He is easily accessible and has a personality that contrasts his run down shop. He makes up for the lack of air conditioning by making you feel warm and welcome, he makes up for his 'uneducated' hands with experience and the shrillness of his radio set is offset by his constant chatter, the poor lighting is illuminated with his bright smile. He is the friendly neighbourhood barber.
In the post-liberalization era when RoI-seeking big corporates have added a professional edge to the business and modern salons with 'educated' 'hair dressers' seek to garner market share from small-time barbers, the friendly fingers, the clicking scissors and the free one-minute massages are on the brink of being wiped out by forces of evolution. Fancy devices, unnecessary hygiene and all too scientific methods are on the verge of replacing the hair-filled floors and 'free combing and mirror' services that the barber shop used to offer.
These were the places our fathers used to go to when Gillette Mach-3's and aloe-vera based shaving foams for super-sensitive-skin were not available in retail stores, but were luxuries purchased occasionally by your 'abroad' relatives. These men trimmed nose hair and shaved armpits without a second look. They stocked cheesy film magazines, titillating enough for adults, but safe enough for the children who cycled to their stores after school. They didn't color their own hair or wear it in a special way, and often were the epitomes of lack of fashion sense. The walls displayed charts with numbered hair styles, and you thought to yourself, "When I grow up, I will have style no. 17."
As incomes rise and people switch to the large air-conditioned saloons, one looks back at the neighbourhood barber shop one last time and feels sad to watch it slowly disappear from one’s life, alongwith the many little secrets and tips their owners passed down through generations. The next urban generation may not give a second look to these places as they drive by.
However, as we move forward into a brave new India, let's spare a thought to these 'small' people who made our lives so special for so many years. These men who trimmed the hair of bawling infants and walking-stick wielding octogenarians alike; these men who were part of our culture, a term that was not as abused or misused in those days, men who in their time made the word 'barber' anything but derogatory.