In the heart of the traditional northern localities of India’s Kolkata city, right opposite to the Mukul Bithi Children’s School on the Abhedananda Road previously known as the Beadon Street; survives a hundred-year-old barbershop under the main staircase of an equally antique mansion in a room measuring ten feet by four feet.
Rain, hail, or thunderstorm, right at 6:00 AM every morning barring holy Thursdays dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi, Chidam Napit would lift the clangy corrugated shutters of ‘Lokhi Art Salon,’ his beloved haircutting enterprise, a barely surviving flicker amidst an inferno of dazzling and fast-evolving businesses in the cosmopolitan city at the end of the twentieth century.
While the central throne in this business establishment, a reclining metal barber chair reserved for special loyal customers was operated by Chidam himself, three four-legged wobbly wooden ones were manned by his second in command baldy barber Konok Kanti and two apprentices Rajen and Chedi.
Everything in the shop was an antique. Right from the backdated steel straight razors, blotchy mirrors of disintegrating wooden frames, ebony handled pig bristle shaving brushes, blue-bordered white enamelled iron mugs, a Direct Current (DC) mini ceiling fan kept alive through an alternator, to the bakelite and copper electric switches, everything was reminiscent of a long-forgotten bygone time.
Chidam had inherited the shop from his celibate mentor Lokhi Ronjon Kachi, in 1960, when his guruji suddenly kicked the bucket due to an unfortunate case of blood dysentery. Now in the year 2000 after forty years of running this hundred-year-old business, for the first time Chidam was seriously considering bringing down the shutters of his beloved shop permanently.
It was not that Chidam was a bad barber. On the contrary, he was perhaps the best that anyone could anywhere find. The man claimed that he was the fastest haircutter in the world and perhaps stood true to his claims. Chidam was lightning fast with the scissors. During the heydays of Lokhi Art Salon, people would just come to the shop to see him cut hair at super-fast speeds.
Now with time, all those days were gone. No one was so much interested in an old barber’s haircutting speed. The younger generation just did not find the place happening and preferred to spend more money and indulge in the bells and whistles of a modern parlour or a hair clinic.
To make matters worse, the highly acclaimed and successful Jamal Hafiz beauty chain had set up their brand-new outlet just within a walking distance of two minutes from the antique barbershop. Chidam’s craftsmanship and years of reputation were no match for Jamal Hafiz’s solid marketing strategy, social media promotions and local media advertising. How could Chidam and his pyjama-clad barbers compete with the bleach-streak haired ultra-modern stylers of Jamal Hafiz?
Few flickering oldtimers remained loyal to Chidam and the meagre earnings from their weekly visits were no longer sufficient to keep the business functioning. Lokhi Art Salon was gradually sinking in the shifting quicksands of time, and it was no longer viable to keep the place running.
Chidam and his men tried their best to survive. The old barber tore his hair to come up with some new services such as the hot towel face wash, bleach and streaks, groom face pack, and the Hollywood head massage. These were chalked on the century-old slate board showcasing the services and their prices. Whatever they did it was just not sufficient to reel in new customers and save the business.
The old barber was not obtuse. He was open to new ideas, welcomed progress and was ready to adapt to survive. He had always supported a change for the good but simply did not knew exactly what to do or have the means to do something revolutionary that would help the business revive.
“The ungrateful Rajen and Chedi also left,” shouted Chidam while clipping the few remaining strands of hair on the shiny dome of Mukherjee babu, one of the shop’s last remaining customers, a pan chewing stick-wielding eighty-year-old.
“I heard the rascals are undergoing a six-month course from the Jamal Hafiz hair institute on completion of which they would be hired in their new outlet next door,” replied Mukherjee babu spitting droplets of red beetle leaf juices from the gaps of his toothless mouth.
“Kaka (uncle) it’s only me and Chidam da (big brother) remaining, and soon we would be gone too. Then you can get your mains chopped by the young ladies at Jamal Hafiz, he he he…,” chuckled baldy barber Konok Kanti, sitting idle at one corner of the shop scanning the pages of Anandabazar Patrika one of Bengal’s favourite regional dailies.
Now Jamal Hafiz was a real case study of success in the world of hairstyling. After great struggles, the man had established eight-hundred-and-fifty salons and sixty-five hair academies across twenty-four states and one-hundred-and-fifteen Indian cities.
His salons had even transcended beyond borders to the countries of Dubai, Singapore, Nepal, and Bangladesh and of all the things that Jamal was proud of, his greatest achievement was for holding the record for 410 nonstop haircuts in twenty-four hours, etching his name in the Coca-Cola published book of records for Indians.
Now Jamal had heard about Chidam and his claim to be the fastest haircutter in India. This was something that was greatly disturbing the young entrepreneur, who had laminated copies of Coca-Cola’s certificate declaring him so, displayed at all of his salons. Every, now and then he would hear reports of customers from his Beadon Street salon mentioning that Chidam was the fastest barber and that would boil his blood to the core.
One day when he heard a customer from another of his salon in a posh locality of South Calcutta, mock his laminated certificate saying that it was not true, as Chidam from Lokhi Art Salon at Beadon Street was undoubtedly the fastest, Jamal could no longer take it anymore.
