A Space for Writers of the World
Behind every cut, trim, and snip there is a story. As he sits for his hair cut, Ravi complains that his mother is too harsh on his young wife. Pushpa brings her teenage son for his first shave and says with pride that he is a “good clean boy.” I smell the cheap beedi cigarette on his breath and say nothing. His bloodshot eyes meet mine and we are silent co-conspirators.
Keeping secrets is a way of life for me. I nod and listen. So what if I sometimes help the Karmic Wheel of Life spin a little faster? Can earthly justice be wielded by a pair of scissors and a sharp razor? What do I know? I am just a simple village barber.
Like my father and his father before him, every morning I set up my shop on the side of the road between the tea stall and the chili pepper vendor. I spread the well-worn tarp on the dirt and arrange all my implements carefully around me. The tea shop owner supplies me with hot water in exchange for a free shave and a monthly haircut. The chili pepper vendor has a thick white beard and once in a while he will come over for a trim and in return give me a handful of fiery peppers. The peppers simmered in a pot of white rice will be my dinner.
My father married a washerwoman and used her bridal dowry to build a small hut consisting of just two rooms with a curtained off space for bathing and washing. One large room serves both as a sleeping area and a dining room. The other, smaller space is my kitchen with a kerosene stove and wood burning hearth. I use the public restroom for my other bodily needs. The public tap is just a few feet from my hut and every morning I fill a plastic pail with cool water. I have never been tempted to marry and so I live a solitary life. Some might think I am lonely but except at night I am rarely alone.
As the tropical sun sets behind the large banyan tree in the square, the village men make their way to my front yard. You see, I am good at scrounging and have found some treasures at the local dump. The men sit on old sofas with missing arm rests and chairs with wobbly legs. Others sit on bamboo mats. The air is thick with beedi smoke, but it keeps the mosquitos away. Sometimes the women bring us plates of white rice and fried fish or crunchy noodles with spicy peanuts. Often we have loud arguments about political candidates or the merits of shopping in the newly opened supermarket versus buying from the small vendors. Some evenings we are content to sit and listen to the night sounds – the lonely hoot of an owl, the whoosh of bat wings or the trilling of a far off nightingale. These gatherings at dusk fill the empty spot in my heart but I am always glad to go inside to my own bed. I think about the day’s customers and their life stories as my eyelids grow heavy and I fall asleep.
Morning comes with the crowing of the roosters, welcoming the day and the rising sun with loud vigor. Soon I hear women walking by to fill brass pots from the public tap. I know it is time for me to get up and start my own day. I pick up my bag and plastic bucket and walk down the narrow path. I climb the broad concrete steps from my hut to the marketplace.
My first customer is a grizzled farmer who reeks of earth and farm animals. But this honest smell doesn’t bother me and I wash my sharp razor in the bucket of hot water and quickly lather up the elderly man. I shave his leathered cheeks and when I’m done, they are smooth and shiny. The old man runs a gnarled hand over his chin and grunts in approval and hands me a coin.
With this first bit of money I gesture to the tea boy who hurries over with a steaming glass mug of milky sweet tea. Business starts slow but picks up as the nearby villagers wake up and venture into the market for groceries. I shave, trim, and cut all morning and my change purse, tucked into my waist, is pleasantly full by mid-day. I treat myself to a meal at the café down the street. Rice, vegetables, and fried fish make a satisfying lunch.
In the afternoon I make my monthly trip to the Big House where I shave the men and attend to the women. The largest landowner in the village is Sriman Nair who owns the biggest house. This teak and stone structure has been called Big House for generations.
The men from my family have been barbers to the residents of the Big House for many decades. Before his death, my father had given me some instructions.
“Don’t look at the women in the eye and don’t interact with any of them. We are just there to serve their needs.”
But of course I did not heed my father’s advice. Over the years, I slowly became friends with the women, and their joys and sorrows became my own.
There are no men needing a shave today, and I’m shown into the inner courtyard of the spacious house. The women flutter around me like colorful birds. Most are dressed in expensive silk saris that swirl around them like butterfly wings. Even the widows in pure white robes and shaved heads are beautiful to me.
Today I trim Sarada’s long black hair and pluck her eyebrows. One of the widows wants her head shaved.
Young Mala is getting married next week, an older woman tells me, and she needs special care. I trim Mala’s hair and shave her armpits.
I give her some turmeric and mung bean paste to use on her face for a glowing complexion. She thanks me with a soft voice. She is like a delicate jasmine bud and I pray the future will not crush her. Life is sometimes cruel to such fragile beauty.
Rukumani comes over with a broad smile on her homely face. She holds a protective hand over her stomach, a new life growing beneath the cotton sari. I smile and offer her my good wishes.
I went to the village priest as you suggested, she says, and offered a special Pooja to the Goddess Devi.
Did she go to the old priest or the young one, I wonder. It is not my business and I am happy for her new joy.
During my father’s time as the Big House barber, he trimmed braids, removed some facial hair and shaved an armpit or two. Nowadays, the younger wives want their legs shaved and eye brows plucked.
A few years ago one of the women had a boil on her pubic area. Perhaps trimming some of the hair would help it heal, she said to me. So I did. I also showed her how to use a warm vinegar compress to help soothe the boil. She must have told others and soon I had shy requests from women who wanted me to clip their pubic hairs.
