How close are close friends, really? As in, literally. Distance wise. Probably, depends on person to person & relationship to relationship. We have childhood friends who we don’t meet as often. And yet, we stay pretty close, all life. There are people who become friends in a professional setup, who we meet or speak to almost every day. Many a times, we extend this relationship after office hours & come close. And hence, we can surely call them good friends. And then there are people who come really close to you, quite often and yet we won’t call them friends. Long term maids, drivers, lift guards, security personnel etc. Physically, they are so close to us. But we avoid interacting with them in a very friendly way. Not sure why, but we just don’t.

Except, barbers or hair stylists, is how we have come to call them. Shafiq Chacha, a name that I remember; my father’s pet barber in Lucknow. From a time when I was yet to join boarding school. I remember Shafiq Chacha’s barber shop being probably a 7x7x6 feet wooden cabinet built over four wooden stumps. You had to walk up a not-so-stable, short, 3-4 step wooden ladder from the muddy sideroad to get to the sitting area. There was a single wooden slab running across the shop, on which were kept 4 mirrors. Opposite these mirrors were 4 large but slim wooden chairs. Invariably, 2 of the 4 chairs would always be broken or in a dilapidated state. Which would mean, Shafiq Chacha could attend to only two customers at a time. And I remember him attending to both together, mostly! Giving a shave to one, while the other would be getting his hair colored in mehendi color mixed in a muddy old cracked plastic bowl. Or it would be a man midway through a stalled haircut, because this to-be-shaved customer rushed in, getting late for a family function. The half hair cut headed guy may not have liked the interference but was waiting patiently, reading a fairly old film magazine, which in all probability was in Hindi. Not to forget, songs of Talat Mehmood, Manna Dey or Lata Taai playing non-stop over the radio. The radio in itself was a miracle that it was working. I would meet Shafiq Chacha probably once a month or even farther off. But he would very accurately remember the color of my t-shirt or shorts we met last. He knew my class, the name of my pet dog, my father’s Bajaj Chetak’s registration number & that I wanted to be an actor when I grew up. I visited him with my father for some time, before the so called “Chinese invasion” happened in the beauty industry. They came, opened “chinese salons” & I stopped going to Shafiq Chacha. I don’t why, but I don’t remember my Chinese salon lady’s name. But I still get reminded of Shafiq Chacha, the stale & moist smell which was a mix of V-John shaving cream, mehendi, an after shave spray & Shafiq Chacha’s ittar. And I still remember, Shafiq Chacha’s lazy smile over his pan masala smacked teeth. Mind you, we were not friends. Or were we?

Abbas ji, was my first barber in boarding school. And was with us till Cl VIII till he retired. Clear instruction from the Headmistress of junior school was that she should be able to see ‘heads’ of boys. Which basically meant full-on skin show, the true crew cut or the ‘katora cut’ as it was popularly called at that time. Soft bare skin of 7-8 yr olds, all across the head with 2 mm hair on the top. Was good in a way for me personally, though. Teachers could not hold much of my hair while thrashing me. Boys named on the hair cut list would come under the trimming machine of Abbas ji, starting Saturday evening & the whole of Sunday, in turns. The trimming machine of those times was a manual one, which Abbas ji kept shining like Tipu Sultan’s sword. It was But the best part of the time with Abbas ji’s was his talk show to console and cheer us up, the new joiners to school. And Abbas ji had different stories for different boys & for different days. On warm summer days, when we had sweat dripping from our head while he was clearing off bush of hair, he had a story of how some birds come over to the half open window to have water from his small brass bowl which he would keep to wet side lines of a boy’s head. Or during a chilly evening when it was icy cold winds, how you should wear the muffler over the back of the neck to save the naked head & the neck. He was a very friendly personality. But Abbas ji was never a friend. Or maybe, he was. We just never knew.

By the time Shakeel miyaan became our barber, times had changed. You could get away with not having a katora cut. The trimming machine had given way to a hair raising love triangle – between the scissor, the comb and the hair. In fact, there were times when you could get away without hair cut for months together, just by saying ‘Sir, have applied oil’, as an excuse, whenever your house master would catch you. Shakeel miyaan had fantastical stories about how boys became men because the way he styled their hair. Girls swooning over such boys was because Shakeel miyaan gave his love potion & hair lotion! He was a great story teller, no doubt. Cutting your hair, while literally breathing down your neck, he could make you feel like the next Ajay Devgn. Yes, he had loved “Phool aur Kaante” and the way Ajay’s hair was dressed. He had spotted a star long back! Shakeel ji came closer as he became our dormitory staff too. Those early morning & late night exchange of words is another close shave storyline.

All these men, never for a moment made you feel lonely. They knew every person who walks into their shop for a cut, needed comfort. The person needed to trust them who was responsible to make him look good. But, whether it was Shafiq Chacha, Abbas ji or Shakeel miyaan, they not just made us look good. They made us feel good. About us. About life.

– Kanishka Mallick (1996)


This piece was shared by Kanishka Mallick on  Nov 12, 2018 over personal messages.

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