Saturday, September 17, 2011

Of snips and clips

Whenever I get my hair cut, I prefer the street side hole-in-the-wall barber to the one running the air-conditioned salon. Any day. First, there is that little matter of paying a lot less for the same service. Then of course, there is the small talk and gossip. You just can't beat a barbershop, as far as smalltalk goes.

Barbers, will tell you amazing stories. So amazing, that sometimes, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, will pale in comparison. And sometimes, you will learn new things about the great epics themselves, that glorify all sections of society. Including the barbers, of course.

The small Desi town I grew up in, had only one barbershop. But, there was an entire bunch of "traveling" barbers, who would come to our home regularly, to check who needed a haircut, and who needed their nails trimmed. Once, while getting a haircut from one such "barber on call", I came across an interesting story.

After slaying the demon king Ravan, when the Hindu god Ram came back to his kingdom of Ayodhya, the streets were adorned with flowers, and the men and the women dressed up in their finest silk and gold. To welcome the king back home, from all his years in the wild, fighting monsters and demons in a way that the world had never seen before. But, before the king could re-enter his kingdom, people close to him realized that he badly needed a haircut.  And so, the first group of people who attended to the great king -- were a bunch of barbers. According to my barber, that very fact showed how important a barber's place in society is. Since Lord Ram, God's own avatar on earth, needed the barbers before anyone else, on his way back to the golden throne.

In case you don't believe it, like I didn't for a long time, you can actually open up your personal copy of the Valmiki Ramayana. And, in chapter 128 of book 6, the Yuddha Kanda, right after a bunch of verses describing familial love and propriety, the king's brother, Bharat, realizes that the king needs to look like a king. After many years in the wild. And then, out pops a verse with -- you guessed it right -- a bunch of barbers in it. With gentle hands, if I may add.

We are just about a couple of weeks from the beginning of the biggest festive season in India. From Gujarat to Bengal, and Kashmir to Karnataka, people participate in nine days of rituals -- to worship the mother goddess, in various forms. But, the tenth day, is usually reserved for the Lord Ram. On that day, during the festival  of Dussehra, people celebrate the homecoming of the warrior prince, to take up his throne. And many places in Des, have the ultimate form of entertainment for Desis like me, in the form of Ramleela, which is a form of folk theater, that reenacts the famous  battle between Ravan, the demon king, and Lord Ram.

Like all small towns, ours too had its own Ramleela troupe. A handsome "pretty boy" used to act the part of Lord Ram, and the local pehelwan (wrestler), used to act the part of Ravan. The pehelwan, let's call him Bajrangi, since I don't remember his name, used to express his frustration over the fact that year after year, he would be defeated in battle, by the "pretty boy". And year after year, his requests to act the part of Lord Ram, were declined on the grounds, that he was too fat for the role. So, since eventually, every pot boils over, Bajrangi's did too -- during the enactment of the famous battle on stage. We had to hurriedly pull the curtains down, and break up an irate audience with all sorts of excuses. And the next day, the entire town saw the "pretty boy" with a black eye. And a very happy Bajrangi, gorging on jalebis, at the street side halwai's sweet shop.

What we learned out of that entire experience, was the simple fact that the battle between good and evil, personified by Ram and Ravan, is still not over. And everyday, new Rams and Ravans are created -- and the battle -- rages on.

So, the barbershop, that I used to visit regularly, was run by two barber-brothers. One of them, was a Mr. Ramachandran, who would give me the most awesome haircut and head massage for about fifty rupees, and throw in some smalltalk and gossip in his strongly accented Hindi, for free. Sometimes, he would also tell me with a lot of pride, that he was named after Lord Ram, the demon slaying Avatar.

Then, the barbershop suddenly closed its doors. People told me that there was a very public falling out between the two brothers, and they shut the place down. I had started looking for another place to get my hair cut. And then, last week, the place reopened. With my favorite Mr. Ramachandran gone. His brother, gave me an excellent haircut and head massage, but the smalltalk was missing, which I attributed to the poor Hindi he spoke.
I asked the guy what his name was. He told me that it was Ramachandran. I remarked, quite innocently, that it was quite strange that there used to be another Mr. Ramachandran in the shop, who used to give pretty good haircuts. 

Like Bajrangi Pehelwan from my small town Ramleela troupe, the new Mr. Ramachandran, exploded. In his heavily accented English, he told me, "Sir, I am the true Ramachandran. That man you met before, was not Ramachandran. His real name was Ravanna."


  1. Lovely one! You reminded me of my School Hindi Lesson, called Ramleela. The story of Ramleela, talks abt how a Young Lad, who played Ram in his childhood, plays Ravan as he grows up (in the same Ramleela Camp)

  2. The other lesson is that good must ultimately triumph over evil - at all (any) costs.

    There can be no better example of this than one that occured during a Ramlila enactment. during the final fight, Rama's bow broke. Rama was now weaponless & defenceless, while Ravana was brimming with all kinds of nasty weaponary. However, good had to triumph - Rama with admirable presence of mind started jabbing Ravana with an arrow, till the villian was finally laid low.

    The only funnier sequence, has to be the one from the movie 'Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron'.

  3. The barbers here (small town, K'taka) are musically inclined. They have a band called 'Savita Samaja'.
    When the temples need them, they turn out in white dhotis & shirts and play Carnatic on saxophones & traditional drums. When the church needs them, they turn out in uniform (blue trousers, yellow shirts & blue hats) playing film music on trumpets & drums .... looking quite at ease in both avataars!

  4. :) This is interesting, never heard the barber stories before :D

  5. Dear Viyoma: Thanks! Roles keep changing, don't they?

    Dear Sudeep: That was funny! Was that infamous scene from "Jaane Bhi Do yaaron" from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata? I think there was a Draupadi somewhere...

    Dear Soumya: Very interesting. I once went to a barber who plays the "nadaswaram".

    Dear Chintan: Barber stories are the best!


  6. Dear Desi Babu,
    You are right - in my mind I had completely mixed up the "Jaane Bhi Do yaaron" Mahabharata scene with the Ramlila one from "Naram Garam".

    It was so many years back, what times those were, and what movies :-)