For somebody who has passed the life expectancy age in India I have a middling cluster of hair fallicles on my head. Nothing, of course, like my old colleague and friend Sandip Madan in the USA, whose mop would make any char woman scream with delight. But then Sandip has a natural advantage; at six feet three inches he has at least eight inches on me (and he’s still growing, like the Himalayas where he served for some time). The height difference ensures that his pate gets more of the nourishing sunlight and less of the PM 2.5 (no, that is not a reference to Mr. Modi’s second term), hence a more luxuriant growth. But in pure economic terms he loses out to me: whereas he has to visit a hair dresser (there are no more barbers left in the USA, ask George Carlin) once a month, I get by with a quarterly visit. The savings are substantial, till Mrs. Sitharaman imposes a GST on them.
It was not always so. Back in the early 80’s, before genetics and the brown man’s burden had taken their toll, my crowning glory required a monthly shearing. Now, it’s not easy for a Deputy Commissioner in a small district town to have a haircut; he can’t just walk into a barber shop like the Delhi police into Jamia Milia, without causing a brouhaha. The normal practice, therefore, was to gently persuade (a-la Mr. Amit Shah) a reluctant barber to the residence to do the fleecing, assuring him that he would not be arrested for damaging public property if he was found wanting and clipped off a little extra off the top. My barber in Una district of Himachal was my mali’s brother but no pushover: he extracted all the collateral benefits of being the DC’s Jack the Clipper. He would come every month armed with applications and requests from various citizens for gas connections, mutations, ration cards, driving licences et al. (remember, this was before the mythical Acche Din). Unlike us IAS types, he was not as stupid as he looked for he never presented the petitions when he was shearing me, they were always proffered at the critical moment of the shave.
Now, in those salad days before I learnt better, an administered shave was a sine qua non, based on the perceived wisdom that men who go to Heaven can get there only by a close shave. Mine barber would apply the foam liberally on the Shukla kisser, sealing my lips, and then advance his requests one by one. There was no way I could argue, not only because I was rendered vocally hors de combat, but also because no one in his right senses argues with a man from Una who is brandishing a cut throat razor two centimeters from one’s carotid artery. The Punjab Reorganisation Act, I am told, was devised primarily so that Punjab could get rid of Una since even the sturdy Sikhs found its unruly citizens a handful. Thanks to the barber, therefore, my monthly haircuts thus did more to improve the lot of the people in this benighted district than Mrs. Gandhi’s 20 Point Programme. The barber became a very popular figure in the town and, I am told, even briefly considered running for MLA, such was his perceived proximity to the DC, till my precipitate transfer put paid to his plans.
But times have changed and many fallicles have since been brushed under the carpet. I now live in Delhi where the barber of yore is as extinct as the swallow. The humble hair cutting shop has now been replaced by the fashionable salons, hair dressers, stylists, parlours, coiffeuse, and friseurs (“We would love to dye for you”). They are so fancy they don’t “cut” your hair any more, they use small machines to nibble at them. At the end of the operation your hair needs no combing- it stands up automatically when they give you the bill, usually in the vicinity of a thousand rupees (without the GST). Very soon, I expect, the job will be done by A.I. via the dulcet tones of Alexa; you will then need a part of Mr. Anil Ambani’s remaining fortune to have a hair cut.
Fortunately, my pension only permits me to live beyond the Yamuna, Delhi’s unofficial poverty line, and the intrepid barber still survives in its unauthorised markets and colonies. I patronise the Diamond Hair Cutting Saloon in Madhu Vihar, modelled apparently on Dodge city of Wyatt Earp fame, which is why I no longer have a shave with my haircut: without the protection of my erstwhile magisterial teflon a cut throat razor is best kept away from the jugular in these shady environs: (remember that riveting scene from ” The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”?) My barber- Salim Mian- charges me Rs. 70 for every pruning episode but I find even this a bit excessive for the few desolate strands that remain on my head. One day I put this to Salim Mian (in a friendly way, of course, because even the scissor can inflict some serious damage) and suggested a graded fee, declining by five rupees every year in proportion to the loss of hairs on my scalp. His response was worthy of a member of the PM’s Economic Advisory Council: ” No, janab, I may instead have to increase my rates. You see, in your case, I am not charging for cutting your hair- I’m charging for the time I spend in looking for hairs to cut!” Touche! or Toupee! as the case may be. I do hope someone in the PMO will look at this gentleman when the current Chief Economic Advisor resigns, as his allotted time is almost up going by the tenures of his unsung predecessors.
When I am at my cottage at Mashobra I avail of the services of Mr. Swami. Built like a Patton tank with handlebar moustaches, Swami operates from a hole-in-the-wall establishment in old Mashobra bazaar, but he also has other irons in the fire: he is also the local “kabadi wallah” and recycles half the waste of the area, not including retired IAS, IPS and Army officers who in any case have minimal recycling value. He charges only Rs. 40 for a haircut and it shows- I usually emerge from his premises looking like a cross between an American Pit Bull terrier and a porcupine. But Neerja doesn’t mind: she feels I blend into the rural landscape perfectly.
My MPB (male pattern baldness) is becoming more evident as the years roll by and the patch on the crown is expanding like the hole in the ozone layer. I briefly considered taking the Gautam Gambhir cure, i.e. going in for hair transplants: my research shows that it didn’t do much for his cricket but it enabled him to win the last Parliamentary elections since the voter could see that he had a better coiffure than his lady rival: he won by the proverbial hair’s breadth. But further research revealed that it costs one rupee to transplant one hair fallicle and needed an investment of about Rs. 40000/, no mean outlay for a pensioner whose pension may stop at any time because his state is going bankrupt holding Investors’ Meets where the only one making the investments is the government itself- in organising the said Meet. And what if the damn strands don’t grow back? My long experience in the Forest department of Himachal shows that the survival rate of transplants is barely 30%, and therefore what I would probably end up with is not dense woodland but open scrub. So I’ve decided to keep my money for more worthy purposes, such as for collecting my legacy documents for the impending NRC, and continue hoping that Baba Ramdev’s Kesh Kanti hair oil will finally deliver on its promise. So okay, I tell myself, I’ll never have long, wavy tresses but then Samson did, didn’t he, and where did his golden locks get him? Under a pile of Philistine rubble. All because of a haircut.