Editors' Choice

The Barbershop Butcher of Delhi

by Jeff Vize

Things change when the routine becomes mechanical.

I have a thing about haircuts—an addiction almost. I’ll do them anywhere, anytime. I get them once a week sometimes. Especially when I’m traveling. And especially when I’m in the middle of nowhere.

I justify my pathological behavior in a couple of ways: First, I have a shaved head, and I prefer it tightly trimmed, like the shrubs at Versailles.

But that’s a more general explanation. My irrepressible urge to go bald while traveling is more complex. Basically, it comes down to this: I like to have an excuse to go into random barbershops.

Getting a haircut abroad is never just a matter of grooming. I think of it as a chance to pick up a surrogate souvenir. The act of getting a haircut, after all, is an intimate one, and it breeds a unique form of contact with locals. Where else can you sit uninvited among rusty scissors, infected blades and greasy men in for an afternoon shave? Or more to the point, where else can you engage in such a relaxed, unobstructed observation of the above details? Barbershops are hives of community activity, and sitting in the barber’s chair, you have a front-row seat.

But foreign barbershops are also inviting because, as a traveler, your very presence changes the dynamic. Things happen when you walk in for a haircut, and you can never predict what they’ll be.

When I think back to any foreign trip, my first memories are often of barbershops and the characters who cut my hair: There’s that open-air salon in Chengdu where the barber was so focused on my head that the cigarette hanging from his mouth burned to his lips. Or the barber in Osaka who performed his duties with the precision of a NASA engineer. In Thailand, a cluster of children gathered to watch as the barber cut me a Mohawk before shaving me clean. And in Myanmar, a Buddhist monk shaved my head with a razor blade and cast the fallen locks into the river for good luck.

Not all of the memories are fond, of course. I’ve had my share of disasters. But above all of the incidents of nicked flesh, errant scissors, and miscommunication, one particular incident stands out. It happened in Delhi.

After a half-hour of pounding the pavement in search of a suitable shop, I finally found my place. It was an open-front box of a place, with three chairs, two mirrors, and one cluttered counter which held the necessary tools – all predictably filthy and covered in clipped hair. Inside were two barbers and one customer. The idle barber slumped in a wooden chair, flipping through a newspaper. He was a large mustachioed man, clad in polyester khakis, plastic sandals and a stained sleeveless undershirt. Perfect barber attire. He peered over his newspaper as I approached.

“Haircut?” I asked.

One corner of the barber’s mouth turned up in amusement, barely perceptible under his hairy lip. His partner said something in Hindi – “I thought he was going to ask for directions,” no doubt – and they laughed.

“Yes,” he said, motioning me to the empty chair. I sat down and watched as he went to work.

The first order of business was prepping the tools: He dunked a pair of scissors into a cup of translucent blue sterilizer; stray black hairs floated to the top. Next he prepped me: A plastic cape was placed over my front and knotted so tightly around my neck that I strained to swallow. I thought I should talk business before I lost my voice.

“How much?” I asked.

He held up five fingers and a clenched fist. Fifty rupees – about a dollar.

“Sounds good,” I said.

He summoned an errand boy who picked up a broom and quickly tidied the ground beneath me.

“What do you like?” the barber asked.

I ran a hand over the top of my head and moved my fingers in a scissor motion.

“Cut it all off,” I said.

He turned to his co-worker and spoke in Hindi. The other barber recalled their child helper, who then scurried off to the back of the shop. He returned with an antique pair of electric hair clippers – the kind you might use to shear a sheep. The barber went to work on the device, unscrewing its guards, lubricating the parts and inspecting the blade.

As he labored, I scanned the room. The walls were painted in a pastel turquoise, and were bare except for the mirror. Above us, a lone ceiling fan rotated listlessly, with scarcely enough force to scatter the flies. An uncovered light bulb hung next to it. Then, as if on cue, it suddenly burned out. The fan stopped too.

It was a power outage.

My barber looked up and uttered a lackluster curse. This kind of thing was normal in Delhi. I’d been here only two days, and this was probably my seventh blackout.

There wasn’t much the barber could do, but just in case I didn’t understand his predicament, he plugged in the clippers and flipped the switch.

“No power,” he said.

I started to rise from my chair, resigned to wait another day. But the barber held me down.

“No, no,” he said, again calling his helper.

The boy again ran to the back of the shop and returned with something that resembled a medieval torture device: It was a hand-held contraption with two sets of long, steel teeth that ground against each other when the handle was squeezed. Manual clippers. They looked more suited to mangling flesh than cutting hair.

“That’s OK,” I said. “I’ll just come back.”

“No, no!” he insisted, grinding the metal teeth with the hand-powered lever. “Very good. Very sharp.”

The cape around my neck was beginning to feel like a noose. I swallowed hard and nodded. My willingness to go through with the transaction clearly pleased the barber.

“OK,” he said with a smile. “Do not worry.”

With that, he moved around to the back of my head, and pressed the cold steel hard against my skull.

“It’s OK?” he asked.

“OK,” I confirmed.

The barber squeezed the lever and the metal teeth sprung to life. At that point, the world began moving in slow motion.

First I heard the rusty squeak of the lever. Then came an alarming crunching sound, like pebbles being ground into a concrete sidewalk. It took an instant for me to realize, but that was my hair. It was going through the clippers about as smoothly as cardboard through a document shredder. Finally, my nerve endings caught up with the rest of my senses. There was a sharp pain at the back of my head. It felt as if a wild animal were devouring my scalp, plucking one hair at a time.

I screamed in pain.

“OK?” the barber asked.

“No!”

He swiveled my chair around and produced a mirror so I could see the results. A three-centimeter clump of hair was missing and my flesh looked like a strawberry, but there was no blood. There was no chance of turning back now.

“Go ahead,” I said.

He resumed, with all the delicacy of a butcher. With each movement of the blades, it felt as if I was losing an inch of flesh.

The assault took just over twenty minutes in all. When the barber was finished, he held a mirror at various angles for me to inspect the job. Hundreds of isolated hairs sprung up at every point of my head. The barber blushed at my detailed inspection and offered to slice the rebel hairs down.

“No!” I said emphatically.

I already had my souvenir; there was no need to make any more memories. But just in case I was tempted to forget, the Hindu god of fate and haircuts mocked me once more: Just as I left the shop, the fan began moving again. Electricity had returned to Delhi.


Jeff Vize is a writer who lives in Southern California. This story won the Gold Award for Travel and Shopping in the Second Annual Solas Awards.


About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




Read more from Editors' Choice, Jeff Vize

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