What with Covid holding me hostage, the nature of daily happenings has undergone a transformation. Well, I still eat my meals of course, which is a sort of physical activity. I don’t mean chewing the food alone that I stuff into my mouth, causing muscular activities of sorts, of jaws, arms, fingers, or even eyes I suppose. Strange, I never thought of my eyes that way. The muscular aspect of my eyes I mean. But as I was saying, eating activates my entire body. Walking over from the bedroom or the study to the dining room. And then coming back where I arrived from when I showed up for dinner.
May be I should exercise a little more. Actually, I do exercise. With my brain, as I sit still in my chair. The brain engages me in weird thought exercises. Come to think of it, that’s a lot of exercise. More than what you do on a treadmill. The latter probably keeps Parkinson’s or whatever away. But thoughts, however irrelevant or useless, might save you from Alzheimer’s. I don’t know which is better. Lying in bed Parkinson’s doomed with your brain engaged in solving Fermat’s Last Problem. Or running up the staircase to ask your wife if she knew where to find your wife.
The other idle thought that I was assailed by today concerned the small, congested barber shop that has existed since my childhood days. Which was at least seventy years ago. In exactly that shape, more or less at the corner of Rash Behari Avenue and Lake View Road. Everything else has changed in the neighbourhood, except for that ancient barber shop. Shops adjacent to it dazzle in modern glory and the barber shop simply doesn’t belong there. Yet it stands there in dogged defiance. I recalled being attracted by that shop as a child, when barber shops were somewhat uncommon to come across. Barbers used to visit your home to give you a haircut. They don’t exist anymore. Where I lived, barber shops were quite uncommon. Except that this little one had propped up.
I don’t think I visited this shop more than once. May be twice. I was impressed by the chairs and the mirrors and the barber’s tools. And strangely enough, I remember the proprietor’s face. It was a longish face. But he was quite bald. This was odd, like a practising dentist without teeth. The bald barber was more expensive than the thick haired barber who visited our home. So, my mother probably didn’t let me visit the shop as often as I might have wished to.
I was standing near the shop one day, when things turned noisy. Adults in the neighbourhood ran towards the shop and someone emerged out of it. I didn’t know it then, but I do know now, that the man was totally drunk. He was big and people appeared to be somewhat scared of him. He was probably a local strongman and needed to be kept appeased. Now that I think of it, he probably didn’t pay for the barber’s services. That could have been the barber’s approach to stay out of harm’s way. The big man began to walk unsteadily and the strange thing was that his beard was covered with shaving foam. The bald barber soon emerged from the shop and followed him with a shaving brush dipped into a cup full of shaving lather in one hand and a shaving razor in the other. Since the goon’s beard was already lathered, I couldn’t comprehend why the barber was carrying the lather as well as the razor. It can’t be ruled out of course that the guy wished to be shaved as he sat on the pavement and that would need a second round of lathering. But I am really quite unsure. It might well have been the case that it was a haircut he had gone in for and the barber misunderstood him. A man asking for a haircut has a right to express indignation, drunken or otherwise, when instead of a haircut that he wanted, the barber prepared him for a shave, which he never wanted. Lastly, he could merely have planned to fall asleep in one of the barber’s chairs and be left in peace. People probably do not enjoy being woken up from a deep slumber by a barber trying to give them a shave.
The fellow tottered around for a while, yelling at the top of his voice till some of the people watching the scene intervened and managed to push him back into the shop, warily followed by the barber with the cup and the razor. I was endlessly shaken by the event. Why I cannot tell. Perhaps I thought that the man with the lathered face was a real life Fagin, though Fagin was not supposed to be fat. So I could have been terrified by his yelling alone. For several days following that event, I had wondered if the man did finally get his shave. I can’t rule out the possibility that the man had come out repeatedly, each time followed by the barber and that he had finally gone back home with his lathered face.
I don’t think I ever visited that shop again, afraid I suppose of seeing Big Fagin again. Or other wild creatures. So, I cannot tell you what else happened in the shop since that day. No one ever told me.
And then seventy odd years later, I saw the shop again the other day. It was located under a patio supported by strong pillars. I have no recollection of the patio, though I am reasonably sure that the patio is at least as old as the shop. I looked up and saw what looked like a residential flat opening into the patio. There was a french window and two other smaller ones through which light poured out indicating the existence of living beings inside. I have no idea who live there now. Do they smile? Do they cry? Do they sing lullabies for their babies. I suppose I shall never know if their great grandfathers lived there during my innocent days as a child. I am not sure why, but I am curious about the occupants of the lighted flat facing the patio. No one was visible of course. In the meantime, I was being watched silently, I felt, through the frosted glass door of the barber shop. It felt eerie sort of. The door had coloured scribbling on it and the light that shone inside should have been brighter. At least as bright as the lights in the patio apartment. The dim lights in the shop wore an accusing expression it seemed, pulling me up for not keeping track of its passage through time. It used to be called Avenue Hair Dressing Saloon I think. But no longer so. Its name has changed, but look wise it hasn’t changed an epsilon bit. The bald proprietor cannot exist anymore. Nor Big Fagin. I may well be the only person amongst the ones present that day who still lives. I have no idea who runs the shop now. It stands diagonally across the spot where Kamala Bastralaya, the tailor’s shop I told you about sometime in the past used to be. As you know, like the bald barber, the tall tailor no longer exists either. But unlike the tailor’s shop, the barber’s shop still stands under the patio.
Like me, it has no business to be in this world anymore.