“Head Turners” is a barbershop that has recently come up across the street from my residence. As the name suggests in no uncertain terms, it is an outfit devoted to a noble cause, the uplifting of the look-wise deprived and downtrodden, of social outcasts if you will, by imparting to their indifferent personalities the magnetic charm of a Gregory Peck or a Richard Gere! To settle all doubts on this score moreover, there is a painting hanging above the glass paneled swing door at the entrance of the shop, depicting the consequence of undergoing the promised transformation: a bunch of shapely females gazing in admiration at a clean-shaven man of indeterminate age, in blue jeans and a red tee shirt, sporting a flamboyantly futuristic hair style and flashing a toothy smile.
Though I am not young anymore, I am utterly inclined towards surrender, whenever the prospect of worldly pleasures rears its head. My days normally arrive promise-laden therefore, luring me, as I muse with half-closed eyes in the comfort of an abundantly cushioned chair on my balcony, to hop into a brightly painted glider aircraft and take off for the unknown. Across endless skies stretching over distant hills, where hoards of captivating wood nymphs dance and sing to the murmuring approval of glittering waterfalls solely for my entertainment.
There is, however, a fly in the very ointment of my existence, the embarrassing state of the top of my head, congenitally inclined as it is towards barrenness. A lonesome plot of land as it were, deprived of vegetation except of the most rudimentary variety. Awareness of that fact often keeps my burning enthusiasm on leash, even as I ogle females passing in front of my strategically appointed corner on the balcony. Unlike my dreamy experiences with wood nymphs, I am painfully aware on these occasions that the attention I shower on the damsels remains woefully unreciprocated.
The injustice jars me to no end. If a wigless Yul Bryner could have paired with ravishing beauties like Deborah Kerr and Ingrid Bergman, if Mausumi swooned at the sight of Rakesh Roshan in full knowledge of his phoney crest, why can lesser mortals not entertain somewhat mediocre hopes at least? Not appointments at Madame Tussauds for sure. But why not bouts of mortal bliss once at least in a blue moon?
And then one day, my prayers appeared to reach their destination. Or else why should Head Turners materialize out of nothingness like the palace Alladin sprung on the Sultan to woo his daughter? It is hardly surprising that the Saloon cast a spell of sorts over me from the very day of its inauguration. It loomed large before me like an irresistible fruit, suspended from the branch of a forbidden tree. Throwing caution to the winds therefore, I walked past the swing door one lonely afternoon in November in pursuit of an appearance that would raise me to the rank of the man whose picture hung at the shop entrance and seated myself on a barber’s chair right next to the window facing the street, just in case Audrey Hepburn happened to be peeping in approval.
My burning enthusiasm, however, sustained an initial jolt. I appeared to be the monarch of all I surveyed in the shop, or, to add a sci-fi touch to the metaphor, a miserable robot in search of life forms in Martian wilderness. I peered with concern into the back of the shop, where dark shadows lurked over mounds of undefined forms. Silence, however, reigned supreme and after a few more moments of solitary confinement, I decided that Head Turners was probably a shelter built by a worthy philanthropist for the rest of humanity to sit inside and ruminate over illusions of change in a changeless universe. Not exactly my cup of tea, I began to think, when I perceived a movement from the corner of my eye somewhere near the aforementioned back-of-the-shop. Turning around with alacrity, I detected a diminutive human form emerging out of one of the mounds located thither, like a Valmiki aroused from transcendental meditation.
He rubbed a pair of drowsy eyes with one hand while his other hand gesticulated behind him in search of an unoccupied sleeve of a greyish barber’s robe hanging listlessly from his shoulders. He tripped over a side table of sorts in the process, toppling a lump of alum lying on it and then jumped forward with a shriek to catch it back in midair with the hand so far occupied with sleeve exploring to prevent it from splintering on the floor. The impromptu athletic performance impressed me to no end, for I found myself wondering if his name should be recommended as a substitute fielder for cricket teams during hours of crisis.
Beaming therefore at the man with confidence, I felt that I might well be able, with his aid, to turn myself into an object of visual appeal. The man too, it seemed, had been sufficiently restored to life by the exercise, for a confident smile now spread across his lips, above which his welcoming eyes twinkled under an arched pair of bushy eyebrows, set against an abundant backdrop of long, dark hair. His head, in other words, was richly endowed, a man with a mane he was, a shiny dark stallion, a comrade to be relied upon by the drought-devastated cranium owners of the world.
He appeared to possess a voice too, and a melodious one at that, which he employed now to the best possible advantage. “Do sit down, sit down sir. Make yourself comfortable,” he sang out in a clear baritone, restoring me back to my seat and my mind to its peaceful state. With practised skill he produced a clean sheet to cover up my torso, which now was relaxing back in the chair, ready to witness the transformation of the ungainly burden it had supported all its life, namely, my head. And then he pirouetted back at the barber’s appointed place behind the customer’s chair and waited in respectful attention, as we watched each other in the mirror I faced.
