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Pandemic ended my rendezvous with the barber

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K S S Pillai

Among those affected most by the current pandemic are barbershops and beauty parlours. I used to look forward to the once-a-month visit to my barber, where I could get a haircut and a vigorous massage of my head in addition to becoming privy to the secret lives of some of the residents of our housing colony.

All that has become things of the past as the hairdressers are considered super spreaders of the virus. Though they may wear masks, cutting your hair or shaving your face from a distance of six feet is impossible.

The present situation reminds me of our village barber Tom, who used to offer home services during my childhood. He would announce his presence by a deferential cough and wait for my father to emerge from the house and sit under the mango tree for his haircut and shave.

Though ancient-looking with a couple of missing front teeth, his wrinkled hands were always steady while holding a pair of scissors or a razor. Despite Benjamin Franklin’s warning about the danger of trusting young doctors and old barbers, the elders seemed to have full faith in him and did not hesitate to bow their heads before him.

Perhaps they knew that barbers used to belong to a highly respected stratum in the society in countries like Egypt and that they performed religious ceremonies like weddings and baptisms and doubled as surgeons who pulled teeth, set broken bones and performed bloodletting where patients would be cut ‘to bleed out illness in the body’.

Tom knew when the turn of every customer came for a shave or haircut. You could expect him at your doorstep on the due date. He carried a small bundle containing the essential tools of his trade: a pair of scissors, a razor, a couple of combs, a sharpening stone, a brass bowl, and a piece of soap. He also carried a small mirror for his customers to monitor his handiwork and give instructions, if any.

He was a reliable newsmonger with both his ears to the ground. If you wanted to know anything about anybody in the village, you had only to ask him. By the time he finished the hair-cutting or shaving, you would have up-to-date information on the subject of your interest.

Even during those days, the younger generation used to patronize a couple of barbershops in the town, which had swivel chairs, large mirrors in the front and back, ceiling fans, and photographs of cine stars with different hair-styles so that you could choose any of them.

There was also a newspaper and some periodicals kept for those who waited for their turn.

Not that Tom’s profession was risk-free. I remember an incident when my father almost thrashed him for nicking his face. Though Tom had tried to stem the flow of blood by pressing the affected area with his fingers, he was not successful. Father was so enraged at the sting and the sight of blood that he threatened Tom with breaking every bone in his body if he dared to come to the area in the future.

Tom had the presence of mind to apologize profusely before leaving hurriedly, even without waiting for his wages. My father’s anger was, however, short-lived when he found that the injury was superficial, and when Tom presented himself after a week, there was no reference to the incident.

(The author is a retired professor of English. His contributes to various newspapers at the national and regional level)

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