Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The last male domain....

I confess that I am dismayed by the proliferation of new institutions such as the unisex beauty parlours and family saloons. One, they threaten to drive to extinction that most Malgudian of characters- the local barber. Two, they strike at the very foundation of the last male bastion left. Till recently, the barber shop remained the only place – apart from the Gents Toilet- where ministers, politicians, sportsmen, farmers and businessmen alike were allowed entry,solely on the strength of their being men and to bask in the exclusivity of the surroundings, unspoilt by female presence.

Now I am no misogynist and am all for gender parity, equal space and all that. But there are times when men like to be left alone with the boys and women with the girls. The barber shop provided such a sanctuary to men, while women had their own parlours and spas ,where they were left contentedly alone . This arrangement worked very well for both sexes for centuries and there was absolutely no reason to disturb the status quo ante.

So, I view these new-fangled parlours with utter contempt and remain steadfast in my loyalty to Nataraj, the barber-round-the-corner. Once a month, with unfailing regularity, an inner voice tells me that I must proceed in the direction of the barber shop and I follow its diktat unquestioningly, in a hypnotic trance. There are many mysteries that science has not provided answers for. My monthly sleep-walk to the barber’s is one such puzzle.

Nataraj’s methods are simple but effective. Different strokes for different folks, is his motto. Not only in his cutting technique which has to suit the individual, but also in gauging the customer’s mood and temperament and adopting the appropriate conversational style. I have seen him play various roles – keen listener to a gregarious soul, eager story-teller to the more reclusive, shrewd commentator to the uninformed, astute advisor to ranting teenagers, sharp critic of wayward adolescents ,– moving from one role to the next , as in a rapid slide show, with effortless ease.

Isn’t he worried that these deluxe parlours and saloons started by the MNCS and other corporates would eat into his business ? Nataraj dismisses this suggestion with complete disdain.. “ These places employ smart-looking, over-paid youngsters with fancy titles like hair-stylists, hair-engineers and hair-doctors and think they can steam-roll us into extinction. It is not as simple as that. Customers look for much more than just a hair-cut, when they come here.”.

He continued, “You can send your driver to pick up groceries, to pay your water tax and to get your watch repaired. But do you realize that hair-cut is one of the few activities that you can’t delegate to your driver and you need to physically present yourself at the barber’s shop ? This creates a special and sacred bond between the barber and the barbee. Big industrialists who cannot be accessed at all in their lush offices become my captive listeners when they are seated in this chair. Many of them pour out intimate family secrets to me. Teenagers who can’t confide to their parents find in me a father-figure to let out minute details of their love life. Why, even the DIG of Police is my customer and has shared some vignettes of the interesting crimes that he has been investigating. Such is the clout we wield. Such is the status we enjoy”.

“ Take you, as an example, sir” he went on, “ I have seen you on your morning walk on Boat Club Road, in a pensive mood, probably worried what the day has in store for you, and giving the clear signal that you do not want to be disturbed from your reverie. Yet, here. in my shop, you are completely relaxed and are in a mood to open out and engage in pleasant conversation with me. This is what makes us special and irreplaceable. We are certainly not an endangered species yet. “

I hope these don’t turn out to be famous last words, I thought to myself as I watched Nataraj usher in his next customer making the latter feel that he was ascending a throne for his coronation.

May his tribe survive and flourish.

1 comment:

Pareshaan said...

Indeed, I still remember Himalaya's war vet barber in Delhi, Topaz in Chennai (one of the best Barber shops and Barber in India, if I say so myself), and Ted and Donzy, my barbers in the states. All of them were fascinating people and none of them were gay or metrosexual.
Unfortunately this list will not grow, as I have lost all my hair at the tender age of 26. Nature did for me what the MNC gay barbers could not, deprive me of my monthly coronation at the Barber's.