I begin with thanks to Manjari, my wife, for giving words to my thoughts.
The Happy Man
“The number you have dialed is switched off, please try again”; the message in Marathi had a ring of finality. Just back from Chicago, I badly needed a haircut. And the barber reputed to be the best in town was not only out of Jabalpur but gallivanting somewhere in Maharashtra going by the “hearsay”.
One of the recurrent problems which I faced during my long years in police was perpetual bad hair days. I had tried and experimented with the best and the worst barbers. But the results had been almost similar – hair cut too short, too close to scalp, standing on ends or stray strands at the back which refused to be tamed. Therefore, I was more than eager to try out Kishan Saini ,who was sworn to be an angel with golden scissors.
Around 11 an unknown voice greeted me on the phone. ‘I am kishan Barbar. Did you call me?’ The man was brisk and businesslike. ‘Come at 11 45 . Please mark the time and don’t be late ‘he said politely but firmly. I was intrigued If not a bit offended by the tone.
Driving down the main cantonment lane in Jabalpur – the poshest in town- I found his billboard missing. Maybe I had got the name wrong…Maybe I took the wrong turn.. . Suddenly the driver spotted “The Jyoti Hair Dresses. “ Sir ye hai’, he announced triumphantly and I actually had to check the name twice to be sure. Unlike the glitzy salons – I had visited only a few – this was just a kiosk. No waiting lounge with piped music, no fancy chairs, no colour- coordinated uniforms or fancy interior décor. The small matchbox sized room with three worn chairs and old spotted mirrors had three men solemnly snipping at the customer’s hair. One of them – an elderly man, plastic glasses perched on the nose turned to me and casually asked. “Mishra saa’b?” “You are five minutes early sir”, he said apologetically ,“please wait” gesturing to the wooden bench placed outside the shop.
I stood around. Did I have a choice?
It proved to be the longest haircut of my life. The man actually took each hair it seemed, measured it’s length and cut it, as though he was handling something precious and fragile. He would switch sides, twist my neck gently, spray water ,comb and re- comb till he found and snipped at the hidden culprits. Then he launched an intensive search operation on my ears followed by my nostrils. I lost interest, felt terribly bored and dozed off . After nearly 55 minutes he finally stepped back , looked at me with satisfaction . “You may now look into the mirror. I did ,and was totally floored.
This easily was the best haircut I had ever hand in past 60 years. “How much do I pay you” I asked after thanking him profusely. “Thirty rupees” Kishan declared as he turned to invite a waiting client to the chair.I thought I had not heard him right. But thirty it was.
“This is my rate” he told me matter of factly. I forced him to take 100 rupees. Anything less would be cheating, I told him.
It has been two years since I have been frequenting’’ Jyoti Hair Dresses ‘’ (never mind the spelling). Kishan himself makes it a point to call me up every month to remind me and fix an appointment. During the hour, he on an average turns down two to three clients. He doesn’t accept more than a dozen anyway, switches on the mobile at 11.30 AM and turns off at night “to avoid saying no to sahebs” and refuses to hike his rates. “Some of my oldest clients would not be able to afford the charges “he confided.
There are other reasons as well, I gathered during our random exchanges. Kishan has been an excellent son, brother, father and a caring husband .His father well cared for till the end, passed away last year . Brother works with him in the salon, and son training to be an engineer.
”Tough times are over. My wife and I can live quite comfortably on what I carry home. So where is the need to be greedy,” he asked me yesterday, after another great haircut.
I took in the small cramped room, creaking chairs, discolored walls and the worn tools of the trade neatly arranged in fading plastic mugs .
“ I may not have a haveli to live in or an empire to rule but I go to bed content and wake up a happy man. Now what more can one ask for ,sirji ?” he searched my face for an answer eyes twinkling through the glasses.