Saturday, August 8, 2009

Between the Barber and the Barbarians

“Shear and shear alike,” Thathaji instructed Varadan. “Saar, is it a Sanskrit sloka?” asked Varadan innocently.
“Illa da! It means give everyone the same haircut,” said Thathaji as he prepared to oversee the hair-raising—no, hair-shedding event!
* * *
Varadan was a much-dreaded figure in my grandfather’s household. Every other Sunday he would promptly appear at six in the morning and sneak into the backyard and wait patiently until grandfather sauntered out. Nobody announced his presence. Everyone just assumed that Varadan would materialise on alternate weekends ‘to shear and shear alike’ the thriving locks of ten restless youngsters—an event that Thathaji directed with great precision.
Armed with a much-used comb, which was a mild orange in colour, a small stainless steel cup, some soap—a green and awful-smelling neem preparation—scissors and blade, Varadan would
arrive on his cycle bearing the entire luggage in a tiny yellow cotton bag advertising the famous ‘Swarna Coffee’ of yore. Unlike these days when you can just walk into a saloon on any day,
get your hair cut, pay and walk away, one had a strict set of dos and don’ts then. No haircutting on festival days. Or Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Which meant that the haircutting
exercise could be undertaken only on Sundays. (Moreover, it was impossible to assemble the ten uncontainable brats, except on a holiday.) The barbered lot were not allowed to step inside the
house until they had washed at the well, from which water could be drawn only by an un-barbered person. The ‘hair shirts’ had to be washed and dried on a separate clothesline on the terrace…
Haircutting then was surely a tough regimen to follow!
* * *

