Tag Archives: barber

Sankari vs. Mathematics: A Moonlit Night’s Tale


On an evening parked far away in the mists of time, I had gone out for a stroll with a young and adorably pretty woman. Slim, charming and lively, she was my newly acquired wife, Sankari. I was around twenty nine I think and she must have been about twenty four. And, as I said, we were out for a walk on a balmy evening in spring.

Had I been Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice, I would probably have told her:

“The moon shines bright: in such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
And they did make no noise, in such a night
Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls
Where Cressid lay that night.”

But I wasn’t Lorenzo. Nor was Sankari Jessica. Or else, she too might have replied:

“In such a night
Did Thisbe fearfully o’ertrip the dew
And saw the lion’s shadow ere himself
And ran dismay’d away.”

We didn’t exchange words even remotely similar. Yet, the sky was clear and a million stars glittered above us as they watched us in inquisitive silence. We went and sat on a bench in the nearby park.

“How beautiful the sky is, isn’t it?” said Sankari. This is the closest she came to Jessica.

“Yes, isn’t it? And have you noticed how endlessly the stars are spread?” said I. I couldn’t have been farther away from Lorenzo.

Sankari misunderstood my train of thought I think.

“Oh yes. Endless indeed,” she said, “fascinating little lights under the dark canopy of the sky. Lovely, aren’t they?”

“Right,” said I. “But how many stars do you think there are in the sky?”

“Oh, I don’t know … how should I know how many? Infinitely many may be. Like grains of sand on the sea shore.” Sankari stared at the sky in wonder. A mortal beauty, tucked away in an inconsequential corner of the solar system, looking up towards the immortal beauty of the universe.

“Yet,” said I, “each one has a name, hasn’t it?”

Her face turned sharply from the sky towards me. There was bit of a frown on her puzzled countenance. “Of course they have names. How does that matter?”

“Doesn’t it surprise you that there are infinitely many objects up there and each one can be distinguished from the other by name?”

She stared at me in silence for a while. The frown slowly melted away into an awfully cute smile of indulgence. “You are crazy,” she said lovingly and then went back to stare at the sky again.

“But you can’t name each particle that makes up the sky, can you?” I asked.

Once again the questioning look returned to her face. “What on earth are you talking about? Pulling my leg, are you?”

“Oh no,” I quickly intercepted. “I was merely thinking that the sky too is probably made up of little particles of some sort of matter, gases may be. And it is not possible to give each particle in the sky a name, is it?” I looked askance at her to study her reaction.

She didn’t appear to be too interested. The expression on her face had a stamp of incredulity. “Is this guy really crazy?” it appeared to ask.

But I pushed on. “The particles that form the sky are infinitely many and the stars too probably infinitely many. But in one case you can find distinct names for each particle and in the other you can’t. Isn’t that strange, Sankari?”

She giggled in reply, revealing her sparkling teeth in the light that shone down from a nearby lamppost. “You know what’s strange?” she asked.

“What’s strange?” I asked back.

“You!!” she said emphatically. And then she moved the conversation closer to Lorenzo and Jessica. “The moon’s so beautiful tonight, isn’t it?”

I had to admit this was the case. It must have been full moon or very nearly so. “Yes the moon’s lovely,” I responded casually.

“Don’t you want to tell me something, now that you have noticed we are sitting under a perfect moonlit sky?”

It was my turn to be puzzled. “About the moon?” I asked doubtfully.

“No, about me,” she said and looked away, disappointment writ clearly on her face.

I couldn’t follow her. She appeared to be upset. But why, I had no idea.

So I went back to where I was. “Do you see that there are at least two kinds of infinity? In one case you can name each object in the infinity you behold and in the other, you can’t.”

Her face was still turned away and I had no idea if she was listening. I failed miserably to perceive that I could reach out for the moon so easily on that evening and I was wasting that wondrous opportunity!

The moon above kept smiling of course. But the moon next to me wasn’t.

“You know, mathematicians have names for these different kinds of infinity. The infinity of stars is called countable and the infinity of the sky is uncountable.”

I was greeted by deathlike silence. Nonetheless, I went on.

“And you know why the very basis of mathematics is illogical? It is illogical because classical mathematics assumes that the uncountable infinity can also be named particle by particle. It’s called the Axiom of Choice. Without this axiom, which no one can prove, mathematics cannot progress a single step. Logic is just a convenient house mathematics chooses to reside in. In fact though, it’s hopelessly illogical!”

