By Vardhan Patankar
“Nowadays, they have machines that give you a haircut and shave. You just have to move the machine blindly over someone’s head or face and you earn money”
A pure happenstance led me to Pehelvaan. I was standing with my friends after our safari to the Kaziranga National Park. We were deciding upon a place to have breakfast when I noticed an old barber – a lanky old fellow wearing a greasy black coat, a lungi of an unknown hue and a muffler of the same colour. His shop was peculiar with an intriguing character. As I peeped inside the shop, Pehalvaan bent forward as a gesture of respect and muttered, ‘Pranaam!’ (Greetings!) in a hoarse yet effective voice. I said Namaste back to him and smiled. He did not smile back but offered me a barber chair.
The condition of the shop looked battered. There was a bed in one corner covered with an unwashed blanket, a few half broken mirrors, a rickety chair with nails sticking out, a few utensils and a shaving kit. My hair was not long nor my beard, but the only way to get the man talking was to sit on his hot seat. So I sat, relaxed and asked him to give me a shave.
A native of Bihar, Pehelvaan started working when he was ten. He never wanted to be a barber, but his father coaxed him to become a barber when he cut his father’s hair at ten. Afterwards, he honed his hair cutting skills with neighbours and friends before taking up an apprenticeship at a village side barber shop at eleven. After a few years of experience, he opened his first barbershop. And he continued cutting hair for the past sixty odd years.
Besides barbering, his other skills are professional wrestling and masseuse. As a young lad, Pehelvaan had won many awards at “kushti” (a traditional form of wrestling). His daily schedule was packed with activities. He used to work out for hours, eat fifty Rotis (Indian bread), a bowl full of chicken and lots of green vegetables. While narrating his wrestling days, he offered me a head and body massage. He knew various techniques of body massage, and he tried them on me all at once. The penultimate was the ‘Caaatak’ sound of bones. Every time he heard the ‘Caaatak’ sound, he gave a sigh of relief with the sound …‘Haaaam- Haaaam- Haaaam’.
By now my other friends got captivated too and soon lined up for a shave on his hot seat. Pehelvaan kept talking. He told us about his bicycle, his chair, children, religion and his life in general. In a few minutes, we realised that Pehelvaan had endured a lot of ups and downs in life. What seemed encouraging was that his meagre earnings had not impaired a faith in himself. His hand, as well as his mind, was steady even at this old age.
After the shave, we paid him for his services and made our way to the hotel. In a while, we met him at a tea shop. We asked whether people passing down the road might miss the shave or haircut. He waved aside our concerns. “With people like you coming to us, where is the need?” he said, with a spark in his eye.
A while later we bid goodbye to Pehelvaan. As our car passed by, we saw Pehelvaan seated beside his empty barbershop. He looked serene as ever, surrounded by the memories of his past.