The Unhappy Barber

Ramulu shocked everyone when he came back after three years in Bombay, set up his barber shop under the tree outside the village temple, and set about his business with complete nonchalance. His fellow Mangali caste-men were aghast that he, having escaped the traditional profession and accompanying discrimination, had chosen to resume it. His relatives were shocked that he had abandoned his lucrative city practice to cut and shave for a few rupees in the home village. Others were shocked that he would answer no questions.

His routine, since he had returned, was a matter for great curiosity. Everyday at first light he would be up, hurrying to the well in the back compound of his house, draw water, and bathe himself. Then he would pull out his razor and shaving bowl and brush and cream, set his mirror on the well's parapet, and begin shaving elaborately. A number of heads would appear over the wall to watch him, ducking the moment he shot a glance. And then he would disappear into the house, to emerge after half an hour in shirt and dhoti proceeding towards his 'shop'. He sat cutting hair all day, entertaining no gossip, until it was time to go home. There, seen through windows, he would have his dinner and go to bed. Nothing unusual, so why was he back?

Many were the attempts by his customers, as they tried to wheedle out of him the reason. Was it a failed love-affair (the running favourite in the grapevine), financial loss or a bitter quarrel with somebody? A theory that he had murdered someone was current among some, who cited his blood-stained razor as proof; shaving cuts notwithstanding. But he kept his mouth firmly shut.

His professional attitude was another big matter of discussion. He offered only one style of hairdressing – short cropped hair all round. No fancy star hairstyles. On the second day since opening his shop, he had dragged his nephew and chopped off the long, flowing locks that the boy had carefully cultivated to the admiration of the local girls, deaf to protestations of it being the latest college style and endorsed by the reigning superstar. Such brutality shocked everybody. Ramulu had to explain his actions.

“In Bombay city no one has any respect for barbers. The men keep no moustaches and grow their hair long like women. Some of them cut their hair into upstanding conical shapes. They never shave properly, insisting on leaving a bunch of stubble at the chin. I had to be extra-careful when shaving, lest I remove the thing they called their 'beard'. It pained me every time I was asked to clean up a moustache, or trim it in some ridiculous style. I couldn't bring myself to do it. How can anyone remove a sign of masculinity just like that? I don't care for riches or fame, Sir, but I do care for my art. So I came back to where it is appreciated.”


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