Sankari could have been a mummy resting under a pyramid. I sighed, seeing that her interest had still not been aroused. And then I shrugged.

“Well illogical or not, it works. So I guess we shouldn’t grumble,” I concluded.

“Who’s grumbling?” Sankari had finally found her voice. She was facing me now. Her beautiful eyes smiled at me. A smile charged with sadness.

Have I offended her somehow, I asked myself stupidly. She stood up.

“Let’s go back home, shall we?” she asked.

“Why? Do you have work at home?”

“Yes, I have work at home. Someone needs to work you know, to keep a family running,” she said. I didn’t fail to note the sarcasm in her tone. Gloomily I got up too.

“Well, what are you so upset about?” I asked. “Have I offended you? I said nothing at all to hurt you!”

“No, you didn’t say anything to hurt me at all. But I wish you did. I would have something to complain about.”

I was nonplussed. But I was reassured at the same time. “Thank God,” I whispered to myself. “I didn’t hurt my lovely wife.”

We had started walking back homewards. She maintained her silence. To help matters, I tried to start up the conversation again.

“How paradoxical language is really!” I said dramatically.

“What paradox?” she retorted. “I didn’t say anything at all!”

“Oh no, I wasn’t talking about you. Actually, I was talking about Bertrand Russell.”

She stopped dead in the middle of the road and stared at me, mouth half open. There was a distinctly scared look in her eyes.

“I am married to a loony,” they appeared to say.

I tried to make amends. “Actually, Russell pointed out how strange logical language can get.”

She still didn’t resume her walk. Instead, she quickly checked to see if the road was empty or not. If necessary, help should be around to protect her from her husband.

“Well,” continued I, “suppose you were to say that the barber on our street shaved all those people who didn’t shave themselves.”

“Why should I say something like that?” she challenged. “I don’t even know the barber.”

“Well, just suppose you did say so.”

She was petrified now.

“If you said that, then you would be committing yourself to resolving a very difficult paradox.”

She shook her head slowly, clearly lamenting her fate. But we had now begun to walk again. She had probably decided that, though mad, I wasn’t violently so. But her attitude suggested that she believed a visit to a head shrink was in order.

I had the field to myself now.

“You know what the paradox is? The paradox is that you don’t know who shaves the barber.”

She was almost livid now with anger. “Why the hell should I want to know who shaves the barber? I don’t even want to know any barber at all, whether he shaves or not. You go tomorrow morning and find out who shaves the barber. If no one else does, you do him the favour yourself.”

But I was desperate. “Please,” I pleaded, “just let me finish.”

She stopped again and faced me with stony indifference.

“You see, if the barber shaves himself, then he must be a person who doesn’t shave himself. Because we agreed, didn’t we, that he shaved only those people who didn’t shave themselves.”

“No I didn’t agree to anything of the sort. But even if I did, so what?”

“Well, if the barber doesn’t shave himself, then he is a person whom he has to shave,” I concluded with a note of satisfaction. “After all, the barber we said shaved all people who didn’t shave themselves.”

We had reached home by now and Sankari was unlocking the front door. She entered the dark apartment and I followed her in, turning on the light switch. The room was flooded with light. She looked so fascinatingly beautiful. And she had her engaging eyes turned straight at my face. There was a strange light that they reflected.

She sat down on the sofa and kept staring at me and suddenly blurted out.

“Is this what you get paid for in your office?”

I was confused. “Is what what I am paid for at my office? How do you mean?”

“I mean what do you do in your office? Spread such rubbish amongst students? I thought you taught classes. So I was asking if this is the gibberish you teach. It’s a total waste of taxpayers’ money. Anyway, forget about that. But let’s get one thing straight. I am not your student, understand? I am your wife!” Her voice rose to a final crescendo. I thought I heard loud sirens before enemy attack and beat a hasty retreat to wait quietly for my dinner.

And I have waited quietly for dinner every night since then. I have waited for her delicious lunches too during the thirty five years that have rolled by following that fateful evening. Sankari is still very pretty I think. But I have realised too late in life I guess that she will never ask me again what a golden full moon on a clear spring sky should remind me of.

Gone with the Wind

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.