This is the story of a barber and his name is Sandeep. His story is exceptional on many counts. Before I go into Sandeep’s story, it is imperative to say a few things about barber shops. Rich or poor, most of the males with hair and facial hair need the services of a barber, if not regularly, at least once in a while. Rich people have family barbers who come to their home every weekend to service all the male members of the family including children. Poor go to the lowliest of barbers who sit under the canopy of a tree or under some shade on a pavement. In India and also in many part of the world, a neat hair cut and a clean face is considered to be the signs of social conformity, therefore decency. Those people grow hair and facial hairs are supposed to be rebels, who gave little attention to their looks. In fact the rebels grow hairs because primarily they do not believe in looks and also because most of them operate from social fringes (like the revolutionaries who live in forests) they do not have time or facilities to do justice or injustice to their hairs. Most of the social and cultural rebels keep long hair and beard because they believe in its symbolism (a symbolism that heralds their membership to the actual and imaginary rebellious groups), especially in the post industrial times. But there used to be times both in the west and east when people thought that long hair and rich and thick facial hairs are the signs of richness, social affluence and prosperity. Hair showed some sort of manliness and wildness, and courtiers and commoners liked it alike. But today, with a homogenized concept about looks of both male and female, controlling the growth of facial hairs is an important personal activity for many. A clean face is promoted and a body devoid of hairs is promoted as there is an industry that thrives on hair controlling or removing products. The old barber shops have gone out of fashion and their spaces have been taken over by saloons and parlours.
We have the memory of an old village barber shop still afresh in our minds. It used to be one of the village hubs of many activities. The barber is a man who speaks out, has an opinion about things political, social and moral, and he keeps the attention of the ‘sitter’ focused while his fingers works on his head and face. Before a barber you willingly submit yourself. I would say no meditation hall, no guru, no yogic exercise and no deep penance would bring you that kind of attention when a barber runs a razor at your neck. When your attention tends to wander there are some pictures on the walls to bring you back. They are the pictures of silver screen damsels in skimpy clothes looking at you so invitingly from the glossy calendars. Sitting at that chair, you could let your fancy wander when the barber works on your head. A barber shop used to be a magical world. Today, the saloons do not have that personal touch of rural intimacy. The moment you get into a men’s saloon (often spelled MENZ for effect), you feel that you have entered a corporate space. Uniformed boys with atrocious hair styles for themselves invite you to the cushioned leather chairs. You look at the large mirrors lined with LED lights and you look really good before they start their work. Now you want to look better, if not best. The walls do not have the old glossy calendars with enticing sirens. The shelves across the walls have all those hair care and beauty products available under the sun. Your attention is focussed on the large flat television screens which flash silent but violent gyrations of male and female hips and other body parts. One of the uniformed boys approaches you with a small bottle of clean drinking water. Then you are clinically analysed by a stylist. You are given more than one suggestions about your looks. And you settle in (or surrender before) one of those suggestions. You are covered with a layer of synthetic overall which has all semi pornographic pictures printed all over. The work is clinical, impersonal and meticulous. They use less of their hands and fingers but more of machines and accessories. Even for a normal head massage, they take out vibrators and battery powered massagers. In the meanwhile they keep telling you about the new products available. Like the best advertisers in the world do, these boys tell you how the warts and blackheads make your skin ugly, how the pores have been closed for a while, how a particular product would do wonders for you. Would you like to have a facial? Would you like to have a total face rejuvenation therapy? The full package costs only nine hundred rupees. And the ambience created by LED lights, Punjabi rap and men reclining on various chairs with boys working on different parts of their body, you too are sent to a semi-sleep state and exactly when the whisperings of these boys work as military commands. These orders appear as soft persuasions. Sometimes you yield while your pocket goes light.
For a long time I too have been a saloon visitor not because that I want to improve my looks (which is beyond any kind of improvement further as I believe that after David, mine is the perfect face in the world, why not?) but because there are no good barber shops available in the vicinity. All the barber shops have been changed into saloons. Only difference is in the size of the space from which they operate; the methods are same. The craft of scissoring has gone; the machines have taken over. That’s why at Neb Sarai in Delhi for trimming my beard I chose to go to a normal barber shop that fits to the bill. There are a few of them there as Neb Sarai still not a town and has a lot of characteristics of a village. It is not that Neb Sarai does not have ‘saloons and parlours’ (there are many) but these barber shops attracted me for a different reason; I wanted to know what is on there. How they withstand the competition given by the saloons. Yes, of course, primarily it is with rates/charges. In a saloon you do not have any service less than Rs.150. But the highest rate of any service given by these barber shops are still lesser than the lowest rate the saloons offer. Secondly, the patrons are not the upmarket youngsters. They are the old timers and those people who cannot afford Rs.100/- for a normal haircut. Another difference is that in saloons you get a menu (rate card) without spelling mistakes. But in these barber shops you have menu cards with a lot of spelling mistakes. It reads ‘New Ret’ (New Rate), ‘Hed Mazaz’ (Head Massage), ‘Body Mazaz’ and so on. But if you are gentle enough you could have a very good laugh inside.
