Monday, September 05, 2005

The old barber

Sometimes you know when you walk back those very same streets you once ruled with impunity, a smile creeps up from nowhere. You dont rule them anymore but you have pleasent memories. "The old tree still stands", I murmered and breathed a huge sigh of releif. The barber shop that was part of my sunday life once a month stood there too. I felt my mind wondering, "Would mari still be there" ?

It was a typical sunday morning and I was 9. My dad as usual woke up at 5, got milk, got water from the community handpump, made coffee, woke up my mom, throrroughly analysed "The hindu", (A prestegious member in all tam brahm families) from headlines to obituary. He even finished his bath, a neat shave and was towering over my bed. GET UP YOU LAZY BONES !!! he thundered. The door bell rang and he warned me in a loud voice "I will answer the door and come, if you are not ready I am going to throw you to the crockodiles today". By this time, poor me (petrified of crocs) is awake and brushing my teeth. Now I couldnt reach the tap. I just waited for my dad to come from the doorcall. He looked at me with both hands on his hips and went on,

"Hmmm you are 9 and you cant reach the tap yet ? what can you do ? you cant do multiplications, you cant even brush your own teeth. You are a good for nothing kid (odhavakarai). Now look at Rajesh. He is up at 6 does sandhyavandanam, practices violin and is neatly dressed by 8 on a sunday morning".

Generally by this part of the tirade, I shut down up there in my head. Voltage overlad. Cant take the high decibel and drift of to my dream world where I am the hero with bulging muscles and all the babes in my class are dying to come and sit next to me. As I drifted off, I did all the normal chores as robotically as possible. This actually helps. It gives the impression that I am actually speeding up, and it helps me get over a ton of chores without physically subjecting my senses to the realisation that I am doing those chores. Confusing ? ok let me explain. Its my duty to throw the garbage out. If I shut down my brains and still do the garbage-chore, I somehow dont realise that I am actually dumping the garbage.
Up there, I am dumping the evil villain who tried to outrage the modesty of the princess in distress, I mean princesses.

You see in my dream world I am the lone hero all other dudes basically wet their pants when I walk by.

Anyway as I walk smiling still existing in this dream world, In the real world things are happening. Dad, Rajesh and Me are walking into to this old rickety barber's shop. I snap out instantly and see myself sitting in a gaudy waiting room in between two massive dudes. Rajesh (I hate him) sits smiling in the other corner with a book on tables. My dad sits stunned next to him awestruck in wonder. Rajesh knows the 17 tables by heart. He must be thinking "God, why, why me. Why do I have a son who chokes at 3 six are ? ". I pretned not to notice him and take a magazine lying on the table. Barber shop waiting room magazines are a real learning experience for a nine year old and somehow my dad thinks it is inappropriate. Its not my fault that there are skimpy pictures of women in that magazine ? For him, it really doesent matter. He has already made up his mind "No tom and jerry. Today you are going to do 17 tables", he goes.

Maari makes me sit on a wooden plank placed on the handle of a chair(since I am too short). Rajesh gets to sit in the chair without problem. Maari is the oldest barber in the area, literally everyone has gone to him. You can tell a mari's cut just by looking at a boy's head. I mean there is an evil mean cut in the back of the head with a little blood clot. That's Maari's signature. Literally every kid in the block if psychoanalysed (hypnotised) would end up with the same story of Maari's cut as the single most traumatic event in their child hood. Well every kid except me. Back to the present. Maari grins evilly when he takes the mechanical machine out of the drawer and goes click cluck click cluck. There is a huge shriek from the chair next to me and it is Rajesh trying to jump out of the chair. Maari summons help and Rajesh is pinned down and is shut up while Maari goes about his deed with finesse and professionalism. Doesent matter if it is the head of a 9 year old who can answer what 17 7s are ? If you resist Maari, you get a cut to remember. Resistance is futile is his message to all kids.

When Maari comes to me he stares at me from the mirror. I tell him "I am not afraid of anything except crockodiles. Go ahead maari". Maari is surprised and happy. We become good friends and there were no cuts in my head. Maari even gives me a balli muttai (candy). I love those small balli muttais. After every haircut, maari uses an alum stone soaked in warm water as the standard after shave. The price of this hair cut seven bucks per kid. His was a volume business and he uses the hand machine with great efficiency.

Its been years and in one instant I wanted to check if that place still stood. It did and I was a little scared to step in. What if I find out Maari is dead ? I took my chance and a lot of young men stood there. Maari walked in from the room inside as soon as he spotted me. When we were young, we all thought he lived there.
I dint say a thing as I felt strange to reveal who I actually was. I thought maybe he wouldnt remember or maybe it is wrong to rock his world now with old memories. The same old transistor blared aloud rocky-poppy tamil tunes with trendy numbers. Not the old TMS songs. Maari asks me to sit on an old chair (I am glad he dint put the plank) and says, "You know kids these days. They are trendy and I am no good for them. They dont even play TMS songs. What do you want ? he asks ?". I say with a little fear in my voice "Standard NCC cut". Maari gives me the standard NCC (National caded corps, similar to scouts. Its basically a crew cut) cut he is so famous for. The NCC cut is very comfortable. Low maintenance and long lasting for a madras summer.