Today I have two requests to crop those fine curly hairs. I am always conscious of the great trust these women place in me as they sit with their legs open wide. Their innermost secrets framed in the V-shape of their legs. There is no fear or sexual tension in their posture. As I work I can now distinguish each woman’s unique musky aroma.
I carefully snip and clip, my nose filled with the heady forbidden scents. This is the very wellspring of creation, the seat of deep primordial feminine Shakti or energy. It has given birth to kingdoms and empires. Dynasties have been created here. What force exists in such dark privacy that has driven kings, emperors and ordinary men to do incredibly great and stupid things? I feel as if an extraordinary secret is just a snip away. I am so close to that marvelous source of all truth.
But it always eludes me like an unsung song or familiar scent from childhood.
I am, after all, a poor barber. What makes me qualified to discover the greatness of the Goddess?
I am almost done when I realize I have not yet seen one of my favorite women.
“Where is Maruthi?” I ask.
She is small, plump, and always cheerful.
The older widows look at each other with sorrow in their eyes. She is resting, they say. My heart sinks. Resting in the middle of the day can only mean one thing.
Can I see her, I ask?
One widow shrugs and gestures to me and I follow her down a long hallway. We are now in the innermost part of the house and I step over the high teak doorstep and enter a darkened bedroom. The widow lights a kerosene lamp which fills the room with golden light and the sharp scent of the fuel.
I hear a groan from the bed.
Maruthi kutty, I whisper.
The figure in the bed turns away from the light but not before I catch a glimpse of a black eye and swollen jaw.
My anger for her pain is a like a lump of hard clay in my chest. I soothe her with words and help her sip some hot herbal tea to ease the pain and bruising.
“Please sing to me,” she says in a raw voice.
I don’t know why the ladies like my raspy voice but they are always asking me to sing to them.
So I take her hand in mine and sing to poor broken Maruthi about a princess and her prince who proved his love in a thousand ways. He brings her beautiful swans, a golden harp, and sweet apples. But she rejects all his gifts and his love. In despair the young prince flings himself off a cliff. It is a sad tale of lost love.
As I sing I can see the trail of tears seep from Maruthi’s closed eyelids. But sorrow is exhausting and soon she falls asleep. I gently lay down her hand and brush a curly tendril from her forehead. I am glad to leave the room that reeks of dark secrets, pain, and twisted love.
Outside the women are quiet and watch me carefully. I smile at them. Their secret is safe with me. They all seem to sigh in relief. They whisper of Karma and the Great Wheel of Life. I nod and pretend to understand. The women ply me with cool coconut water and sweets dripping in sugary syrup. They press packages of rice, more sweets, and bananas. I accept these gifts. I am always humbled by the graceful resilience of these women. Wealth and walls may protect them from the grim world, but it cannot shelter them from life’s cruelties.
That evening I feast on the leftovers. The syrupy sweets turn to ashes in my mouth when I recall Maruthi’s swollen face. Are there other bruises on her soft body, hidden under the folds of the sari? Those six yards of cotton or silk can conceal a myriad of heartaches. A sari always keeps its tantalizing secrets.
But life goes on. The next morning I am at my usual spot on the roadside. The sky is a harsh white and the day promises to be particularly hot and humid. I am thankful for the large black umbrella’s shade.
I had barely sat down when the cart pulling a load of human waste from the public toilet rolls by my stall. The driver is careless and when the cart wheels hit a pothole, I can feel foul drops land around me. I yell at the driver, who grins down at me. But he urges his oxen on and the stench and flies fade with him.
I look down in disgust at the smelly specks on my tarp. I use an old rag and some hot water and soap to wipe it clean. There is a fine sprinkling of befouled droplets on my newly sharpened razor and I am about to wash it when I notice I have a customer. I turn to tell him to please wait a moment while I clean my tools. Then I look up and my gaze locks with the dark eyes of Maruthi’s husband. I glance down at his hands. The knuckles are red and swollen. Did he get those injuries while inflicting pain on my Maruthi?
My heart is like a caged bird, beating frantically against my rib cage.
The world slows down and I move as if in a trance. The street sounds fade and nothing exists in my universe except the dirty razor and smirking face of Maruthi’s abuser.
Without conscious thought or purpose I pick up the tainted razor and proceed to shave his hairy face. The nick is small and under the side burns. I staunch the few droplets of blood and there is no evidence of the cut. He leaves, staring down at me with arrogance and belligerence. Does he suspect?
The world starts spinning again and once more I can hear the usual street sounds of the vendors shouting, the honking of scooters, the tea stall owner spitting his phlegm and the clacking of tea cups. I breathe in deeply and take a whiff of the sharp scent of crushed chili peppers and milky sweetness of boiled tea.
Weeks later I hear that Maruthi’s husband is ill with a blood infection and the village doctor can do nothing for him. I sit back on my heels. Maruthi will trade her colorful silk sari for a plain white one. Will I have to cut off her long curly locks and shave her head? I bow my head between my knees. What have I done?
I know nothing of Karma or the Wheel of Life.
After all, I am just a simple village barber.