Cut In The Dark – Girish Sreenivas

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Illustration – Shristi Singh

“Don’t cut it too short!” my mother called after me.

“No, of course not,” I mumbled, jiggling my shoe to dislodge the cockroach it had adopted. This was a ritual we performed every time I set out for a haircut.

Forty minutes later, exhausted from dodging wild auto-rickshaws and undomesticated lorries, I found myself biting my nails in a seedy part of town hedged with dingy shops. ‘Vetri Mans Beuty Parlor’, sputtered a dusty handwritten sign hanging outside one of these enterprises. An open door indicated that it wasn’t closed for business that day – the first such shop I’d found. Bloody Tuesdays! I tried to peer inside without walking in, straining my eyes to gather evidence of legitimate activity, but there was little to indicate that this wasn’t the site of some nefarious engagement. I rocked back and forth on my heels a few times, undecided whether a haircut were worth the risk of being sold into bondage.

Aiyoh, I hated Tuesdays. For clandestine reasons known only to barber unions, they are a national holiday for hair salons. I suppose it’s the one occasion when the souls that spend their days around others’ hair can let down their own. A spec of hope pushed me to scavenge through the neighbourhood, hunting for a man who dared break tradition and cut hair. But all the hair-related establishments I’d found thus far had had their shutters drawn, as though to spite me for the abuses I’d thrown their way over the years.

For I tend to place haircuts only slightly above eating slugs. This time, however, one was long overdue. I was to be up on stage the next day, receiving an award from the school principal, and I wanted to look like the dashing, brilliant teenager I was. After all, everyone can see me up on stage. I could picture their heads turned up, admiration in their eyes… especially, I hoped, on the particularly large orbs belonging to Hamsini – the girl who sits in the second row from the front. On the left. Just beside the useless second blackboard. She’s the one who carries the pink schoolbag (the only flaw in an otherwise perfect being). Yes, I definitely needed a haircut.

Acting as a counterweight to my dwellings upon Hamsini was my anxiety about what AJ would look like. AJ, my arch-enemy. Born to perfectly Indian parents with a perfectly Indian name, Ajay had managed to twist his entire persona around his stylised initials. From the sunglasses adorning his eyes till he stepped inside school to the socks whose expensive labels disappeared under meticulously ironed pant cuffs, everything was imported from a western country with less than a hundredth of India’s population and a thousandth of its heritage. But I did have him trumped in one respect: the fool was only collecting a merit certificate.

It was around the time I’d started mentally dismembering AJ that I came across ‘Vetri Mans Beuty Parlor’. Staring into its deep recesses, I could barely make out a lonely upholstered chair that had lost much of what had once made it upholstered. I noticed an old man sitting on a three-legged stool at the far corner, either the shop owner or a forgotten customer grown old awaiting service. It was the last shop in the world that I wanted to walk into. I entered.

The interiors were lit by a solitary bulb trying its best to dispel the shadow of gloom that had claimed the shop for its own. The old man – he must, I realised now, be the ‘beutician’ – looked up sharply, as though surprised that a client had dared interrupt his penance. I perceived, with a jolt, that he was wearing dark glasses in the dark. Rooted to the entrance, I stared at him.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the man shook his head towards the chair. I set myself down gingerly, afraid that any sudden movement might cause the thing to come apart. A puff of dust rose from the seat when I made contact, awakening particles that then pursued each other in an endless game played at inhuman speeds.

The ancient barber moved slowly, his plodding sandals parting the sea of dust on the floor, every step requiring immense effort. He waved a plastic sheet in the air a few times before wrapping it around me and waited, stooped behind me. The mirror showed his head barely rising above mine. Observing the quizzical look he wore, I ventured to answer what must have been his question: “Short,” I said.

With a quick nod of the head, he was off. As he sprayed some water on my tangled hair, brushed it through with a comb and picked up a pair of scissors, I was struck by the sudden efficiency of his movements. I could barely feel his fingers as they skimmed the surface of my head, lifting and measuring, combing and smoothening. Snip, snip, snip. He moved quietly and – shockingly, considering he’d been a tired old man only moments earlier – effortlessly. It was as if his mind had assumed complete command over his aged and decaying shell of a body. The only sound that rent the air was the snipping of scissors as the metal prongs joyously obeyed his fingers. With growing amazement, I realised that this man was no senile old goat – in his hands, cutting hair was elevated to an art. The image burnt into my memory, untarnished by the passage of years, is the look on his face: it wasn’t a smile, and yet could not be further from a frown. It was the understated expression of a man focused on something he truly loves. Ecstasy. He was no hair stylist, no frivolous titles for him. This was a Barber. I knew by that face that I could call him by that name, and there was no higher honorific he could want.

