Like the rest of humanity residing on the wrong side of seventy, I often lament over the good old days when a family physician visited your home. Somewhat in the manner of a dear old friend, he smiled and briefly chatted during visits, and these constituted the best part of the cure. But he prescribed medicines too, usually referred to as mixtures. They were liquids of varying shades and colours, which well-trained compounders in pharmacies served in corked up bottles. On the body of the bottle was pasted a slim strip of paper, whose sides were carefully snipped off at regular intervals to mark the doses for the medicine. There must have been a simple technique the compounder employed to produce the markers, whose total lengths as well as the sizes of the tabs that indicated the quantum of the mixture in each dose varied across bottles, depending presumably on their sizes and the intensity of one’s illness. I am pretty sure that they spent quality time with a pair of scissors and a paper roll designing the markers. The mixture preparation art with the clearly demarcated dosages glued to the bottles has disappeared completely with the arrival of proprietary medicines. But then so has the family physician.
The physician was not the only example of the species that visited your home. I remember Hari in this connection, from seventy odd years ago. He was the first barber I came across in my life and I realise now to my surprise that Hari is an anagram of hair! I doubt though that his parents had named him Hari to initiate him to his profession. In fact I am not even sure if they knew what the word hair meant. On the other hand they might have known, for once in a while you did come across hair-cutting saloons even during those primitive days.
Hari was inseparable from his little wooden box of implements and knew precisely when his clients needed him for their haircuts. Like the compounder, Hari too started off his job with paper. Not the compounder’s spotless white roll, but an old sheet of newspaper that he borrowed from his client’s home. He spent at least ten minutes or so patiently folding up the sheet right down the middle, making the three sides of a page perfectly align with those of the facing page. Then he carefully selected a spot near the centre of the common side and carved off a semi-circular section around it with his scissors. When the pages were reopened, the semi-circle transformed into a circular hole large enough for any normal sized head to pass through. Finally, the perfectionist that he was, he slit up one side of the circle vertically downwards, a few inches or so, to give the thing the appearance of a shirt front (without button holes of course).
The garment, worn by his client seated on a chair, looked like a shirt of sorts, projecting on both sides over his shoulders. If there were two more holes, one to the right and one to the left of the shirt front, a person’s arms could well be pushed out through them, making the newsprint cover resemble a pillory from the middle ages advertising the imminent arrival of the printing machine. The shirt was meant to protect the best part of the torso of the person undergoing a haircut from the shreds of hair that soon began to travel downwards.
Once the newspaper cape was ready, he put on his nickel framed semi-usable glasses before shifting over to the actual business of hair-cutting. The haircut ceremony at our home invariably took place on the ground floor balcony facing the street. The newspaper clad client had to sit quietly for at least half an hour, announcing stale news from a few days ago to all interested passersby. Once the ceremony was over, Hari helped him slip out of his newspaper confinement, neatly folded it up again and carried it away. I don’t know what he did with it, but it is unlikely that he used it for bedtime reading.
He was happy with his dark wooden box, containing a pair or two of hair-cutting scissors, a time-tested razor, a couple of not so clean looking combs with missing teeth, a single pair of vintage clippers, and almost invariably a tin framed mini-mirror, for clients who had to be convinced that they had received value for money. He was slim and clad invariably in a once white dhoti and shirt and sported silvery hair with occasional patches of grey. As a child, I used to be afraid of the razor and insisted that he used the clippers alone instead of shaving the back of my neck with his razor. He wore a constant smile on his wrinkled, sunburnt face however, and assured me that there was nothing to worry about. I don’t think he could convince me, but I couldn’t persuade him either.
Hari charged a sum that could not have exceeded today’s equivalent of 50 paise. Once the job was over, he released his captives from newspaper confinement and invariably parted with a wisdom filled advice on the way to take a bath after a hair-cut. “Start off by pouring pots full of water over your head to wash off the hair sticking to your body. That will clean you up,” I might have followed his counsel, but cannot recall anymore if it brought me success.
My memory suggests that he was the same old man, from the very first day of our acquaintance to the last, and that could have been several years. In fact, I strongly suspect that he was born old, but unlike Benjamin Button, continued to stay old till he died. I don’t know where he died, except that once he had passed away, his son, Panna, showed up, claiming his right to take charge of his father’s business. For some reason though, he didn’t continue for too long. Either he died from natural causes or he lost out to the slowly developing barber shop culture. And I distinctly remember that he had not mastered the technique of transforming newspapers into shirts.
Hari with his newspaper capes took a final curtain call many years ago. But newspapers still exist along with their home delivery service. This brings Sharma to my mind. Sharma used to deliver newspapers to my home, a silent and never complaining person. Unlike Hari’s wooden box, Sharma had a bicycle and he cycled around the locality with his daily newspapers. He was well-informed about our preferences and every morning, as soon as I opened the front door, I found all the four newspapers I regularly subscribe to waiting at the entrance. His specialization was not limited to newspapers alone. He showed up during festival seasons with a list of annual issues of popular magazines, which my wife enjoyed reading. And once every month, he came up with his bill at a late morning hour when he knew we couldn’t be asleep. He was particularly helpful during emergencies as well. Once in a while I found out somewhat late in the morning that I needed the day’s edition of a paper I did not normally buy. Sharma had left his phone number with me and all I had to do was give him a ring. The issue I was looking for arrived soon enough.
Old time residents in my locality told me that Sharma’s did not live an enviable life. He was a bachelor and took charge of a bunch of useless nephews his brothers had left behind them. So, Sharma spent his life caring for the nephews and probably their mothers as well. Once in a while he used to go back to his native village for a vacation, asking his nephews to take charge of the newspaper delivery to his regulars. The nephews though were not dependable and the newspapers arrived at my home with random gaps. This was most annoying and we complained to Sharma when he came back. He smiled in embarrassment and told us that he would try his best to have the matter resolved, but I didn’t think he had any control whatsoever over the nephews. Matters continued the same way over years. Yet, having known and trusted Sharma for so long, we continued to patronise him.
Till one day when we heard that he had sustained an accident in his old age and lost use of both legs. He was packed off promptly by the nephews. One of them showed up at my residence and informed me that he was going to ensure the regular delivery of newspapers then onwards. He failed to keep his promise of course and finally, out of sheer disgust, I engaged a different newspaper boy. This new boy is dependable and has not failed me so far.
In the meantime though, Sharma himself showed up all of a sudden, bearing a complaint from his nephew that he had not received his payment. Sharma was not able to walk at all and had to be helped by someone to climb up to my first floor apartment. It was a sad spectacle, but I had no choice other than explaining to him the nature of the problem. I was unwilling to accept Sharma’s nephew as his replacement. Sharma didn’t complain and left without demanding any payment whatsoever, though I offered to compensate him for the newspapers I never received.
I asked him whether he was planning to come back. In response, he drew my attention to his knees, which appeared to be permanently enclosed in strange looking casts bound to his knees with wires. That such a person could not possibly ride a bicycle was pretty obvious. Though newspapers will still be delivered to my home, Sharma at least has gone for good. Where to I have no idea, even though the word Ashram happens to be an anagram of Sharma.