And waited, … and waited. His eyes expressed query, but his body stood motionless. This total inaction, following hard upon a magnificent display of physical agility, was disconcerting, but I assumed for a while that he was collecting his thoughts, as God himself might have done, immediately prior to the big bang of creation.
The mirror, like the one that had gotten Snow White into trouble with the wicked queen, revealed all this quite faithfully: a petrified barber staring at the reflection of the mystified customer, a shrouded body, and an assortment of barber’s tools and pomades on the table. Excellent subject for a still life portrait, fit though for a painters’ salon more than a barber’s workshop.
After several moments of passive interlude, he found back his voice. “Is there any way I may help you sir?” he said somewhat uncertainly I thought. His tone of speech clearly suggested that the nature of service I sought appeared to him to be fraught with ambiguity. Confusion reared its head therefore between the barber and his customer, as I asked myself simultaneously if he truly believed that I had walked into his shop with the intention of posing as an artist’s model.
I realized that the man’s questioning mind needed to be attended to. I cleared my throat therefore and he cleared his in sympathy, without disturbing the afore-described composition. I raised my questioning eyebrows — he arched his even further in response. Then I twisted my lips into a smile, to which he reacted with equanimity. There being little room for further experiments with the pantomime, I proffered the first lead for a conversation.
“Shoot,” said I with suppressed impatience.
The man was startled out of his composure rather violently. “What?” he managed to utter, as he arrested himself a second time from falling flat on his face. And then stammered nervously, “Whom? I mean, why?”
“No one man. No one,” I guaranteed him. “Start the proceedings. Shoot, my dear fellow, shoot your skill at my skull”.
He heaved a clear sigh of relief and beamed back a happy smile. “Oh yes, yessir … but I am wondering …,” his voice trailed off.
“So am I good man, so am I. And what, may I ask, is it that you are wondering about?” I was at the peak of my leadership drive.
He considered in silence, but not for long. “I was wondering sir, whether you wanted to go for the German technology or the Korean. The latter would cost you less for sure, but the former is likely to be more dependable.”
My poise was under siege once again! I looked up sharply at the mirror to study the man, and then turned around for confirmation. No, there was no illusion in this, the chap stood there as solidly as the Rock of Gibraltar. And upon being requested to repeat what he had said, he summarized in unmistakable terms what I thought he had said indeed. Did I wish it the German way or the Korean way? An innocent question that didn’t appear to admit any simple answer. Or any answer at all for that matter.
Armies of doubts invaded once again. Oh no, no, no. This is neither a barbershop nor a philanthropist’s gift to instill philosophical awareness amongst the masses! This is clearly a head shrink’s chamber, rather than a head-beautifier’s, a hideout for loonies to hibernate in. And a mad man in the guise of a barber is to be treated with apprehension and dread, for barbers are known to carry about them razors, scissors, and other implements invented solely for the delight of the homicidally inclined.
I knew, however, that my only hope of survival lay in keeping the maniac engaged in conversation. So I smiled again with admirable effort. I could have patted myself on the back for being able to smile in the face of impending annihilation, but was prevented from doing so, given the somewhat complicated yogic posture I was tied up into at the moment, torso facing mirror and face facing the diametrically opposite side of the room.
“I don’t really care, you know,” I winked with feigned mischief, “so long as you manage to give my hair a Gregory Peck like dress up.” And then added on second thoughts, “Or at least one like Harrison Ford’s. A few rupees here and there make little difference.”
The man looked disturbed. He considered my question for a long moment and then transforming his bushy eyebrows into perfect semicircles, scratched the back of his head, hidden somewhere under its deep, dark, hairy cover. “Hari-son, sir?” he finally uttered in some bewilderment. And then, shaking his head vigorously, concluded with renewed confidence, “No, sir. No. I think you mean Behari-son, sir. My father was Be-hari-lal.” To remove all doubts moreover, he declared with a happy smile, “And I, sir, am Py-ari-lal. Call me Py-ari, sir. That’s the name they all call me by.”
A contorted human shape in a barber’s chair under the watchful glare of a lunatic climbing up a family tree, would be a reasonable artist’s impression of the state to which events had transpired now. Not being artistically disposed though, I decided to startle him and while his attention was diverted, run for freedom. I produced therefore a noise that came close to a snarl and then glowering at him I yelled, “To hell with Be-hari and Py-ari! Concentrate instead on hair. Hair, you understand? Hair!” My voice rose to a deafening pitch as I uttered the last bit.
