This Indian life by Shoba Narayan: Why are men yearning for the barber
As India emerges from the chrysalis of the lockdown, there is one man whose stock has risen to dizzying heights in the corridors of power of our building complex: Ramesh barber.
Every day, for the past two weeks, men have accosted each other on morning walks with the same anxious question: “Is Ramesh barber open?”
I take this rather personally, because I have been parlaying my services as barber to a small number of male relatives, beginning with my husband and father, and then moving on to young nephews. I have cut my husband’s hair twice and so too my dad’s. True, I gave them bald spots in the back when I inadvertently and enthusiastically cut off more hair than was required. But hey, it is the height of summer. Bald heads are in.
One day, I caught my husband furtively sending a message to Ramesh. When I opened his phone, I found that it was the latest in a series of messages, each one more desperate than the other.
It began at week one with the simple and brusque, “Are you open?”
By week five, it was like a love letter: “Dear Ramesh. Hope you and your family are doing well. As you know, I have been wondering if your shop is open. I have sent many messages to you with no reply. Many men in my building are longing to come to you. I would like to be the first. As a longtime customer, I hope to hear back from you.”
I stared at this note, feeling like the wife in Pati Patni Aur Woh. Except in my case, the woh was Ramesh barber.
So that night, I stared unblinkingly at my husband and asked, “Tell me the truth. What does Ramesh have that I don’t?”
My husband sighed. “It is not like that. First of all, he has good scissors and combs…”
“It is not my fault that my equipment is faulty,” I burst out.
“It is also his manner,” said my husband.
“I knew it. You like him more than me,” I accused.
My husband rolled his eyes, shook his head and went back to his newspaper.
My brother was more forthright. “You see, the barber is not just a haircutter. He is a therapist, beautician and philosopher, all rolled into one.”
Philosopher? Seriously? I thought that was a bit much.
“You know how some people make you feel good just by their mere presence?” explained my brother. “Well, a barber is like that. With him, you don’t have to be ‘on’ or put on any pretences. You can just be.”
What is it about a barber shop that makes men feel safe? Is it because there are no women? Is it the comforting click of scissors along with the ministrations of a man who doesn’t say much? Is it because going to the barber shop is a ritual that men engage in from childhood? Or is it the homely environment – cheesy old songs blaring from a small tinny radio, blue posters of Shah Rukh Khan and Sachin Tendulkar sporting excellent haircuts and gazing seductively at the viewer? Actually, more than hair, it is beards that are in, thanks to Virat Kohli.
I think men like barber shops because it is the one place where you don’t have to think. Unlike fancy salons where men (and women) are accosted with questions about hair length, and whether they prefer the ‘fade and taper’ or the ‘fold over,’ a barber barely talks. You sit and he cuts. It is a male bastion without the testosterone, a comfortable space where nobody nags or asks questions. Which was how it struck me: it really isn’t about the hair, stupid.
Cutting hair isn’t rocket science. The trickiest portion for men is the section behind the ear, where you have to carefully shave away inches so that they can feel less hot. This has to be done neatly and in a straight line, difficult to do because you use one hand to pull down the ear as if it was the lip in those white canvas shoes that boys wear to school – the ones they clean with chalk. Well, the ear is to be pulled with equal force and finesse.
A good haircut is a thing of beauty. It makes a man look put together and confident. I should know because all my customers have looked like ghosts when they finally look in the mirror.
“I was going for the pompadour but it became an uneven buzz cut,” I say apologetically. “Shall I try a comb over?”
Most of them levitate out of the chair and escape.
(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents and other unique facets of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)
This Indian Life appears every fortnight
From HT Brunch, May 24, 2020
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