I entered the barber shop via a hidden and decrepit side-street. I gently stepped over Jimmy – that lazy dog sprawled across the entrance to the barber shop. It noticed me after I had crossed over and quickly stood up to wag it’s tail enthusiastically. Jimmy, and that included every mongrel here named so, practiced the art of the welcome at the slightest hint it may be required. This was the third Jimmy that stood guard at the steps in the past few years. I acknowledged him by calling it’s name. He must be a barber’s karmic avatar, just like the previous two, unable to break free from the cyclical karmic forces that tied them down to a barber’s shop. He let out a contended high-pitched whine that quickly lowered in pitch to a wide silent yawn as he coiled around himself for comfort and sleep.
I deftly pushed the glass door that had a life-size sticker of a smiling woman’s face with hands clasped in a ‘namaste’ position. This was all Babu the barber had to offer as a receptionist and I was OK by the lack of fanfare here. The banner on top of this shop provided me with gentle amusement. ‘Babu’s Gents Beauty Barler’ it proclaimed, mocking my fine sense of linguistic prowess and shaking my firm opinion on a gender biased cabal and profession. This was good. One already had a sense of psychological trimming-down outside the barber shop; and by means of a reverse meta-physical extrapolation: the real trimming of real overgrown hair awaited inside Babu’s parlous: The haircut.
“Come, come” Babu invited me in with his typical South Indian hospitality, anglicizing a word-pair borrowed from his native tongue – Tamil, that had a general predilection for reduplication. In Tamil, simply stopping with the single word “Come” would have meant giving the guest a partial welcome. An incomplete invitation bordering on business-neutral. Babu’s was different. This was home and it demanded completeness in all words, deeds and actions.
He said that out loud enough to mean a general invitation on behalf of the few contended men sitting inside. I could count at least three of them that were overstaying their welcome that only Babu’s could provide. Each one of them felt obliged at that instance to make light conversation with me sometime during the course of my haircut. A self sustaining bio-sphere of happiness. That was what drew me in. A momentary hypnotizing event, this haircut. I would pick on elements of this parlor, as I reclined on my chair to ruminate on it’s divine purpose within this cozy clam-shell of a barber shop.
The three burning incense sticks stuck into a fleshy-ripe-yellow-with-black-spots banana bunch placed at the foot of Babu’s colorful row of deity posters, were giving off a nice fragrance. Their tight coils of smoke rising lazyly upwards, made visible by the warm sun rays, climbed towards the high ceiling and scattered off suddenly as they approached a ceiling fan with a muted purpose. Sort of like an Indian rope trick, I thought. What other parlor tricks were in store here? On the counter was a Philip’s transistor saved from another era. It was wrapped in gnarled leather that might have seen better days, as a quarter of it was missing, exposing a worn plastic innards, like a beloved mitten with holes in it. The transistor was working on discarded tweeters, that gave out a shrill and tinny sound. It was probably built for the most important reason why people of that era bought a transistor – to hear the news. Not for music for sure, just vocal news readers. Music was bearable at a low volume, but that’s not how Babu played it. The dial was at it’s loudest, set at the 3 O’Clock position. This was the signature audio of a memorable place. It was bad, but it was the signature. The device was the undisputed reference system for the past few decades. To qualify this blaring filmy Tamil song as music would need one to suspend imagination.
I settled in comfortably and sat next to four other guys whose heads were buried in the local newspaper, awaiting my turn.
“I will not be in town for the release of Shivaji” he made his dissapointment public and meant it to be a mea culpa needing self-flagellation to be redeemed. This was an unstated policy and it’s equally unstated violation among the Rajni fan-club members: to miss out watching the movie on it’s release date. This demanded an explanation that better be sound and stand the scrutiny of puzzled men.
The rest of the men prairie-dogged out of their crumpled and shared pages from the same single newspaper. Babu subscribed to just one, that had a copious offering of Page 3 in all the pages. They folded their respective pages in unison. It was pointless to continue reading whatever banal stuff they hazarded on just moments ago. Nothing came close to the proposed sublime theme. The thought of Rajnikath their Superstar hero and actor in the latest Tamil film Shivaji resonated a communal chord and whipped a deep rooted sentiment that demanded complete participation. Babu’s scissors froze midway like a deliberate and studied Tai-chi movement. His muscles relaxed and he slowly slipped the comb and scissors out of the damp hair of Muthu, erstwhile president of Superstar Fan club – Mylapore, Chennai, receiving for the tenth time this year, a Rajni cut. Erstwhile, because the position was in rotation and lasted till the next release.
“I have to attend a marriage function in a neighboring village” said the violator, matter-of-fact-ly. The term ‘function’ was a catch-all term for assorted social ceremonies. A marriage function was at a much higher social ladder than watching a movie with friends. Not bad for an excuse, considering the fact that the marriage being referred to was his nephew’s. And Babu was booked seven weeks in advance to play the Nadaswaram at this marriage function. An extremely loud wind instrument made of ebony for playing classical music mostly in temples and marriages. Babu had practiced hard to master this exacting instrument with his troupe in the open fields. The barber community, to which he belonged, were nadaswaram experts.
“What’s taking Rajni-saar so long to release the pilim this time?” Babu asked impatiently, diving head-first into a conversation he was thrilled to bits about.
As a young boy he had watched the village bioscope for five paisa, with assorted Rajni picture cut-outs from glossy calendars scrolled inside the empty modified twenty-five liter rectangular oil can slung around his neck. The bioscope-master scrolled the images by cranking a lever with one hand and would drum the syncopated rhythm with the other, while singing loudly a popular Rajni song. At the end of it he would ring the brass bell and welcomed new audiences within earshot. Babu would give him another five paisa without taking his face away from one of the two bioscope tubes. He just could not have enough of this rural view-master. These were the images he grew up with and fondly remembered for the rest of his life. The first time Babu and Muthu took the town bus to see Rajni face to face at Marina beach at a huge political rally, Babu had genuflected on the beach sands and fainted. Muthu had to sprinkle soda water from the thick green soda bottle, on his face to wipe off the sand and tiny broken sea shells clinging to his face, to bring him back from total admiration black-out. A condition that afflicted him frequently.
“Good pilims take time to create” opined Muthu, shaking his head vigorously, secretly opposing those who wanted the tenure of the president of the fan-club to be shortened.
I was lost in the conversation and forgot what brought me here, until Babu beckoned me to an empty seat.