It has been quite a while that I have been going to an up-market men’s saloon on Park Street. The glazed glass exterior of the shop, whiff of cool breeze from the ac vents inside, soft cushy seats and low dim lights mingled with a wide range of aroma of after shaves and shaving lather make for a perfect ambience within. A receptionist usually notes down my name and points me to one of the seats on the waiting lobby. A man comes with a glass of water and asks whether I would like to have a cup of tea or coffee. As I carelessly page through a fashion magazine from a stack kept for those waiting, my name is announced and I am produced in the sanctum sanctorum and led to my chair. A young man, usually with a hair style one cannot imagine sporting in the most romantic dreams, softly creeps up from behind asks “What will you have today?”. After 30 minutes of a symphonic snip-snip and pampering I am ready to leave. This has been my routine once a month for the last decade or so. I have come to know them as professionals, who do a job like I work for an organization. The relationship is guided strictly by the mechanisms of demand and supply.
But it was not always like this. Not with my ‘napith kaku’. I have grown up in the suburbs of Kolkata, then called Calcutta, and most part of my childhood and adolescent years I have been to ‘Make-up Art Salun’ where saloon was spelt as salun. As a kid I was intrigued by the amount of clout the three men in the saloon had. I came to call the owner of the saloon as ‘napith kaku’. He was my father’s barber. He was always present in all auspicious occasions of the family that demanded the services of a barber. In fact my first haircut, as I remember, was in his hand.
Three years and some months old I was led into the dimly lit saloon with one DC (Direct Current) fan that ran on carbon sticks. The walls were mostly bare save three sets of mirrors, a framed photo of ‘Ma Kaali’ and general soot that had gathered on the upper stretches of the wall and all over the ceiling during a prolonged period of neglect. Seeing me he immediately took me up on his lap and said ‘Chotobabu chul kaatbe naaki?” (Chotobbau will you cut your hair?) in a manner that was both a question and its answer. (In fact the name chotobabu stuck on.) Then he pulled out a wooden plank from underneath the set of stools on the side and placed it on the handles of his chair and made me sit on it. By then in my tender heart it had already become a real hair-raising feeling left to the mercy of the barber. Seeing my father nonchalantly leafing through a newspaper oblivious to my muffled sobs, pearls of tears started welling up in my eyes. But he held my head in one tight grip as his scissors went snip, snip, snip with the other on my prized head even as I winced in anticipation of how the crop was going to turn out. After 15 minutes I emerged almost bald and unscathed.
It was my first encounter with napith kaku and for the next 18 years of my life I have put my head, with increasing comfort, to the mercy of his nippy fingers and scissors. As I slowly started going alone to the saloon and waited in queue for my turn to come, I was amazed to see the expertise of those thin string like fingers as it chopped hair –some straight, some curly, some wavy and others indifferent—from an array of skulls of different shapes and sizes. And all the while he would strike a conversation with his customers.
What scared me most was the way he sharpened the razor on the leather belt that hung from the wall. After five six strong skilled swipes he would ask his customers to raise the neck a bit so that he would begin his shave. For me it was a close shave everytime!
He was the local ‘kalpataru’ (Solution man). For he had an answer to all the queries starting from where had the local poultry shop shifted to the whereabouts of the new tenants who have moved into the last house of our lane. It was while waiting on those log stools that I realized that men could be such bi***** gossiping about everything they could lay their hands upon. And napith kaku was the catalyst, sometimes kick starting a topic and sometimes adding the necessary spice to fuel more speculations. And he would invariably begin with “Choto mukhe boro kotha hoye jai, tabuo bolchi…” (It may seem way out of my rights, but I have to say…).
The barber shop was visible from the verandah of my house. Every morning I would go to the verandah on the first floor to read the newspaper along with a cup of tea, a habit I had picked up from my grandfather. As I sat reading the paper I often noticed how napith kaku arrived on his cycle, perhaps the only thing that looked more worn out than him, and opened the doors of his saloon. Then he would walk up to the tea stall on the opposite side and have a cup of tea and light a bidi. He would broom and clean the shop and sprinkle holy water from Ganges stored in a bottle that had become opaque with a layer of dust. Next he spread out the wooden stool and open a Bengali newspaper and start reading till his first customer arrived. I don’t know how far had he studied, but by the day’s end he would have finished reading every inch of that paper. So he had an opinion about everything.
He was a part of our community that was inclusive of people from various strata of life. They were respected for their trade and taken seriously. More importantly they were treated like human beings. Nisith Pramanik or napith kaku was an elder member of the community whom I had learnt to respect and love. I remember when I passed my Madhyamik exam he had given me a free hair cut and massage. Strangely I never really got to know who else was there in his family during all my interactions! Then one day on returning from my college, I learnt he had died. He died in the shop on a summer afternoon soon after he had taken a lunch break. Later I had seen a burly man come and hang a big lock on the door of the shop. It was later sold off. My father had told me his son was a government employee and did not want to continue in the trade.
With that ‘Make-Up Art Salun’ was gone and gone one of those men who would slowly fade from being a part of a community to become part of an industry. Now when I get my hair cut I receive the best that money can buy, but somehow I miss those long twined fingers, the loving touch and warmth of a barber for whom I was chotobabu.