Friday, December 19, 2008

Customary first haircuts

Customary first haircuts
Bad hair days like no other

By Cecil Pinto

Many cultures place a lot of significance on a child's first haircut, treating it as a sort of rite of passage. Some Native American Indians commemorate it with a ritualistic song and dance. The Goan Catholic tradition actually is not vastly dissimilar.

A determined young mother, an embarrassed looking father, and the child enter the barber shop where they are subjected to collective frowns from the barbers, all from Andhra Pradesh, and the clients. While awaiting his turn the child will appear perfectly calm, and in fact be quite amused by the multiple reflections in the parallel mirrors and by the mist spraying bottle.

The designated barber, normally the shortest, places a small padded platform on the chair and the child will sit down there and start displaying signs of wariness as a large white cloth is wrapped around his neck.

(1) Only one barber I know, opposite Café Bhonsle in Panjim, has a small independent child chair shaped like a small pony (pronounced 'horsie ghodda'). Why can't more barbers have such chairs? (2) A reasonably tall stool placed in the middle of the room makes much more sense, giving the barber and parents room to maneuver, specially since the child is not interested in watching, his hair being cut, in the mirror and is only interested in escaping (3) Is it unethical to use total anesthesia on a child for his first haircut? (4) Surely there's scope for haircutting shops specially designed for very young children. Is any entrepreneur listening?
The father looks around in advance offering unspoken apologies to the other barbers, clients and even bypassers. After all he has to return here someday while his wife has no such compulsion. The barber approaches and at the first snip of the scissors the child breaks out into a wail that could crack crystal glass at a hundred paces. What follows is an entertaining tableau worthy of Mario Miranda's keen pen.

The father tries to establish authority, rather inadequately, by holding the child's hands down. The mother is trying to keep the child's head steady with a firm grip on his jaw and scalp. She also says, "Don't worry baba. Nothing will happen. Uncle good. Baba good. Mama give chocolate, ok? Baba nice!" and such gibberish. The barber tries to weave in and out between these parents and get a jab at the child while trying to rein in his impulse to cut the shrieking, spitting child's ear off!

At this point some of the other clients waiting their turn, unable to bear the commotion, will discard their outdated and well worn Stardust or Men's Health magazine and go off for a drink to return later. The already seated clients have no escape and have to bear the ordeal as they hear their individual barbers getting nervous. They just pray for a steady hand – for their respective barber. And for a good view through the mirrors at what has now become a spectator sport.

The father has decided that next time around he's going to borrow a small straightjacket to keep the child immobile. The mother by now is alternating between singing lullabies and making threats of 'Budda-man will come!' to try and quiet down the child. The child starts crying even louder because more frightening than the Budda-man is the appearance and disappearance of the short barber as he darts between the bodies of his parents.

All semblance of decorum is now lost. The father and mother both blame each other for the fiasco and will be at loggerheads for days after this incident. The mother is cooing 'Almost finish baba, almost finish!' to the child who can clearly see in the mirror that the
haircut is far from finished. The short barber by now fancies himself a sort of struggling midget matador. He keeps yelping in Telegu and all the other barbers give him advice, which can be quite unnerving for the paranoid Goan father who does not know Telegu and wonders if they are encouraging Shorty to cop a feel from the Mrs., who is well positioned and in such a state of frenzy, for such activity to go unnoticed.

After a lot of weaving, ducking, jabbing, pleading and wailing the job is finally done with baby hair covering all participants. If this isn't a 'song and dance' to rival the Native American Indians then what is?

Considering the strain on the marital harmony that the first haircut causes a lock of hair is sometimes preserved and taken home, not so much as a souvenir but as proof of paternity, through DNA testing, in case the situation leads to a separation.

Following our first such traumatic experience for a few months Beatrice tried to cut Desmond's hair while he was sleeping but even the slightest trim would take many weeks and loads of patience and nocturnal disturbance. When groggy, the sight in a dimly lit bedroom, of one's wife approaching stealthily with a pair of scissors in hand can be misconstrued. Remember John Bobbit?

I came home from work one day to find Beatrice being very coy and extra nice to me. Walking past her I stopped shell shocked to see Desmond's hair resembling a war zone. Under the clumps and patches he was smiling, quite unaware of his appearance. Beatrice explained, while serving me my favourite masala tea with only milk and no water, that she had attempted giving him a proper haircut, not trim, with the kitchen scissors bereft of comb. We rushed him to the local barber who told us disdainfully that there was precious little he could do to salvage the situation and that Desmond would have to go under the 'machine' for a total tonsuring.

Seeing how easily head shaving could be done using the 'machine' I procured a cheap China-made set of electric clippers and a few months later proceeded to experiment on, who else but, Desmond. His hair had grown quite a lot since the last tonsuring and he now more resembled a hedgehog than Humpty Dumpty. I thought with deft use of the smallest blades of the clipper set I could give him a slight trim.

Anything to avoid the trauma of another barber shop visit. Beatrice had gone out shopping. Well I must have got carried away and, to put it politely, the results were lopsided. It was me who had to make masala tea with only milk and sheepishly open the door for Beatrice. Off we trooped again to the barber who, as expected, made some smart remarks in Telegu to his colleagues.

The column above appeared in Gomantak Times dated 11th December 2008.

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