In my childhood, I was afraid of three things: gorillas, spiders and haircuts.
Gorillas were pretty hard to come by where I lived, and although I was scared to death lest one managed to slip under my bed at night, I never came face to face with a gorilla until I came to the city of King Kong.
In comparison, spiders were much more common. From the black hairy wild ones of near-tarantula size that haunted our bathroom in Hooghly to the thin wispy ones with stick-like legs that rained around me when my mom cleaned the cobwebs from our ceiling in Allahabad, they were too omnipresent to avoid completely. But the chances of my actually coming in physical contact with a spider were pretty slim as I was always careful to put the maximum distance possible between me and the nearest specimen.
Haircuts, on the other hand, were not so easy to avoid.
It may not be easy to fathom the reason for my dread of a haircut which is probably the most regular and inevitable ritual in a man's life. Let me elaborate a little. My earliest memory of a haircut isn't bad actually. In fact, it isn't much of a memory at all - just a vague recollection that a gentleman called Ananda came to cut my grandfather's hair at our house in Hooghly and he cut mine as well. At the time he seemed to me as old as my grandfather, but the accuracy of that estimate is highly dubious because I still see him around in Hooghly sometimes and he still looks as old as my grandfather. The fear of haircuts, as far as I can remember, started on the occasions when I had to have my hair cut while in my maternal grandparents' house in Salt Lake.
The BD market had two hair-cutting salons (or saloons, as we called them) run by Bihari hair-dressers and I would be taken to one of them to have my hair cut. Usually there was a queue and the wait there was infinitely boring as I didn't understand a word of what they were saying (I didn't know Hindi at the time). And when my spirit was thus broken by the long and boring wait came the scary part. I was made to sit on a wooden plank placed across the armrests of the chair so that my head would not be too low, and they would put a sheet around me covering my body completely, hands and all. The sheet would be full of bits of hair sticking out like thorns which pricked my neck. The sheet also prevented me from scratching any part of my face.
Not being able to scratch one's face does not seem too big a restriction when you think of it, but wrap a sheet around your hands, and a thousand itches develop simultaneously all over your face, nose and eyes. And then the problem compounded when the cut hair started falling on my face. In those days, for some strange reason, they used to switch off the fan when they cut my hair. The explanation was that the cut off hair blows about and messes up the room. Later, in Allahabad, I found that the salons kept their fans on and now the salons in West Bengal do that as well. So this turning-off the fan in my childhood could have been one of two things: either "may the customer go to hell" attitude of all businessmen in West Bengal, or taking advantage of my innocent little mind so that the hairdresser could have a little less hair to clean. I never bothered to check whether they kept the fan off when they cut other people's hair too. But in summer, sitting in a fan-less room with the temperature close to 40 and the humidity over 90%, and a prickly sheet wrapped around your body seemed to me the last word in torture. And all this happened even before he started to cut the hair.
After this preparation, an indeterminate amount of time was spent in a whirlwind of scissors and combs as my head was reduced to a ball of fuzz and the white sheet turned black with my beloved hair. It sure seemed like a couple of hours at the time but now I don't see any reason why it should have taken any more than the 20 minutes it takes to cut my hair now, even if you compensate for the abnormally large size of my head. The adult accompanying me apparently left instructions to cut my hair as short as possible and so this physical torture invariably ended with the mental agony of looking at myself in the mirror while my torturer applied liberal amounts of talcum powder on my neck using a prickly powder puff. Also, I usually got nicked by the razor somewhere in the region of my ear and the torture continued after coming home when I had to put Dettol on the cut. By then my whole body would be itching due to the tiny bits of hair in my clothes (the white sheet was hardly worth the trouble) and those clothes would continue to prick me until they had been washed a couple of times.
I hope that would explain why I was scared of having haircuts even long after I left Kolkata.
After I went to Allahabad and grew up a little, things turned slightly better. Firstly, as I mentioned earlier, the salons had fans that turned. Secondly, my tolerance to the discomforts associated with this procedure increased. For instance, I could now pass away the time in a long queue by reading the Hindi newspaper inside out or even carry my own book sometimes. Gradually I outgrew the wooden plank and was finally allowed to sit on the chair like adult men did. Another significant change was that I was now allowed to determine the length of my residual hair as long as it wasn’t left too long. Old style razors had been replaced by shaving blades fitted with a razor-like handle by this time, and the ugly fear of HIV had appeared, so one of the standard instructions was to use a new blade on me. But in spite of these changes, having a haircut remained one of the most uncomfortable experiences for me. I was (and still am) very fond of my hair and the way it curves down over my forehead (like my father’s and Superman’s) when it is long, and to see that hair lying in a heap around me pained my heart. The fact that I sometimes had to miss my favourite TV shows on a Sunday morning to get my hair cut didn’t help matters. My school, however, was very strict about the proper length of hair and so I had to endure this ordeal at least once a month.
Gradually months changed to years, and many, many haircuts passed. I passed out of school and into college and came to stay in Salt Lake. The same salons in BD market didn’t seem so scary anymore. I sometimes cut my hair in Hooghly and sometimes in Allahabad when I was visiting my family during the holidays. The experiences were more or less similar now. One marked difference was that I needed a shave these days along with my haircut. After the shave I would be asked to choose one out of two options: either be assaulted by a jagged block of alum as big as a brick or be anointed with a nameless after shave lotion that announced my imminent arrival to people a mile away. No matter whichever I chose the miniscule cuts on my cheek and neck didn’t like it. When I moved to Chennai and then to Hyderabad in 2005, one of the many problems that I faced was explaining my desired hairstyle to the South Indian hairdressers. I usually carried a small photo in my wallet when I went for a haircut so that I could show them my desired cut instead of trying to explain in Hindi and broken Tamil/Telugu. I always got decent haircuts but some of my friends often failed at their explanations and it showed in their hair. Of course, by this time I was doing a job, so there was nobody to tell me how long my hair should be. I had it cut only if I felt too hot or uncomfortable with my hair.
These memories came flocking to me as I sat waiting for my turn at a barbershop in Jersey City yesterday. Here they take less than ten minutes to cut my hair. Here they put tissues inside my collar to prevent my neck from itching when they wrap the sheet around me. They don’t use a razor – they use electric shavers and they have minimal use for scissors and combs as they use a clipper to cut the hair. A haircut is a rather enjoyable experience here, except for the cost. They charge 50 times more for a haircut here than they do in India, and then expect tips at the end. But somehow I feel that these men and women lack the skill and the care that the men used while cutting my hair back home. It is true that I am the one benefitting from it – I don’t have to endure scissors snipping around my head for 15 minutes, hair getting pulled from all directions, my scalp getting ploughed by sharp combs and then neck getting nicked by a shaving blade. But I also miss the way all parts of my head were tended to separately, with different combings before every snip, and then the way each hair was carefully brought to the same size. I don’t want to split hairs here, but I still think an Indian haircut looks much better.
So I am no longer afraid of haircuts, especially since I have reduced the frequency to 3-4 times a year. The nearest gorillas are in their enclosure in the Bronx zoo, and my bed doesn’t have enough room underneath anyway. Spiders, however, are still as ugly and creepy as before, and I think that is one fear I’ll have to live with.