All I wanted was to get done with the haircut and get out of the place. It was wrong to have come there again after all those years. Its wrong even to identify who I am and to rock this old man's life with all those memories. At 30, my memories torment me. How would he feel ? He must be 70 or something. Maari completes his haircut and even douses me with the traditional madras saloon aftershave (A rock of alum and some warm water). I am surprised there is no cut in my head. Maybe he gives kids the cuts. He then asks me to wait and comes out with his hands washed clean.

I was telling myself "Just pay and get out. You know Maari is alive, you dont want to trouble him more, do you ?". I dig my purse and find a 500 Rupee note. I press it in his hand. He smiles and gives me the change 493. As I am doing my exit, Maari's old voice crackles. Enna kutti paiya (What kid), balli muttai vendama ? (Dont want your balli candy). A huge clamp crushed my heart.

Thats it, I couldnt leave his saloon. I sat up with him and talked for over 2 hours. The longest time, I spent in a saloon. He still had his crackling sense of humour when he went, "See I never cut your head".. I gave him a thousand Rupees that day, not because I felt bad for him. I realised, Maari is part of my legacy.

He is much more than a haircut guy ? He is probably the first adult who became my friend. He was fifty when I was nine. He still remembers me. That must count for something. He takes pride in his work and he still works at 70. He is happy and contented and doesent suffer from any ailment, physical or mental. I therefore promised that till Maari's saloon is there, I would get a haircut done through him. I will have to travel once in a month or two to chennai for that. But I will do that. I also wanted him to feel happy knowing that one of his kids still remembered the old place and is doing well.


At 6:59 PM, Blogger small squirrel said...

this made me smile... as tears ran down my face.

how nice you went back, how much nicer he recognized you, and what a gift for you both that you stayed and chatted.

At 1:35 AM, Blogger Shirin said...

Really nice.

We used to call the 'palli muttaai' (lizard sweets) as 'eli puzhukai muttaai' (rat droppings sweets) as the size is only that much - they are multi-coloured sugar coated jeera tidbits.

Were you staying near the Croc farm that you were scared of being thrown to the crocs? I would have been more scared of being thrown into the stinky Cooum.

At 6:04 AM, Blogger Vasu the terrible said...

@squiril - Ya, it was wonderful. I have uncles half his age, who are overweight, depressed and basically searching for a purpose. He is 90 and still gets kids for his famous ncc cut. I think even my dad would have gone there when he was a kid.

@ Shirin - glad someone recogonised what a balli muttai is...:) I lived in alwarpet til 87 before moving to t.nagar... but i did travel to croc farm once on a school vacation. It was tough looking at those beasts and their jagged teeth.. they dont scare me anymore though..

At 3:12 AM, Blogger WA said...

aaaaw Vasu that was so sweet. Enjoyed reading it

At 11:47 AM, Blogger Ramana Siddharth said...

vazu,u almost made me cry with this lovely,bittersweet post!u know there used 2 b a tailor tatha who used 2 know my mom's family since she was a kid.and he used 2 come 2 c us once in a while till abt 3 years ago.since he had not come for a long time my mother and sis went 2 where he stays 2 c if he still exsists.and he had passed away.and just like ur maari he remained self sufficient till the very end.guys like maari and tailor tatha r the real life heroes.

have u seen autograph?

we often take these little big ppl for is so wonderful 2 c someone writing about such things.

this is my favorite post among all urs so far.

btw i really want 2 meet u when ur in chennai let me know.

At 3:08 AM, Blogger Sudarshan said...

Now now you ought to change that tone on your profile - I mean the stony, little, black heart ;). That was touching indeed.

At 8:27 AM, Blogger Vasu the terrible said...

@wicked angel - thanks...

@sid - I made you cry ?? that was unintended.. I think old guys with a little cracked up sense of humour have a happy end.. anyway everyone dies, happiness is when you die laughing or when you die like NTR (you know the roumour how NTR died done you ?) lucky guys.
Frankly, it was a nice feeling for me non-emotional and happy. Autograph is one of my favourite movies precisely because he doesent wallow in self pity and misery. my next visit to chennai I would let you know and lets meet up.

@Suddu - you know that psycho friend of mine. She had some extra scary revelations. Basically if I dont develop a sensitive side, I might end up "apna haath....". Ok.. my heart is of stone but you know sometimes these simple folks make my heart smile.. no crying please.

At 8:00 PM, Blogger ada-paavi!!!! said...

awesome post, reminded me of my barber, whom ive been for over 2 decades!

At 8:40 PM, Blogger visithra said...

awww thats so sweet - i smiled with tears too. You are one of those writers who can make u feel something more than laughter;) beautiful ;)

At 8:47 AM, Blogger Prabu Karthik said...

Now, that was just wonderful!!!

At 11:18 PM, Blogger Sumonk said...

Very sensitive and sensible story.

I have the whole visual in front of me as I was reading through.
Excellent narration.

This line is a killer:-)
"At 30, my memories torment me. How would he feel ? He must be 90 or something"

At 10:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

as always my friend u'r writing is fluid and heartfelt.. this reminded me of many a things from my short existence so far..

At 4:06 AM, Blogger Vodka said...

Good job,Vasu

I am proud of you


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