The words I had shouted seemed to have made an impression at last. I heard him mutter to himself, “Hair? Hair?” He looked to his left, then to his right, then behind him and finally, as though to leave nothing to chance, he looked up at the ceiling. If there was anything he was looking for, he did not discover it. Nothing but emptiness greeted him from all sides. Then he slowly turned his puzzled gaze at me. And said again, “Hair?”
“Do you mean your hair sir?” he mumbled on with studied politeness.
“Who else’s,” said I in irritation, “certainly not yours!”
“Please do not lose your cool sir,” he replied with assurance. “I have no intention of offending you.” Following which, he proceeded to make amends as it were by caressing my sparsely camouflaged scalp with something akin to motherly affection, an action mind you, which cannot possibly stimulate filial sentiments, unless of course it was your mom in person who was engaged in the job. He added patiently thereafter in a voice drenched with the milk of human kindness, “I can’t detect any hair at all on your head you see, and that is why I had suggested that you go for the new technology. Hair grafting I mean, though I admit that the German method is overpriced. But senior citizens normally prefer the Korean technology. Perhaps that’s what you ought to consider too … since, after all, you know, you are unlikely to …” His speech stuttered to a stop here, in a somewhat un-motherly manner I thought.
Insult over injury. He’s no loony at all. Quite to the contrary in fact. The chap’s not merely casting aspersions on my baldness; he seems also to be implying at the same time that I was on the wrong side of ninety-three. My assessment was accurate, for as I gaped back at him, the deferential look in his eyes slowly disappeared and the emotions on his face underwent a series of changes, from confusion through concern and compassion, and finally to what unmistakably looked like glee.
He proceeded with some satisfaction now. “You see sir, I attend to two classes of clients. Those with hair,” he said pointing at the profusion on his head, “and those without, such as …,” he was about to point at me, but sense appeared to prevail as he quickly withdrew the accusing finger.” Once again, please do not take offence sir,” he pleaded. “The first type asks for haircuts and the second invariably opts for grafting. Seeing the state of your scalp, I would certainly recommend grafting, cutting being a contradiction in terms.”
I distinctly perceived a grin now on his face, and then a noise emerged from a hidden recess in him that appeared to resemble a giggle. He was preparing too, I gathered, to recede back towards the darker background of the shop from where he had materialized half an hour ago. Facetious scoundrel I thought, as I stared back at him chalking out a course of action. And I was quick too, for emulating his own athletic dexterity I jumped out of the chair and caught him by the collar. Hairless persons get particularly sour when the conversation veers around to hair related matters. Jokes on baldness, in other words, are normally not tolerated in the vicinity of a baldy himself. The man tried to escape but in the tussle that followed I managed to reach for the luxuriant growth on his head. I shall pluck out every bit of hair from his head I decided and make him suffer the rest of his existence in hairless ignominy. And I pulled at his hair with all the strength I could muster.
But, to my total disbelief, the hair gave way without any struggle at all. I found myself holding the man by his collar with my left hand, while my right held on to the enchanting bouquet that decorated his head only a minute ago. And there stood before me a person that I was seeing for the first time in my life. With a head as bereft of flora as the Sahara desert. It took me a while to figure out that the object I held in my hand was a wig, and a magnificently crafted one at that, one that the most sought after Holly or Bollywood stars would proudly slip on.
The surprising course of events diverted my attention from the collar I held with one hand to the hairy mass in my other palm. Taking advantage of the distraction though, he managed to break loose and disappear into the darkness. And then there was complete silence once again. I was back, in other words, to where proceedings had started.
Despite the puzzlement, it was my turn now to snigger. I looked back at the mirror and admired myself. Head Turners had indeed instilled in me a state of confidence that I had never experienced in the past when my hairlessness detracted public attention. In addition, I also understood now what had taken the fool so long to show up as I had waited for him in the chair after my initial entry in the shop. The miserable thing was obviously adjusting its wig prior to appearing on stage!
Which brings me, my friends, to the end of this hairy episode. Hamlet’s standing notwithstanding, as the Killjoy of the Millennium, and his hallucinations about regimented bands of sorrows conspiring to carry out flank attacks on mankind precisely when it was busy protecting its rear, I have turned into a staunch optimist. Never indeed shall I need to kneel in hairless disgrace! If Py-ari-lal the barber can disguise himself, so can others. Including the living beauties that treat me with disdain. True, I shall never pull at their hair and put my hypothesis to test. But henceforth I can afford to sit unembarrassed in my balcony chair whenever fancy dictates and dream of Vivien Leigh whispering sweet nothings into my ear.
Contrary to received wisdom in other words, a bird in the bush, or a nymph in the wood, could well be worth a million at hand.