Nobody warned me about haircuts here. I asked about a good barber and got good directions. A good one has a shop next to the Tibetan restaurant where the food is too salty. The shop, large by Indian standards, was about 4 telephone booths in size. There was just enough space for two barber chairs, a waiting bench, a sink for washing hair and a television tucked in a ceiling corner, about 5 ½ ft. off the floor.
The barber was very accommodating and he got to work straight away. “How?” he asked. “Shorter” I replied, and he did just that. The television was tuned to the India-Pakistan cricket match. There were three other men in the shop watching the match. Thinking about it, I’m not sure where there was space to stand, or sit, but there were three other men watching the match during my haircut. A flicker of fear went through my mind. The barber had a sharp scissors in his hand, and India was losing 278-0. The Pakistani batter was still going strong. I should have politely tipped him and left. But I wasn’t thinking fast enough.
The haircut started out in a relatively normal fashion, snipping here and snipping there, some combing and some water spray. He did a lot of snipping, the more I thought about it, half-watching the cricket match, a game I don’t yet understand. Why don’t they throw the balls faster? The Indian bowler was averaging 53mph. He couldn’t get a job on a little league team in the US. The barber kept snipping, and Pakistan kept adding up points.
Then my barber put down his scissors and attacked my skull with his hands. He poked my head a bit with his fingers, then massaged my pate most vigorously with the flats of his hands, tearing out tufts of hair by the roots. What the heck was going on? Should I fight back? Had he finally snapped with all these Western tourists around? Then he tousled my hair with panache, in a sort of swirling motion. Had he lost his mind? Was it a joke? Was he making fun of the foreigner? I was being pushed and prodded so hard I was in danger of falling out the chair lest I maintained a strong grip on the thing. The barber had a peculiarly neutral look on his face as he battered away, as if he was just doing his job, not taking out some pent up aggressions on my head. None of the other men there were paying any attention to my battered scalp, fixated on the Indian bowler’s miserable performance. I figured this all must be normal for Tamil Nadu.
Then as quickly as he started, he stopped, picked up his scissors and went back to work snip-snipping. With great relief, I sat back to watch the rest of the match. Each hair received its due attention. My barber played the last two fates with each, measuring and snipping every hair to its proper length. The haircut lasted 30 minutes. I had begun to understand some details of the game of cricket, (at least how it looks when its played, for the rules are still completely foreign to me) but had also become concerned about missing lunch at school. But with my neck brushed off and 30 rs. poorer, I got back to school, looking spiffy and just in time to catch the last lunch tray before it left. The completed haircut was better than many I’ve had back home, though my scalp smarted for the rest of the day.
Five hours later after school, I took Isaac back for a haircut. He needed it more than me, looking very Rubber Soul Beatle. The cricket match was still going on. India was just coming up to bat. I forget the score, but it didn’t look too even. Isaac didn’t get the scalp massage. If it had begun I would have put a stop to it, since I’m not entirely certain if his fontanel has fully closed. But Isaac survived, learned a lot about cricket, and got a nice haircut for only 25 rs.