I'm a writer based in Delhi, India, writing fiction, poetry and drama. I have a Masters in literature from Delhi University. I’ve received an Akademie Schloss Solitude Fellowship for Literature in Germany for 2009-2011. I have had a book of short stories published, titled *Nowhere,* by Indialog Publications, Delhi, under a pseudonym, in early 2005. My radio play, *In Hot Water, *was included among the special commendations in the BBC International Radio Play Contest 2007.
The Barber’s Shop
The barber fastens the white protective cloth tightly round your neck and proceeds to fill the spraying bottle with more water. Finally, it is your turn.
While waiting, desultorily flipping through the pages of a magazine, you watch the others deliver themselves into the hands of the barber. And you think, how utterly delicious the movement of a sharp blade entering deep into the throat of a man, as if slicing through butter, bringing forth warm gushing spurts of blood, live red pure blood. Of course, the hands could always be washed later.
While waiting, your ears wander toward the music playing in the barber’s shop, through the overhead speakers: infinitely irritating movie songs, produced assembly-line, cooing sweetly like a bus running at high speed on punctured tires. You follow the so-called notes with painstaking attention, trying to grasp the significance of the lyrics, missing nothing. You know all of this by heart. You hate every single minute of it. But it is futile to try to divert your attention. You listen to the music. It carries on mechanically, a jangling joke in the name of melody. You listen, simmer, and watch the hair on the head of the person in the barber’s hands grow shorter. Barbers are not known to play sensible music.
While waiting, you look at all the mirrors reflecting each other: in front and at the back, and on the two sides, and one on top, slightly angled, looking down. You wait your turn and wonder which mirror reflects which mirror. Everywhere you look, it’s the same. Only a slight change in the looking glass: front, behind, left or right. There is no mirror that distorts, changes perspective, heightens or deepens, obscures, or makes you vanish. Everywhere, the same barber cutting the same man’s hair, or slitting his throat!
The gossip that has a habit of ringing through a barber’s shop can almost drive you nuts.
‘Oh! What is the big deal in that? When I drive my car, my friend, it doesn’t run, it flies!’
Does it, indeed? Then why don’t you go fly with it?
‘The amount of money he made there is not funny. You only have to know the right people these days, and you can get away with almost anything!’
Groan. Not money again.
‘We are mere barbers, sir. Open our shop at 6 in the morning and shut at 10 in the night. Carry on an honest business!’
Enough, enough, enough of this nonsense, you shriek, shout and cry, though no one hears you, of course. The fucking asshole sitting in the chair is too busy being hearty and self-assured and the man standing over him is too busy smarming up to him. Oh, you plead and pray, why can’t one bury one’s head in a black stinking drain so that one’s hair, which has the revolting habit of growing back no matter how much of it is cut, can simply be washed away, with all that shit, never to come back? If there is a hell on earth, it is here, in this air-conditioned barber’s shop.
The cut precedes the shave. You must get both done, now that you have come and it is your turn, besides the slitting of your throat. Of course the barber unctuously inquires if you would not also like a facial massage or oil in your hair. Would you? Would you be so stupid as that? You certainly do not look it in the mirror, whether in the one that’s right in front of you, staring back at you, or in the ones beside you, to which you can turn and bump into yourself. How about it then, are you stupid enough in the mirror at the top, do you look adequately insane or inane in the mirror that he holds up behind you after he’s done cutting your hair? Come on then, there are other people waiting, cursing you in their hearts. No, thank you, just a shave please.
Oh really? Does Monsieur now desire to watch his blood flow into the bowl placed under his throat? Will now be the right time for it?
Staring systematically turn-wise at all the blank walls in your house, you come to a decision regarding the necessary and pending visit to the barber’s shop. It is not very far away and the whole thing will hardly take an hour, if you’re lucky. Of course there are other chores, too, that you haven’t done for a while now. Like cleaning away the cobwebs that stretch from the ceiling down to the floor in your house, and which re-form behind your back as you walk through them on your way to the kitchen or the bathroom. Or going to the market to get some milk, which you haven’t had in your kitchen for the last twenty years.
