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STORY

The life saver

G.B.Prabhat


BEFORE the advent of male vanity, the local barbershop used to be a regaling hotspot. The haircut was then a simple ritual to be performed every two months or so to avoid a barbarous appearance. The client would be too shy and embarrassed to stare at the mirror and display his interest in himself. All he would spare was the occasional stealthy glance to ensure that he wasn't going to look like a drenched rat at the end of it all. Since the barber gave everybody the same haircut, his practised hand took care of his job without involving his mind. He used his mental capacity, thus spared, to turn raconteur and juicy gossipmonger.

With the arrival of the new narcissism, men became singularly obsessed with their features. They had no time now for neighbourhood gossip. My old barber, astute entrepreneur that he was, turned his barber shop into a salon, and later into a beauty parlour for men. Naοve blokes like me continued to think men were supposed to be handsome.

The barber could no longer trust his practised hand to automatically do its standard job. He had to carefully attend to each customer's fastidious demands. Gossip, therefore, died and a sepulchral silence descended on the shop except for the customers' self-obsessed questions and the barber's answers. The local newspapers, which used to lie in disarray, disappeared. In their place appeared glossy film and fashion magazines, and even boring business journals. A pantheon of fascinating bottles of cosmetics replaced the lone alum stone, for decades the balm for the face after it had endured the bloody treatment of a shave with a knife.

Unlike earlier when I could walk into the shop any time I pleased, I now had to call a receptionist and fix up an appointment. My barber, with his newfound affluence, had hired an attractive woman for this position. She was seated in the foyer, and when she was not fixing appointments, was busy filing her nails. She referred to him as "the chief hairdresser," not "the barber."

When I entered his shop last month, I saw my barber straddling two jobs. His assistant appeared to be on leave. In one seat, was a balding man with a few strands of hair combed across his shining pate. The barber was carefully dyeing each strand. In the next seat was a man with short-cropped hair. His reflection showed his entire face covered in white. I was momentarily spooked to find cucumber slices where his eyes should have been. I was by now educated enough to know the man was undergoing a procedure called "facial."

"Let me finish with these gentlemen," my barber called out to me. "Take your time," I said, and settled down to watch the fun.

"Good progress since last time, sir," the barber said to the bald man. "I can see growth of many small but new hairs." Without lifting his head, the bald man responded, "I have been regularly using the hair cream you recommended. You really think there are new hairs?"

"Without a doubt," the barber asserted. "With 30 years experience, I can always tell when I see new hair. Besides, I have been handling your hair for the last 20 years. I know the difference. That hair cream has worked for many people, not everybody. Clearly in your case it seems to be working."

A suppressed smile appeared on the bald man's face while I watched with incredulity. I was no trichologist, but I knew for certain that this bald man wasn't getting any new hair.

"How much does hair growth improve in cases when the hair cream works?" the bald man ventured to ask. "Sir, you won't believe this. In some cases, when all hope was lost, I have seen heads full of hair that I was worried those fellows would start looking like grizzlies."

The bald man smiled his suppressed smile again. "No guarantees though," the barber warned. "Of course, I understand. But you feel my hair is coming back?"

"I think so," the barber reassured. The barber carefully restored the dyed hair, strand by strand. He hastily pocketed the two Rs. 100 notes the bald man discreetly held out.

He then turned to the man with the white-coated face. He removed the cucumber slices and sponged off the coating. The man in the seat must have been past 60. His skin was irredeemably wrinkled. "There. Your skin looks glorious." The barber made a grandiose declaration.

The cropped-hair man was sceptical. "But the crow's-feet, and the wrinkles around my mouth?"

"Don't worry, sir. They take time coming, they take time going."

"My skin specialist has suggested Botox injections. What do you think?" he asked the barber. "No sir." The barber was emphatic. "That's for the hopeless. Not for people with radiant skin like you."

He proceeded to pinch the cheek of his customer and then let the skin go. "Look at the health of your skin. It goes right back to its place. No sir, no Botox for you. You repeat this facial every two weeks. See the effect."

Another Rs. 200 exchanged hands, and the man with the closely cropped hair was gone. The barber cleaned the seat and tapped it. I clambered into it. "You were lying to them, weren't you?" I finally confronted him, now that we were alone. "No," he said, without meeting my eyes. "I know you for the last 15 years. You were lying," I insisted. Seeing my stern glare, he gave in. "Yes, I was."

"Haven't you heard of such a thing as professional integrity? You lied for the large tips, didn't you?" I asked with disgust.

He sighed and was silent for a long moment before he answered. "I didn't lie for the tip. That bald gentleman? He is a cardiac surgeon. Everyday he saves many lives. That too, infants with complicated heart problems. If the patient is poor, he takes no money. Who do you think the gentleman with the wrinkled skin was? He was a Colonel in the army. He has fought on our borders many times. Again, has saved so many lives. What can a poor barber do? He can only lie."

G.B. Prabhat writes fiction and non-fiction. He is Director-Consulting and Enterprise Solutions, Satyam Computer Services Ltd. E-mail him at gbprabhat@gmail.com.

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