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For the price of a haircut

A man gets a haircut at a salon in Mumbai.

A man gets a haircut at a salon in Mumbai.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

The salons have come a long way since the 1950s in terms of logistics and rates

In recent years I have stopped reacting to the usual queries by my barber while I settle in the salon chair for my haircut, such as, how close I want my hair to be cut, which hair profile I prefer at the back of my neck, and so on. I simply say, ‘do as you like’, for there is hardly any scope left to style my ever-thinning hair, with little left of it. The guy is glad to serve me because my haircut is a quick job for him, and also because for the going rate of ₹80 for a haircut, I give him a hundred-rupee note each time and ask him to keep the balance.

But things were not always so. During my schooldays in the 1950s, a haircut was done with a hand-operated machine and cost just two annas (the equivalent of 12 paisa today) in my small town. I still recall the tickling sensation each time the machine traversed the back of my neck. There were no fancy salon chairs at the local barber shop, only two wooden chairs with movable head-rests. Oftentimes the barber would apply lather on the face of someone who came for a shave and kept him waiting so the lather may soften his skin for a better shave, and shift his attention in between to another waiting customer, or to sharpen his ustra (the knife) by rubbing it up and down on a long leather strip that invariably hung in barber shops. Of course, those who wished to avoid a visit to the barber shop could get a haircut or a shave by hailing a ‘barefoot’ barber who would do the rounds of the streets, with his trade-mark metal box in hand.

Around 1958, a change in the ‘fashion scene’ necessitated a shift from the machine haircut, which often left behind an uneven hair-profile, to a scissor-cut (kainchi), which cost all of six annas. But it was value for money because the barber would use only a pair of scissors, working on one’s hair systematically to end up in a ‘great’-looking haircut, à la film heroes, whose large pictures would adorn the walls of any barber shop.

In 1965 I shifted to Mumbai, where a haircut then cost about ₹1.50. One did not mind paying it since all the salons here had professional chairs. And by paying a tip of 25 paise (chavanni) to the attending staff, one could get special attention, particularly if one chose the same guy each time. The haircut rate rose to about ₹2.50 by 1975, and to about ₹5 by the mid-1980s.

In 1987 I went on my first trip abroad, to spend three months in Paris. A haircut became due after six to seven weeks of my stay there, and I discovered that to get a haircut at a salon de coiffure one had to pay 200 francs (equivalent to about ₹440, then). By my yardstick it was an insane amount; spending less than that I could instead buy an electric shaver equipped with a hair-trimming accessory. I managed to avoid getting a haircut for another month or so.

From Paris I had to shift to Canada to spend two months as a Visiting Professor at the University of Toronto. My host professor attached a Master’s student from China, Wang, with me for general help. At the earliest opportunity I asked him where to go for a haircut. He said there were salons near the university, but those were expensive, and he was frank in admitting that he and other Chinese young men sharing his apartment did the haircutting for one another! All the same, he took me to a coiffure shop, where I was glad to get a haircut, by now long overdue, for just 8 Canadian dollars (about ₹90, then). That was less than half the Paris rates.

In the meantime, a minor redesign of the ustra obviated the utility of the long leather strip to sharpen it. The modern-day barber inserts in its slot a half-cut safety blade, which is replaced each time for a new customer.

But one thing has not changed at a salon, despite the arrival of the digital age — which is the barber holding a mirror behind his customer to show the back of his head after the haircut, and seeking suggestions for any minor touch-up, if required. On the other hand, one now misses the updates on the local ‘facts and figures’, which one got earlier at a small-town barber shop. While working on a haircut, a barber would engage his customers in gossip and disclose the latest information on the happenings in town. The topics used to be mostly negative, such as about a businessman who was running heavy losses; or about college-going boys who had taken to drinking heavily, and so on.

But present-day customers at a salon are so engrossed in their smartphones that none of them has the time for such gossip. In fact, the age-old custom of some barbers serving as part-time match-makers is under a cloud owing to the appearance of matrimonial websites.

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Printable version | May 21, 2020 2:49:54 AM |

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