He barged out of his parlour and started his car and drove madly till he reached Lokhi Art Salon. “Hi there, you must be India’s fastest barber about whom I have heard so much. Could you give me one of your legendary superfast haircuts,” requested Jamal politely to Chidam who was grossly engaged in reading the Anandabazar Patrika, while Konok Kanti was massaging the toothless Mukherjee Babu.
“Oh! I do not know if that is true. People say I am the fastest,” replied Chidam humbly inviting Jamal to sit on the central reclining throne. Not knowing who Jamal was, Chidam began cutting his hair. Jamal pressed his stopwatch and after two minutes fifteen seconds heard Chidam say, “It’s done young man, was that fast enough for you.”
Jamal could not believe what he just experienced. Of course, his hair was already neatly cut, so Chidam did not have much to do, still, the old man was unbelievably fast, this simply could not be true. For a moment Jamal became speechless. He did not know what to say. He felt like tearing up all the certificates from his salons. A single question kept lingering in his mind, “The old man’s fast but is he faster than me too?”
The young entrepreneur went home, all torn up inside. The whole night he could not sleep and kept on twisting and turning in his bed. He kept on questioning himself, “am I making a false claim? Am I lying to my customers?” Then finally at the break of dawn early morning, a solution came to his mind.
The next day he went to meet Chidam and revealed who he was. “Everyone says you are the fastest haircutter but I have a record certified by Coca-Cola for completing 410 nonstop haircuts in twenty-four hours. I want to invite them to test your claim. If you can beat my record, I promise you that I will close my Beadon Street store so that Lokhi Art Salon can prosper like before,” said Jamal to a flabbergasted Chidam, who gaped speechless holding on to the page-three section of the Anandabazar Patrika Bengali daily.
For the next one hour, Jamal convinced Chidam to take up the challenge. Then on the agreed date, Jamal made all the arrangements. He invited officials from Coco-cola, got students from the neighbouring schools and local residents to register their name to get a free haircut. Timeslots were given to all the customers. Jamal brought many employees from his stores to make sure that the hair cutting lineup was uninterrupted.
With the clip-clop of Chidam’s antique grooming paraphernalia, the competition began sharp at 7:00 AM and Lokhi Art Salon was filled with life once again after many years of its existence.
As the day progressed, Chidam saw how tirelessly Jamal’s employees kept on feeding the line of customers with people. Baldy barber Konok Kanti was at Chidam’s side constantly supporting him in the haircutting process. Mukherjee Babu had taken up a special seat at the corner of the salon and had come prepared with his coffee flask and food basket. He would not miss a minute of this happening event.
Now the moment of truth was just thirty-five minutes away. Chidam had completed somewhere near to four-hundred haircuts, and it seemed that he could win the bet and save his century-old business. Jamal had not moved from his spot in the salon the whole day apart from three washroom breaks which he took when Chidam also took the same. As the last thirty-five minutes progressed, he observed that Chidam would perhaps not make it.
Finally, the moment of truth arrived and everyone in the crowd resonated with a reverse countdown from sixty to zero and the Coca-Cola officials blew the final whistle at 7:00 AM the next day. An exhausted Chidam rested his scissors and sat beside Jamal on the small wooden bench.
After several minutes of joint consultations and comparing of notes among the judges, a Coca-Cola official opened the door of Lokhi Art Salon and standing on a high stool announced, “from 7:00 AM of 12 September 2000 to 7:00 AM the next day, in a twenty-four-hours time or one-thousand-four-hundred-and-forty minutes, Chidam Napit of Lokhi Art Salon has properly cut the hair of 408 people. His name will not be etched in the Coca-Cola book of records and Jamal Hafiz continues to hold the record at 410 haircuts, that is the official verdict and statement.”
It was a sea of mixed emotions amongst the overflowing crowd. The young employees of Jamal Hafiz danced and celebrated. Mukherjee Babu stomped his foot and left the salon in rage. An expression-less Konok Kanti went on to sit at his favourite corner in the salon to glance at page-three of the Anandabazar Patrika as he always did.
After few hours when all the humdrum had subsided and Chidam was all alone in the shop casually sipping a cup of hot chai, Jamal came to speak with the old barber. “Dada (big brother) I know you purposely slowed down during the last thirty-five minutes. I just want to know why you threw away such an opportunity to earn so much name and fame and also save your business,” asked Jamal with much wonder in his eyes to Chidam, who appeared calm and triumphant even in his defeat.
With a caring smile, Chidam placed his right hand on the young entrepreneur’s shoulder and said, “you see Jamal, though I welcome change and development, I never had the potential to initiate it. As the competition progressed, I saw multitudes of your young and aspiring employees running around trying to save your name.”
Looking into Jamal’s eyes with great appreciation Chidam continued, “I came to realise that you are the future. Through your eight-hundred-and-fifty salons and sixty-five hair academies, you have just started. You have given so many youths employment, hope for a better future, and have created a revolution in hair care. I might be the fastest barber, but I am not the future. I have some money saved, it’s time I laid down my scissors and perhaps visit a few other places.”
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at email@example.com or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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