I have been flying in to Netaji Subhas Chandra International Airport in Kolkata since 1980, but even after so many years, it is a thrill to arrive in Bengal after a series of long flights. This year, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the new Kolkata International Airport was in service.
This year having arrived from a city that was literally below freezing when I left it, I was a little taken aback by the layers everyone was wearing in 20 degree Centigrade weather- scarves, sweaters, shawls, monkey-caps, and windcheaters. I am sure they all thought that I was some sort of lunatic for wearing a half-sleeve shirt and trousers during the evening! Apparently, there was a cold-spell going on at the time.
Speaking of evenings, the first few days after I arrive always go by as a blur and I’m never really ever sure if it is morning or night. However, because I travel internationally more than I used to, my experiences with jetlag have become more manageable than in the past. That said, I still find myself waking up very early in the morning for the first week or so.
But there is something I have to do within the first day or two of arriving in Bengal. And that is to get a haircut and a shave from a friendly barber.
Make no mistake, an interaction with a barber is not solely about getting a haircut or a shave, though certainly that is the primary goal. There is a binding contract that a grown man has with his barber. In America, my elderly Vietnamese barber is a well of anecdotes, unsolicited advice, and general chitchat. As time has passed, I’ve gotten to know more about her early struggles as a poor immigrant in America and as a single parent raising a daughter.
With Abhi, my barber in India, for obvious reasons, I have to schedule a session before I arrive through my in-laws, so that he can close shop to make a house-call. At the designated hour, I sit on a chair on a verandah with a gamcha around my neck. Abhi’s starts to work with his scissors.
“What news, Abhi?” I ask.
“Dada, did you know that the Khagen babu is selling his house in February? His daughter is getting married to a decorator.”
“Yes, dada. Should I cut your sideburns, dada?”
“Yes, make them equal. Abhi, where did you hear all this about Khagen babu? How are you so sure of it?”
“Dada, I go to cut his hair. ”
Abhi knows everyone in the neighborhood. We continue talking as Abhi puts the finishing touches on my haircut, and then starts to work up a lather for my shave. By the time Abhi has shaved my face, I have received a complete intelligence report on my hometown. Some of Abhi’s stories are invariably false, but they’re all very good stories.
As Abhi applies aftershave, he asks, “When should I come again?”
“I’ll send you a message.”
“Achha, dada. Aaj ashi.”
Abhi packs up his tools, puts the money I offer him in his pocket without counting it, and takes my leave. I head straight for the bathroom to take a shower.
(An earlier draft was published as a column at M3).