Sandeep’s barber shop is a typical old time barber shop. Half glass door, a curtain to prevent sunlight, three wooden chairs, one large mirror, a few accessories, no shelves with fancy items, a fan (no air conditioner), enamel painted interior with a few calendars. I had been to this place once but there was another boy at that time. When you are in a restaurant or barber shop, you are comfortable when a familiar guy is around. Sandeep was working on a man’s face when I entered. I asked for the other boy. He said, the other boy was ill and his work would be finished in a moment. He gestured me to wait. I sat on a wooden bench and looked at the mirror and I was horrified by what I saw there. The hands of the boy (at that time I did not know his name was sandeep) was completely deformed. His fingers were curled up and palms were fused into a lump. Little bit of protrusions came out of it and they were fingers. I thought he was a leper or suffering from some disease. Was he going to touch my face with those fingers? I wanted to run away. But I did not want to hurt him so I politely walked out while dialling a number in my mobile. “Sir, in a minute this work is done,” he called out. I gestured that I was coming back in a minute.
Outside the shop, pretending to be at phone, I stood and watched the boy working on that man’s face. The person who was getting the service from this boy with deformed hands looked was completely at ease. He did not show any disgust. I was wondering at myself about what I was doing there. Why the man was comfortable? If he was comfortable then why should not I? If that boy was born like that then my running away would deprive him of his right to do his work. If he was a leper, then if he was working, he must have cured of his illness. If he had some other skin disease, the doctors might have given him a clean chit otherwise how in a village he could run a barber shop. I stood there frozen. Still I could not reconcile with the fact that this boy was going to touch my face with those fingers. But finally I made up my mind. Everyone needs a chance in this world, I told myself. Who am I to negate him of that chance? Even if he is a diseased person, I am going to sit before him and let him work on my face, whatever may come.
I walked into barber shop and the other person had just got up. The boy asked me to sit there and I sat. He came near to me and I saw his chin and lower jaw and the skin going down into his shirt. They were all deformed a bit. I looked straight into his eyes and smiled, fighting some middleclass problems in my mind. He asked me whether I needed a hair cut or shave. I told him that I needed to get my beard trimmed and I told him what the expected outcome or look was like. He understood. I observed him covering me up with an overall. I looked at him picking up a pair of scissors and comb. And finally he touched my face, feeling my beard and sizing up its length. I closed my eyes with all my muscles going tense. Then lo....his fingers touched my facial skin. I felt the softness of his fingers. That did not feel different from a normal person’s touch. My body relaxed. I sat there completely at ease. His fingers kept on touching my skin. I let it happen and I felt absolute happiness in me for overcoming my unjustified disgust. Each time I woke up from that feeling of touch when the boy asked me whether his styling was good enough. He had done wonders. He did exactly what I had asked for. Shall I spray some water on your face, sir? He asked. I said yes. He sprayed water on my face and he cleaned my face with a fresh towel and I was so happy for no reason.
The shop was empty and a few people came in between and said hello to him and left. One of them walked into read a newspaper. Then I asked him his name. Sandeep, he said. I asked him about his village. A village in Uttar Pradesh, he said. With a little bit of hesitation I asked him, “Sandeep, if you don’t feel bad, shall I ask you something?” He smiled at me, perhaps, he had heard the same question before. “Yes, sir.” “What happened to you?” He knew what I meant. “It was five years back. We are farmers. I went home for the harvest. There was a fire in the barn. I was caught inside the fire. It took one and a half years to come out of the hospital. Then it took another year to get these fingers in working condition. They just did not move. A long struggle, sir. But I wanted to give it a try. I did not want to run away from life. People come and walk out looking at my fingers. But I don’t call them back. When you walked out I knew why you did so. But I cannot call you back sir. Still you came back. I was reading your mind, sir,” Sandeep Said.
I held his hand and told him, “Sandeep, I salute you, for this grit and courage. And remember, if I do anything with my hairs while in Neb Sarai, it will be done by you, only you.” He smiled and took Rs.20/- from me. I said bye to him and walked out. Way back home I was murmuring, “Everyone has got a right to decide and live his own destiny. And none has the right to take it away from him by denying opportunities.”