Off Season Tourist - India Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta
Two weeks in India, 2003 Notes from the Off Season Tourist
A Haircut, a shave, and a whole lot more.
Considerations for a Bengali Boutique in NYC.

My hair has grown to the point where I either need to join an ashram or get it cut. My hairdresser back in Brooklyn, Barbara, is a big fan of the yogic path but while she might support the Ashram move, Julie agrees that it is time to lose the locks. Fortunately, this morning one of the students announces he has just had his hair cut at a gents barber shop just outside the campus gate. For just 10 bucks (slang for rupees) I can get a haircut, for another 8 a shave and if the mood takes me a facial massage for a few rupees more.

The place is easy to find and, thankfully it is a shop. Up to this moment, I have only noticed people sitting in the barber's chair that is set up on the street with a plastic sheet strung over it and a mirror hanging from the branch of a nearby tree. Like all the outdoor barbers, I see that someone is already sitting on the chair in this shop, but since this is an actual shop, there are two chairs. I am ushered into the vacant spot and have a chance to look around since my barber is doing some unbarber related work outside.

The man to my right is being shaved and I watch as a large block of some kind of crystal, which looks like a deformed block of ice, is rubbed vigorously into his face in what I take to be an attempt to reduce razor burn. It is an unnecessarily narrow shop that appears to have been added on to the side of a much longer building as if a zoning permit required that the building be exactly 5 feet wider than it had been originally built. One entire wall is a mirror and all the electricity sockets are hirsute. The chairs are wrought iron, with very comfortable seat padding and head rests that clunk satisfyingly up and down as they are adjusted. The shop was originally painted Bengali communist party yellow but it has darkened nicely to a puce colour. This is the first shop I have come into where a radio is blaring and it is blaring in a combination of Bengali and English.

The radio is the most bilingual voice in the shop. Since I speak no Bengali and the hairdresser, who misguidingly appears to be twelve years old, is equally monolingual, I tug my hair and rub my face in the universal signs for "I would like to have a little taken off the top, cut the sides back very short, trim around the ears and naturally I would like to be shaved with a straight edge razor for the first time in my life and by a complete stranger who can't tell me when it is really important not to move so I don't get cut."

I don't have to worry about getting directions for head movements from my preteen barber (I'll call him Amitav). Amitav knows exactly where he wants my head to be and wastes no time attempting to make pleasant requests in loud Bengali (so that the foreigner will better understand him). He simply pushes my head in whatever direction he needs it to go. There is no need for shampoo and conditioner in this shop, nor is there any need for scissors that are shiny and new. Amitav opens and closes the scissors more rapidly than the highest speed on my electric razor. Every time he makes a move towards my head he clicks a few practice runs on the air in front of my eyes and I see the hair start to fly. He wastes no time shearing my right side and shifting to the left almost without moving. There is a confidence to his cutting that instills even more confidence in me for the cutthroat razor session yet to come.

Half way through the cutting process Amitav puts down his tools and begins bashing my head vigorously with his cupped hands. It reminds me of the fun I had with friends as a child when we would do the same thing, but pretend that we had just cracked an egg on someone's head. I remember that the student this morning did mention something about a head massage for another 5 bucks or so. Since I don't get head massages when I go to Barbara in Brooklyn, or ever, I don't care about disputing what is after all about one penny of service. Then I wish that I had.

Amitav changes hand position, clasping his hands together and extending the forefingers of both to resemble a short, but incredibly solid fishing rod. He proceeds to mash my scalp with the knuckles of his remaining fingers as he flicks his forefingers into my head. With his mashing complete Amitav ratchets up the neck rest and forces my head back. He has access to one of the smallest drawers I have ever seen, which has to be opened using a length of bent metal. From within this wooden cave he brings forth a tube of soap, a brush and the Sweeny Todd implement of doom - a cutthroat razor; another childhood memory strikes me, this time of my sister and me relishing the visits to a museum where there was an automaton that showed the story of Sweeny Todd, the barber, cutting off the heads of his customers. Sweeny Todd, I reassure myself, was not Bengali.

With a quick smear of cream on my right cheek, Amitav chats with his colleague as he builds up lather by rubbing it into my face and neck with the brush. He leaves the space below my nose naked. I wonder if he has a magic technique, a flick of the wrist that will allow the thick bristles to paint a line across my upper lip. He does indeed have a special technique - he uses his finger. Another move to the drawer of secrets and he removes an unused razor from a package; relief once more. He gets to work, realizing quickly that I have sensitive skin he rubs the wet crystal into my face, it is cold and smooth but very unpleasant. Not only does Amitav manage to get all the hairs I normally miss myself but he grabs up his scissors again, and before I can work out what he is doing, my nose is pulled skyward and my nostril hairs are trimmed as well.

Another visit to the drawer of intriguing items brings forth a small white canister, and a few pantomimed moves that I cannot fathom. Looking at the tub I can see three words in English, Facial Massage Cream and I make the stunning connection that this is another massage option he is giving me. I ask how much and learn that everything so far, plus this massage will be 60 rupees. A quick financial conversion to $1.45 and I announce that I can spring for that. Then I nod so that Amitav understands. He springs to work quickly and soon my face is oilier than it has ever felt in 32 years. There is excess oil, he moves to my neck and massages the tight shoulders and then I have been pushed forward, my shirt is thrown above my head and my back is being beaten by his fists or his elbows or head or all five. I can see in the mirror that my white skin is translucent in this light and wonder how many pale white backs Amitav has bashed pink blotches into. He twists my arm, not into another service, but literally is twisting my arm in some kind of reike movement that makes my biceps turn into triceps and allows my elbow to turn in an opposite plane to my wrist. I can't tell if this is good for me or damaging to my tendons, but I keep silent until the last finger is pulled taught and I am allowed to bring my shirt back to a less revealing position.

The whole event has taken only 50 minutes. A normal haircut in Brooklyn takes an hour and costs 20 times as much. As I walk away I wonder if I can develop my own line of Bengali Hairdresser boutiques in NYC.

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