Half way down Mullingar Hill was a barber that we used for years. He also did the haircuts at Hostel so he was used to doing the hair of Europeans. In fact, he pretty much had a corner on the market. The shop was perhaps twelve feet deep and eight wide. There were two chairs in front of mirrors, and a bench against the wall behind where customers could wait. The mirrors were always in need of cleaning and in spots the silvering had come off. The place was shopworn and a bit dingy in spite of the fact the entire front was open to the outside and let in plenty of light.
In the corner was hot water for shaves. On the wall was a razor strop. A customer would come in with four or five days of growth, significant stubble, and wait his turn. For a small, very small, sum the barber would throw a grimy sheet over him and the customer would be leaned back, the shaving brush dipped in hot water, lathered up furiously in a soap dish, and then followed several minutes of stroking and lathering on the face. The straight razor was stropped and the face shaved. The process took as long as a haircut but was, for some reason, much cheaper.
As soon as I had peach fuzz enough to start shaving I thought it would be nice to have a shave. I went down, sat in line, got in the chair and he thought it was for a haircut. No, I wanted a shave. The barber demonstrated significant professionalism by not laughing, although I thought I detected a snicker on the bench behind me. The process felt rather good. It was more than a shave–it was also facial massage.
But I had been under the razor before I started shaving. One winter day as a sophomore, shortly after going down day, I decided to shave my head bald. No reason. Just wanted to. So I did. And I learned a new Hindi word that day, ganja, which means bald. I climbed into the chair and told him what I wanted. He cut it very short. I told him, no, off, all off. “Ganja? Bilkul ganja?” And my response was, “ji ha, naii sahib, bilkul “ (“You bet, Mr. Barber Man, completely”). So he got out the shaving mug and hot water, stropped the razor and with considerable chuckling and laughing by the customers at this idiot white kid, he did just what I asked.
Indians do not typically shave their heads except for religious occasions or as a sign of mourning. This was obviously neither. It was a lark. Which made it all the more funny to them.
It was chilly out and I had the foresight to bring a woolen cap. I have a nearly round head, and without my hair, it looked truly like a soccer ball. When I got home Sabitri (the lady who did housekeeping for us) was cleaning the floor. The way she did this was to hunch down in a squat and shuffle along as she swept, as only an Indian can do. She was in the kitchen sweeping when I came in. I got her attention and told her to look, which she did, as I snapped off my cap. Her eyes bugged out and she fell over on her back laughing.
The novelty wore off rather quickly. Uncle Ralph took a picture of me at church. My folks never said anything (which must have been a lesson in lip-biting). And I had three months to grow it back before school began.
The first person I ever saw die happened when I was sitting in a barber’s chair. Different barber, down at the corner near Janki Das. I was sitting there in the middle of a haircut when a large 2-ton army truck made the corner and out of the corner of the mirror I watched as a Pahari man slipped and fell in the gutter. Out of my sight the back wheels of the truck ran over his head. There was a lot of commotion. I leaped from the chair and everyone stood around doing nothing. Clearly the poor chap was seriously, seriously injured.
I got a couple of men and we pulled him on to the street. The truck stopped, the driver got out, had a look, got back in and drove off. Nothing he could do. If anyone wanted to contact him it would be easy to find him, as there was only one truck like this in the entire area. The Pahari man was convulsing. Blood was oozing out of his ear, along with what turned out to be a portion of his brains.
Several men helped me lift him off the road and Janki Das, the silversmith, allowed me to stretch him out on his shop floor; likely violating caste taboos, but nobody said anything. I called Uncle Wayne (Dr. Wertz) at the hospital and told him what happened.
There were a few phones around at that time, and amazingly they sometimes worked. He said he would come as soon as he could but he did not hold out much hope for the chap based on my description of what happened. The convulsions, spasmodic jerking, continued. I went back and got the rest of my hair cut in quick order. An hour after I called, Uncle Wayne drove up in his blue Jeep station wagon that often doubled as an ambulance. No one, no one, knew this fellow on the floor, and no one seemed to care. In India this was not unusual at all. You care for the people you know and love. Everyone else could die in the gutter and no one took much notice. Uncle Wayne examined him and told me quietly that he was basically dead already. And as we drove him to the hospital he died.
Eventually someone from his village would come looking for him. Asking around. And they would be told. The family would collect the body and take it to a burning ghat and cremate it. Finish.
The best part of a haircut was not the haircut. It was what came after. What came after was a massage. Sometimes a whole upper body massage, but mostly a head massage. He would take a spray bottle of water and wet down the hair. Then slowly but vigorously he would begin his message which involved finger tips, knuckles, full pressure from the palms, kneading, rapping, and every now and then his fingers would go around the ears, up the forehead, down the nose, across the upper lips and back to the neck. It was sheer pleasure.
And it always brought me back.