Sitting in that stuffy room, I grew to be less stuffy; were haircuts so bad after all? I couldn’t  think of a place I’d rather have been at that moment. And that’s when the sadists at the electricity board decided to cut short my haircut by turning the power off.

The scissors stopped, surprised. It was certainly a bright day outside, but very little of that light fought to permeate into the shop. Undercover mosquitoes plunged out of their hideouts to stage an ambush.

I heard the old man shuffle about behind me, his footsteps slowly retreating to a corner, followed by the creak of an adamant drawer being opened, items being jostled about. Eventually, the rummaging stopped, and he doddered back to my chair accompanied by a virulent smoky odor. He must have lit a mosquito coil, I realised gratefully. Placing it on the table in front of me, he paused for a second, perhaps to get his bearings right. Snip, snip, snip.

I was getting my haircut in the dark.

Ordinarily, I would have recoiled from the fool of a barber who dared to pull off a stunt like that on me, but I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt him. I had full faith in this extraordinary man.

Snip, snip; snip, snip. There was no let up in speed, but perhaps a subtle difference in style? His hunched figure stayed closer to me. As he moved around, something hard and cold made contact with the back of my head. The dark glasses – they were still on! Perhaps light and darkness made little difference to him. Was the man… blind?

I felt certain as soon as the thought struck me, awakening goosebumps. No wait, you excitable dimwit, you’re jumping to conclusions, I told myself. If he’s blind, why is he slower now than he was before?

Snip, snip, snip. Cut by cut, my long-suffering scalp could breathe again. My head felt lighter. And my thoughts drifted away from the old man and his nondescript shop to times gone by, golden days when his must have been the finest salon in the region. I could see dozens arriving by the minute, patiently waiting behind the grand upholstered chair, observing with admiration while the expert barber, eyes (unencumbered by dark glasses) shining with joy, placed the finishing touches on a grateful head. The walls were spotless, the only ornamentation in the form of framed barber awards hanging like diplomas. A maid was ready at hand to sweep away the shorn hair the moment it touched the shining floor, light pouring in as it always does upon a haven of happiness. When business was brisk, lines of waiting customers extended beyond the door and onto the street, politicians and actors cracking jokes while awaiting their turn. The authorities didn’t dare cut its power. Sitting in the former seat of glory, I felt emotional.

Snip, snip, snip. I slowly paid the man an unintentional tribute. As he switched from combs to scissors, scissors to combs and to other fantastic tools, I dozed off under his care. When I came to, I could no longer sense the rhythmic clipping of scissors. The light was still out. Cautiously, I lifted myself up from the chair and looked around. I could make out a hunched figure slouching away into the shop’s interiors, carrying the plastic sheet that had covered me. He had once again descended into a slow-moving, stiff old man wearing dark glasses where none were needed. I gave him a handsome tip, an unspoken acknowledgement of what the man had been before the vagaries of fate. And I walked into the light a changed man.

I hadn’t just had a haircut in the half hour I’d spent in that shop – I’d learnt something about the world. The Barber was a quiet man of superlative ability, not one given to outward pretenses. A humble mortal of the Gita, performing his work without worrying about its fruit. Much of my earlier fussiness about presentability and appearances, awards and recognition, AJ and Hamsini seemed juvenile and superficial. Well, maybe not the one about Hamsini. But did it really matter what I looked like on stage the next day? The award was for me, an acknowledgement of my accomplishments. If people should be impressed about something, shouldn’t it be for what I’d done to deserve it, and not how I looked receiving it?

This was my state of mind on the hike back home.  It was a warm evening, but a light breeze brought respite to a scalp hidden beneath the foliage for months. I felt immensely calm and self-assured, at ease with everything around me. Quite a few eyes turned in my direction, but this didn’t reduce me to the self-conscious wreck I usually become.

I spotted AJ cycling in the opposite direction, his designer attire resting elegantly on broad shoulders, his face impeccably arranged into a smug look suggesting the world weren’t good enough for the likes of him. Oddly enough, even his presence couldn’t pierce my good spirits. As we closed in, I was in no mood to be rude. Shooting him a good natured smile, “Hey, Ajay,” I called out. His disinterested eyes had failed to spot me, but his ears were in good order. As he twisted his body around, looking for the person who’d dared call him by his real name, his face registered more than the natural surprise a polite greeting from an adversary justified.

“Dude,” he cried out, his fake accent vanishing under a shrill tone, “why are you bald?”

Girish Sreenivas is a short story writer and short filmmaker based in San Francisco, California. He hopes one day to drop the adjective ‘short’ from the previous sentence. His Tamil work has been featured in the magazines Mangayar Malar and Thendral.