Barber is an indispensable service provider. He is needed on a day today basis mostly for hair-cut. Till recently one would go to him for shave as well. In good old days, when life was simple and distances were short, he would pay a visit to a house to undertake shave and offer a head & neck massage on the one hand and back & feet on the other. While for a 'cut', a visit to a Barber's shop is a must, shaving has become a self performed activity and for any pain or ache, one takes recourse to the pain killers, prescribed or self-medicated.
Barber or Thakur or Hajjam has been and will be an integral part of the birth, Upanayan (sacred thread ritual), marriage and death ceremonies in a religious minded and tradition bound Hindu family set up. Apart from playing second fiddle to the more respect commanding Brahmin priest, he tries to cajole the head of a family to provide him additional 'tips' vis-a-vis his usual ‘entitlement’. He also expects to receive patronage if the basic tenets of age old Jajmani system are to be invoked in letter and spirit.
While the priests confine themselves to their own households and temples, a Barber, on an average, is in a position to set up his own shop or sit on foot-path to earn his livelihood. When we were still predominantly rural economy, they would move from house to house to perform various rituals. In the changed circumstances, they are mostly in a position to supplement their normal income by doing facials and dyeing of hair. It goes without saying that a Barber's place is synonymous with gossip and rumour mongering.
A Beauty Parlour perhaps could be termed as the latest, rather the upgraded version of a Barber's shop. Two differences, however, are noticeable-both men and women avail of services and there is no longer a caste bar on the person holding a scissor. An individual of any caste or class could be trained and perform functions of a beautician and the bar or taboo on women to have a hair-cut, facial, eye-brow make-up, pedicure or manicure is no longer there.
Coming to the experiences of the self, my visits to a Barber's shop are once in three months. That too merely for a cut of the grey hair that has managed to survive. Years ago when hair was dense and jet black, one would que up for a cut once in one and a half or two months. One did not have any fancy for a particular style as such. When multi-star movies began dominating the spectrum in the Seventies, one would not mind having long hair of Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Sanjeev Kumar or Sunil Dutt kind. For women, Sadhna cut will always be in fashion or style.
Jai Jawan,Jai Kisan Saloon in a prominent street of Main Road ,Ranchi had an 'expert' hair cutter cum dresser by the name of Ranjit. He would also pursue his Graduate studies, side by side. Being a student himself, he would easily strike a chord with the young generation and earn a sizeable sum for his family. One had all the time in the world to wait for two to three hours in order to have a 'crowning glory' of choice, courtesy him.
Two of my recent visits to a Barber's shop have prompted me to pen these lines. The first was in Bagdogra in West Bengal when I needed to shave my long beard after a gap of 11 days during the Shradh or Pitripaksh period. Ramprasad, the old, unassuming man in his late fifties offered me three kinds of services-Rs. 10/- for shave by soap, Rs.15/- by ordinary cream and Rs.20/- by the best cream at his disposal. Not to take any risk on the health front, I settled for the last one. He spared full twenty minutes and did his job nicely. I was having a shave in a shop after a long time and it was worth it. While the act was on, he did not pose any questions. However, my own queries revealed that with his meagre income of Rs.13,000/- a month, he had to support a large family. Being a resident of a suburban area, he of course had to pay relatively a low rent but 'business' per se, too was not lucrative all the time. Usual tale of irresponsible sons and duty bound & educated daughters were heard. Only career option for the latter was to 'push' them unwillingly into marriage at a relatively young age.
My last interface at a Barber's shop was perhaps more interesting. I visited Md.Mohsin at Tibet Road, Gangtok for the second time in four months. When I had visited last, I had faint memories of having got my first haircut of Gangtok at his very shop way back in September,1986. He confirmed during the course of congenial conversation that he was running his business at the same place for 40 years or so. From a modest rent of Rs.300/- per month, he was now required to cough up Rs.5,000/-. Apart from the sharp rise ,he appeared concerned about having no fixed periodicity for an enhancement. Mostly nowadays, same would happen once a year or at an interval of 18 months. Another issue according to him was lack of legal support to the petty tenants like him as compared to his brethren in West Bengal or Bihar, wherein they could not be evicted easily.
On the family front, he had married off his two daughters, while his eldest son not trained as a Barber but as a Welder in Delhi, was waiting at Mumbai to grab a high income job opportunity in the lucrative pockets of the Middle East. His other two sons were in the 9th and 6th Class respectively at a village in Muzaffarpur Dist. of Bihar. It is a common practice in all such families that the head earns a hard living away from home while the wife keeps the home fire burning by looking after the children and the sub-divided and fragmented pieces of agricultural land, all alone.
My being born in Muzaffarpur led Mohsin to perform his act with more care and interest. In a package of Rs.50/-, as compared to Rs. 30/- at Bagdogra, he trimmed my moustache in addition to the hair-cut, Nonetheless, I decided to pay him additionally for the latter, having discovered a separate rate.
When I was leaving his shop after feeling fresh and relieved, it had turned dark and cold. Street was no longer abuzz with activity. While exchanging Bye Bye and Thank You, Mohsin did ask about my off-springs, When he heard that the only one which I had ,was already lost 3.5 years ago, he felt a pain deep in his heart. Expressing his fatherly instincts subsequent to a silence of few seconds, he uttered- "Whatever the Maalik (God) gives, we have to accept". I could not possibly disagree with him.