“Kunjko” this was followed by a more strident “Kunjko” and a firm push on the head as he proceeds to work on me. This was a routine followed every two months or so as I was growing up. Whenever it was due, I would be asked, nay, nagged into going to this establishment for the periodic exercise. Establishment was an overstatement. It was just a shop among many that lined the building opposite the Lake Market second gate. It was located just next to the eating shed serving fish and rice to most of the market dwellers and used to cost a pittance.
I approach this shop that has a saloon type swing half door with coloured and patterned glass on the four panels that it is made up of. As you step in and the swing door creaks to a stop after a couple of oscillations and your eyes adjust to the lights or lack of it inside, you see to your left a long bench meant for the waiting. Bengali newspapers mostly predated lie in various forms of undress. A couple of old timers sit around and are reading and discussing the days politics or more importantly the scores of the previous days soccer matches between their favourite Mohan Bagan, East Bengal, Mohammedan Sporting or Sporting Union or discussing with intense fervour the unfairness of missing an all important chance on the sporting field. This bench is located below a couple of large mirrors that are placed on a slant.
As you swivel to the right you see four chairs in various stages of repair. One of them Is upholstered but has seen better days. The other three are wooden one with arms and a stick shaped like a T, projecting out from its back. This can be moved up and down and can be fixed at a particular height with the help of a nail tied to a string, that is inserted in one of the several holes along the spine of the stick. This restrains the stick for the duration of the procedure.
As I am short, I climb up on the chair on which a wooden plank has been placed and on seating myself, I notice the long wooden shelf that run along the length of the right wall right below the row of mirrors. Equidistantly placed are four wooden drawers that is constantly opened and closed during the course of the day. The first three drawers contain almost similar tools and the shelves contain items that are essential to the job in question, as you may have guessed by now is a typical barber shop of the 80’s. There are combs, scissors with a thumb support, cakes of soap for lather, soft shaving brushes and the most dangerous looking straight cut throat razor that flips open and close between scales. Another strange equipment that was observed was a manual chopper that has two handles, when pressed rapidly moves two sets of blades to trip large tracts of hair from hair or beard. There are also powders that are used post a haircut with a soft brush and a piece of alum that when wetted and applied on a face post a shave gives a mild sting as it helps to disinfect and soothes the skin.
The rotund individual on the ubiquitous “genji” and a “paijama” takes out a cloth from under the shelf and swings it around my small frame tying a knot around the back of my neck. He then proceeds to shorn my hair to a “short” size, without any recommendation from me. He first uses the comb and scissors to vigorously chop of all excess hair from around the head, then uses the chopper around the edges of the back and ears. He remove the shining razor and goes to the door where a leather belt or strop is hung and moves it deliberately to get a finer edge. Using this, he proceeds to provide a definite edge to the hairline over the ears and neck after dabbing the area with water using his fingertips. He finishes by combing my hair and shows me the result by using a hand held mirror or the large mirror on the back. The entire exercise is completed by flicking the small “gamcha” on the upper body after the cloth that covered me was removed. This was my cue to hand over the princely sum of Rs. 1.25 which grew subsequently over the years. This amount went into the farthest drawer and a notation was made on a book which was kept there under the person’s name. I jump of the seat on to the chair and using the foot extension at the bottom make my way out of the swinging doors to the noisy street outside.
A more economical version of the barber shop was nicknamed Italian Saloon. This operated from the pavement and the customer holds the mirror in his hand, the cloth makes way for a double page newspaper with a hole for the head, the barber sits on a makeshift stool of old battery case and the customer sits on a stack of bricks or “iith” as they say in Bengali, and hence the nomenclature.
The term used in the beginning was the only thing he knew in Tamil for all the boys. It was his take on “Kunijikko” meaning “put your head down” as he went about his job.
This thank you goes out to Nimaida for all the “boy-cuts” of my childhood and to Adinarayan for the haircuts of my children at the lane beside our house near Gangamma temple in Bengaluru.
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