Loud cantankerous music blares its way out of two enormous speakers connected to one pocket size stereo; the speakers, wooden and with cavernous apertures expected to woof, emit the kind of sound one was used to inside cars before the time of Bose. Kumar Sanu and Udit Narayan take turns to express love or the end of it on behalf of Ajay Devgan, Sunil Shetty, Akshay Kumar and other popular Hindi film heroes of the nineties. These are songs nobody admits to listen to anymore from films that nobody watches anymore. The audio cassettes from these films that T Series, Venus, TIPS and HMV sold in generous quantities have made mysterious disappearances over the years. This, here, is one of the last bastions of that era, mothballing itself from the transition the rest of the world has made.
A mirror runs the entire length of the wall and is faced by three of those amusingly shaped hair salon chairs that have not changed at least since I was born. A single leg protrudes from under the seat, broadening as it moves downwards, much like barstools. The seat is filled with cheap cotton wool and other assortments hidden by a squeaky layer of resin. There are knobs somewhere at the bottom that crank the seat up or plonk it down depending on the mismatch of one's height with that of the barber’s. There are, of course, special arrangements for kids who don’t fall into the prescribed height range of these chairs. Whenever a kid appears, accompanied by a doting father, the barber whisks out a wooden plank from one of the several shelves and drawers in the shop and sets it up on the chair’s armrest. The kid is then placed upon this plank and has to suffer in silence through the rest of his time in the salon.
Having patiently waited my turn for a quarter of an hour, I am finally beckoned by one of the two men manning the three chairs. Even as I walk up to the recently emptied chair and work my way into it, the barber swiftly slaps the dust and hair off the seat with a cloth caked with dust and hair. He then produces a white cloth that is to be tied round my neck and expected to function as an apron. The cloth has evidently been in use a few times since the start of the day and the man slaps it aggressively a few times to underline his regard for hygiene. ‘The usual’ I say and work commences.
A loyal consortium of retired or out of work men hangs around perennially, reading vernacular newspapers and tabloids, sipping tea and making lewd observations about the scantily clad women that appear in these publications. They’ve stuck around for years, these men, even as their children have grown, their wives aged and their parents withered and died. In the evenings, when the salon shuts down, they trudge back unwillingly home and squabble with their screaming wives about life and money. But in the salon they are kings, backslapping and cursing each other out of their miseries. For their fierce loyalty, these men are allowed to jump the queue, a strange privilege, considering that they will hang around the place the entire day anyway. They are sometimes offered complimentary tea but rarely ever, a free haircut.
In the middle of all this, I sit on the chair, staring at myself and others in the mirror while the man I scarcely know fiddles with scissors and other sharp instruments inches from my face. It is as helpless a state as one can get into; there is not a thing one can do if the barber suddenly develops Sweeney Todd like tendencies. It is, I confess, one of the less agreeable effects of watching films and reading literature in that one’s imagination seems to run wild in the most trivial matters, goaded on by the references and remembrances of outlandish events in similar settings. And so I pass the next few minutes remembering and visualizing everything from slasher films to torture porn, reasonably confident that such fate is unlikely to befall me and yet, sufficiently worked up, to fidget uncomfortably in the chair.
For all its dangers, the chair does afford me a peaceful time. At such times, I often become acutely aware of my physical self. It is astonishing how much discomfort can be attained by merely thinking about such things, once they are wrenched from the sub conscious into the light. How one’s arms rest on one’s lap, for example. Once one is aware that is where the arms are, there does not appear to be a correct way to keep them there. Or one’s jaws and how they are set. Are the upper and lower sets of teeth supposed to touch each other? Or is there normally a gap between them? If one lets the teeth touch, the jaws feel clenched and unnatural. When one draws them apart, the face appears awkwardly stretched. One tries out various combinations and is dismayed how difficult it is to remember how one has set one’s mouth since the day one was born. And one admires the mind’s fantastic ability to forget about its own body with such deftness as to let us not bother about these things all the time.
To take my mind away from my arms and jaws, I force it to think about something else and settle on what I should write about next as the most promising train of thought. The last time I wrote was a month ago when I wrote a two page story and that is not the kind of pace desirable when one harbours ambitions of publishing one’s works. I fumble with a few half baked ideas I’ve had for the past few weeks – about a man who falls behind the rest of the world by a day, a paedophile who laments how his greatest fear is to become a father and his greatest curse that his romances must always be transient or a man who undergoes a sex change operation and realizes it was a mistake and wants to change back. I make a mental note of researching on Google about the scientific viability or otherwise of such intentions. At some point, I convince myself, I shall work upon all of them. But for now, I feel too lazy to delve too deeply into these concepts. That is when it strikes me that I might as well write about the hair salon! I quickly do a mental feasibility check and conclude that there is enough shit that can be spewed on the matter. The next task is to carefully reconstruct the haircutting experience, observe and memorize important objects and points of interest around me and try and recall other relevant experiences and observations from past years. So I notice the chairs, the instruments, the stereo and the speakers and the other men in the salon. While this goes on, I also simultaneously ponder upon methods of introducing elements of seeming profundity into the piece, perhaps a paragraph on these men wasting themselves away. And then there must be inserted a couple of absurd observations that sound cute and appear interesting – the setting of the jaws maybe?