Like every other self-respecting, Bengali, middle class woman, my mother ensured that I grew up idolising my mostly balding father, often through eulogies about his childhood exploits and his present accolades, and at times, through the universal language of the khunti (a handy tool in the kitchen, used at times to bend food or children into shape.) What I didn’t understand at that point was, this was, in fact, preparation for a long and arduous journey of my life without hair. By the time I had finally established the emphatic connection between my father’s choice of actors (Sir Ben Kingsley and Sir Sean Connery), his favourite footballers (Zidane, and Ronaldo – undeniably, the finest) and his favourite bed time story about the wise man and his two compassionate wives [as the story goes, the younger wife would pull out the whiter hair while he slept at night – and the older wife, would pull out the darker hair while he read his morning newspaper – until one day, he looked into the mirror and realised the obvious] – I had taken a few gravely disconcerting glances at the mirror myself.
The gradual, heart-breaking descent into baldness (and profound grief) has been immortalised in the conversations with the friendly neighbourhood barber. Since time immemorial, men have shared an inviolate bond with their barbers – for their ilk have always been aware of mankind’s darkest, yet unavoidable insecurity. As I have noted, in my latter years, these conversations can be broadly categorised under three heads.
The Denial: Between the intermittent snips, the Bollywood songs of the 90s (as my cousin, Sudipta agrees – it has to be Mohra) playing in the background and the discussions about the Indian cricket team, the barber drops in a quick word about how a particular region on your scalp has been drawing his undivided attention. “Shampoo use koro? Barite bolbe, tel lagate choole” (which roughly translates to: “I am not sure, you understand the concept of shampooing your hair regularly. Your parents have failed you.”) Since you’ve known the latter for a fact (for quite some time now), you overbearingly dismiss his grave concerns and remind him of his modest place in the society. (Often resulting in dire consequences – like the time when he had the nerve to chop off a bit of my ear.)
The Bargaining: Over time, as your mane withers away (like your self-respect), the visits to the barber become increasingly infrequent. These meetings are solemn; the barber greets you at the door with the large, doleful eyes of an unrequited lover. Conversations are rare, and when they transpire – he implores you to take care of your scanty vegetation. “Chooler byapare kichu korun, dada” (which roughly translates to: “For fuck’s sake, man – you haven’t got long.”) You can feel the cold, lifeless scissors waver indecisively against your skin, as your (mentor and) barber is desperately searching for the first tuft of pelt to snip at. You finally steal a glance at the mirror – the light patch spreading like a malaise, at the centre of your scalp, is enough to send a chill down your spine. Meanwhile, a new character called Dr Batra, has made a sudden and extraordinary appearance in your life and your mail box. You have finally begun purchasing those expensive products those attractive women proudly display (but make sure, you buy the right product, otherwise – in your endeavour to regenerate your fur, you will end up giving your partner very sleepless nights.) Your mother has begun watching The Transporter or Fast and the Furious, especially when you are around. And your father seems to smirk whenever you run your fingers through your hair.
The only person who’s been unwavering in her panegyric of you, is your lover. Because, like you, she’s going through denial.
The Acceptance: In the conclusive stages of terminal illnesses, the dialogues between the doctor and his patient gradually move away from medicines and maladies to the weather, politics and economics of the world. Similarly now, your barber makes only a passing reference or two to your hair – and when he does, he does so in the past tense – as he makes the swiftest two hundred odd rupees he has ever made in his career. “Kalker khela ta dekhlen naki?” [For all purposes, it translates to: “Let bygones be bygones”] he asks, casually. Discussions range from hometowns, growing up and education to music. Wry smiles are exchanged, words are left unspoken – as he merely points towards the length setting on the trimmer. He doesn’t even bother selling the expensive products displayed magnificently on the shelves, for you and your hair have sailed beyond the point of no return. Like your pride. Like old lovers who meet after decades of separation and divorce, there is only sincere warmth left – and a tinge of remorse and nostalgia.
The next challenge is to reassure the world that everything is quite alright in your life. Take for instance, our marketing professor, who had a fondness for placing straight Fs on answer scripts. He grimly walked up to me (while I was busy debating the 4Ps with my immediate neighbour in the exam hall) and placed his hand gently on my shoulder. [I had already planned my life beyond college, were I to be ejected at that instant. It involved dancing cats and a little begging here and there.] He looked at me from over his precariously balanced glasses and asked with a hint of careful concern, “Somak, is everything okay at your home?”
It took me a full minute to realise the consequences of what I had done. A shaven head is associated with grave distress in the Hindu culture. As such, when I sent across the first images of my shaven head to my parents and my girlfriend, a wonderful thing happened. The otherwise disputing parties, for once, came together in their unified critique of my actions.
In hindsight, it does take some getting used to – this new condition that has descended like a darkness upon you. You move to and fro between the CCTV cameras and the display – sincerely hoping against hope, that the prominent bald patch, outshining everything else in the display, is not yours. Your colleague struggles to maintain eye contact with you – his eyes rapidly twitching between your eyes and your head. And of course – middle aged bald men in your organisation, have found a new ally in you. They nearly fall out of their chairs, when you remind them – you are barely twenty-six. Concerned relatives occasionally trace out with their fingers on your head, what they assume to be, possibly new hope. Lucky for me, Sampriti is a brave girl – she takes the mounting criticism in her stride, as she defends her questionable taste in men.
The only person who seems to be drawing unbridled pleasure out of your discomfiture, is your father. After all, what goes around, comes back.