the cheapest I could find. The other place close to my house was at the 25$ range, and being the stingy grad student that I was, I decided 10$ was acceptable. I was up next. I sat down and he roughly tied a cloth behind my neck and gave me a questioning look. I had never had a lady cut my hair before, even as I had migrated from that smallish place in Chembur to more upscale places; places where no men cut underarm hair; places were men got their hair colored; places were you were served tea as you waited and soft music played in the background and the refreshingly silent air conditioner wafted cool air, fragrant and silent. I looked at her reflection, taking in the wizened old face, and recoiled at the cigarette smell that emanated from her fingers. Her poorly colored hair stood out, dry and limp as her husband collected the 10$ (cash only) from the guy who had walked in before me. She had replaced the head on the electrical shears that he had, thankfully, and she stood waiting for me to say something. With all the confidence I could muster, I said, “Really short, more on the sides than the top”. She nodded and then in less than 5 minutes managed to eliminate all the hair on my head. She quickly pushed me off the chair and as I made my payment, the next guy in line was given a similar work around, although he had asked for some really complicated stuff. I smiled and then walked out into the Austin sun, the newly semi-bald head quickly filling up with sweat from the recently freed pores.

As the Ethiopian lady walked me to the shampoo area and placed a hot towel on my face, making me sit comfortably on a vibrating recliner, my head in the appropriately designed hair-wash sink, I started to think I should have gone with the “full-service” version (I’d have gotten a nice shoulder massage and a shave). As the tea-tree shampoo was softly massaged into my scalp, I grinned foolishly at the number of mundane details I had picked up over the past 4 years. I knew what “number” I wanted on the shears (3 or 2 on the sides), how I wanted the rear shaped (square, not round) and how I wanted my sideburns (slightly longish, but not as long as they are). I shrugged at the snob in me who was happy when the woman had pulled out a neat, newly washed hand towel and told me that the scissor  and comb (wrapped in the towel) she was using was “sanitized”. I had come a long way from the little boy who hated wasting time cutting hair on Sunday mornings, since it ate away at the time spent playing in the building next door. I paid the woman the $21 ($19 + 2$ tip), and then smiled as she told me to have a glorious day. I mumbled back something similar that I am sure she did not register, seeing that her tip amount was only the measly 10%. As the Dallas sun hit me and I walked into my car, the only thought that floated in my head was, “Damn, I’d love to be able to walk into a saloon and say, ‘chota karo’, and then shut up as the man did his job”. If only life were that simple.


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