The dirt plastered on these walls reminds you of how smooth the walls in a barber’s shop are, in fact how smooth everything is, there. The tiles, the lustrous overhead lights, the elevated chairs, the spanking-clean shining ceiling-fans that are hardly used anymore because of the air-conditioning. It’s the mirrors that do it, that make everything appear so unbearably smooth, that turn everything into cream and oil.
Maybe this extraordinary fear of barber’s shops originates here. Or maybe it is the numerous glinting blades, full of menace. Or maybe it is the constant yapping of all those anxious scissors, yap-yap, yap-yap, annoyingly near your ear, that finally, finally, drives you over the edge.
The sound of the traffic whizzing past the shop is highly disconcerting. You have just now taken your place. All you want now is to be at peace in his hands, fully delivered, preparing for the sacrifice. It has a ritual flavor to it, this whole exercise. The draping of the clean white cloth over your everyday clothes, the careful taking-off of your glasses, the automatic lowering of your head in expectation, the demure folding of your hands over your lap, almost the closing of your eyes, while he still stands at the basin filling water into his round plastic bottle. This half a minute, thirty second gap or interval or period, must contain the most sacred meaning of all, materially embodied by the meeting of your eye-lids over the horizons of your mind, and the sound of the water rushing into the bottle from the tap at high speed. And your heart must now stop, stop, stop – utterly stop, to ponder over the course that it has run in the sun, or the shadows that it has erected, up till now…
Instead, what you hear is the sound of a motor-bike zooming past outside, leaving the din of its high-pitched beeping ringing in your ears. Followed by a car shrilly honking its horn. Followed by just sounds and sounds and more sounds. Nothing can shut it out, this continuously jarring flow of traffic – not the closing of your eyes, nor the gritting of your teeth, nor the fierce concentration on the alleged music from the overhead speakers. There is no sound of water from the tap now; there are no landscapes of the mind left, only traffic, traffic, traffic, and its noise. The barber approaches with a horrible grin on his face.
Nausea overcomes me and I quickly close my eyes to overcome it. It would seem that I have a particular susceptibility to vertigo, nausea, sickness and general unease. The muscles in and around my heart contract, come together with crunching force, and my mind whirls in the face of this latest menace. The pressure in my pelvis is enormous, my stomach stiff and sunken, my chest blown out from the drawing in of my breath, I close my eyes.
Failing to make any headway either through scissors or through blade, the barber now approaches with an axe. It is only twenty years now since I last got a cut or a shave. The roots, the thick lush black roots that I have pushed out during all this time, now prepare to be cut, or rather, to be hacked away. As the barber raises his axe for the first blow, my breath – held up until that moment – escapes my breast and my eyes fly open to notice the thick strands of hair populating the barber’s wide arm pit.
The cut precedes the shave. Mercilessly he scythes through all obstinate clumps of hair that dare to stand in his way. He hits from the left and from the right, from a height down to the nape of my neck and from my belly up to my hidden, secret forehead. He swings his two strong muscular arms every which way and works up a sweat, drops of which begin to fall on my fast-naked skull. He takes a final mighty heave and lets out a cry almost of despair as the axe slips out of his sweaty grasp and flies across the room to shatter the mirror on the wall.
My throat bobs invisibly under my beard, as I swallow.
Having hacked through the reams and forests of hair on my head, the barber now wipes the sweat off his brow, in all this air-conditioning, and takes a wary mistrustful look at my beard. I can read the fear in his eyes. With a single stroke of the sharp and worthy tool, with a single blow that severs all entrenched roots, with a single swipe that reduces all life to nothing and restores meaning to everything, he slices through the utter frailty of my hair, annihilating my beard, and slashes lustily through my awaiting, expectant, full throat, hewing my one single body into two, to taste the first warm drops of pure, red blood, on his parched, white lips, deeply awaited and fulfilling, like rain.