“Varadan, won’t you ever fall ill or something?” asked Lacchu, one of the Raman-Lakshman twins.
Varadan smiled impishly and said, “Ambi, switch on the radio, let’s hear some sangeetham.” Once strains of thodi came wafting in, Varadan began to hum slowly along with it. Not to be
outdone, Seenu also began to whine along.
“Adada! Ambi, thodi has periya nee, but you are touching bhairavi nee,” said Varadan earnestly, not understanding that Seenu was actually trying to rag him. Varadan was a nagaswaram vidwan, whose side-profession was barbering.
However, he was careful not to display his talent in front of Thathaji. Varadan went about preparing for the ‘event’, while the boys stood around waiting for the inevitable. Suddenly a
scuffle broke out about who has to give his head first. Screams of “you go first, not me you fool, you go first!”resounded in the air as the boys wrestled each other, ending up in the mud near the coconut tree. Varadan stood watching as he sharpened his instruments on a whetstone almost
All this persisted only until Thathaji emerged from inside and commanded one of the ten to fetch him a stool. The boys stood up, dusting themselves. “You, Lalli’s son, go first!” ordered
Thathaji. Soon, all the grandchildren were made to stand in a line for ‘treatment’ from Varadan.
Without much ado, Varadan got to work on Lalli’s son.
“Why is there so much sand in your hair?” he asked loudly, snipping away at the back of his head.
Of course, this resulted in a huge peroration from the grandsire (on the evils of getting sand in the hair, which could lead to worms breeding inside one’s stomach because of eating with
hands unwashed from scratching one’s sandy hair and so on…) that ended with a dig at Lalli’s son, “Is the kaliman inside your head coming out?”
Kinda, who was next in line, was a little braver than the rest and mustered enough courage to complain loudly, “What is the use of having an oil-bath yesterday if you are going to get a
haircut today?”
That somehow seemed to make sense to Thathaji. “The boys have their oil-baths every Saturday and their haircuts happen on alternate Sundays. Why bother pouring ladles of expensive gingelly oil on these thugs’ hair just to cut them off the very next day?” said
thrifty Thathaji. Kinda became the hero of the day when Thathaji declared that
henceforth oil-baths shall happen only on alternate Saturdays—one week ahead of Varadan’s arrival.
Thathaji seemed lost in thought for a while. “Varadan, how much do you charge for a haircut?” he asked suddenly.
Varadan looked puzzled. “25 paise per person saar, but why this question after so many years?” he asked humbly.
Thathaji grinned and continued, “If you were summoned to cut Ravanan’s hair, how much would you charge?”
Varadan scratched his head and said, “25 paise for each head saar.”
“What! You dare to speak untruth. Just now you said it is 25 paise per person and now you say it’s 25 paise per head,” Thathaji boomed. “Now tell me, how much would you charge Ravanan?” he persisted mercilessly.
"Er...25 paise sir," agreed Varadan.
"If your fee for Ravanan who has ten heads is 25 paise, then you should charge me also only 25 paise for the ten heads you are attending to today," ordered Thathaji.
By now, the ten hooligans were doubling up with laughter. “Saar, shall I cut your hair also, then
the count will be 11 and this confusion would also end,” pleaded Varadan pathetically.
Convulsing with laughter, Thathaji concluded, settling for a royal haircut on that
luxurious Sunday, “Ade Varada, sharpen your wits along with that blade of yours!”
The boys were besides themselves with devilish glee. It was a treat to see Varadan squirm like
semiya in hot milk. Lifting one leg over another, Seenu, tongue sticking out, struck a Nataraja pose to show his happiness. Rama-Lacchu did synchronised swimming in the air. Kinda folded his
hands and kept bowing his head like an automated toy that said “Jai Hanuman”. Varadan took it all silently. Quietly observing the boys’ black humour, he plotted his revenge. Thathaji’s haircut
was almost over. With other customers, Varadan would have stopped with the haircut for 25 paise. But for Thathaji he always threw in an oil massage for free. The old man was a tough customer. He always made sure he got his money’s worth and more. If this grandsire had
one weakness, it was money, and he never spent it unnecessarily.
Varadan poured some oil onto his palm and got to work. Moving his fingers soothingly over Thathaji’s scalp, Varadan began, "SaarI am planning to go to my village to meet my mother. I will be away for nearly a month.”
“Very good,” said Thathaji.
“I will ask Subbu, my barber-friend, to come to your house while I am away.”
“Very good,” said Thathaji.
“But he will charge you 30 paise per head saar,” said Varadan cautiously.
“Why is that? I will not pay so much. I’ll wait for you to come back,” retorted
“Saar, at your age, hair will not grow back so fast. But what about these poor
boys? They will grow enough hair to make into a plait by the time I come
back. Summer is approaching fast. In fact, just yesterday I gave the opposite house
Dikshitar’s children a good headshave. They feel so cool and light now. I can do it for you at no extra cost, saar,”said Varadan, and stopped for the message to sink in along with the oil.
Just then Kappu came up to the well to draw water for the boys’ bath, when Thathaji stopped her quite suddenly. “Kappu, go inside and get some sandalwood paste. The boys are going
to get their head shaved!” Thathaji ordered, immensely interested in Varadan’s proposal because of the prospect of saving a month’s barbering costs. Kappu ran in giggling, yelling the
news to the others.
The boys stood transfixed. Seenu’s cosmic dance stopped. The twins’ froze and Kinda fell to the ground in shock. The other six boys, less brave than the others, were already sitting in a row
waiting for the blade to fall!
Varadan was too clever to laugh in Thathaji’s presence. But he talked about Tirupathi, the delicious laddoos one gets there and the medicinal properties of the sandalwood paste
used while tonsuring heads. No amount of rebellion deterred Thathaji from his thrifty decision.
“Keep quiet, you rascals. Going around with mud and lice in your hair. I’ll give you a shave every month if you don’t keep quiet now,” Thathaji said and shut them up once and for all.
In 20 minutes flat, there were ten gleaming heads, shining with sandalwood paste...ten faces yellow with anger! Seenu was almost foaming at the mouth with anger. Kinda was ready to pick up the nearest stone. But what could one do with Thathaji around? Having successfully finished
his task, Varadan bowed low to Thathaji and said, “Bless me saar, I’ll come back next month from my village. In fact, I decided to go there only after coming here. That too only when I was cutting your hair saar,” he said humbly, all the while throwing a sly smile at the ten
yellow heads.
The barber walked few steps. Then, as an afterthought, he called the youngest of the boys and handed him a rupee. “Buy laddoos for yourselves with this and say govinda-govinda before eating it, okay?” he said and sped off on his cycle before Kinda’s stone could hit

1.Illa da : No, man
2.Sangeetham : Music
3.Thodi : A well-known raaga in
Carnatic music
4.Periya nee : A high-pitched
musical note
5.Bhairavi nee : A musical note
from the Bhairavi raaga
6.Nagaswaram vidwan : A
person proficient in playing the
nagaswaram, a windinstrument
famous in South
7.Kaliman : Clay
8.Semiya : Vermicelli

*Between the barber and the barbarians was published in Chatterbox Children's magazine. Since I carried a Sitamma story last week, my family requested me for a "Thathaji" story this week. The story is in memory of my late grandfather whose birthday falls this month :) Hey cousins- enjoy!


  1. hey jaya, that was funny... i remember my childhood days when my mom and granny would coax me to have a haircut.
    looking forward for further such posts...

  2. Hi akka, very interesting and nostalgic. Supero super.... Rams

  3. Lol...that was funny!
    As a child I used to hate haircuts. Sometimes, my dad used to do the ritual for me and once he messed up my hair so bad, that I cried myself to sleep!
    Keep the posts coming..
    BTw, I love reading your column loony life. :)