Among the things I do, before going abroad, especially to the West, is have a haircut. This I do partly because haircuts abroad cost a lot of money, and money is an important consideration to an Indian abroad with his right foreign-exchange limitations. I also avoid having my hair cut abroad, because I have this feeling, especially in England, that the white barbers there resent cutting the hair of a black man. I may be being oversensitive, in fact I am sure I am, but I do not like somebody doing me a service when he does not want to.
In any case, on a recent trip abroad, I kept too fine a deadline for my haircut - the evening-before I was to depart. Unfortunately, Rajiv Gandhi passed way, and that day all barber shops, along with all other things, were closed.
My first stop was Germany and the only barbers I was there were at the Frankfurt airport and in the passage that runs under the Frankfurt railway station square. Both, as you would be aware, are like entire cities in themselves, with restaurant, shops, post-offices, banks, the airport even has a chapel.
But I managed without a haircut in Germany. It was frezzing cold and the hair was a good protective agaisnt it. But the US was warm and sunny and my head did require attention by then.
My idea of American barber shops is from old Hollywood films, shops with those candy-striped potes to recognise then by. And, inside, Italian barbers who would break into an operatic aria as they cut your hair. It also extends to American hoods lying in chairs, their faces covered with thick shaving foam, when rival hoods enter the shop and riddle them with machine-funs (they used to call them tommy-guns in those days.)
I was in Baltimore, in the state of Maryland, and I could not find a single barber shop of the description I have given above. In fact, there were no barber shops of any description, though in the streets people were foing aroudn with haircuts. There were only hair-dressers, and they did women and men together, mainly women.
I am aware that in Bombay also they have started at least one such establishment lately, called Touch Of Joy. I would not go to it if they were to cut my hair free, plus give me a pair of fancy shoes.
However, in Baltimore, I had no choice. So I picked what I thought was the most innocusous of them all. It was called The Haircuttery, and a banner outside informed: "No, appointments necessary, just walk in."
Inside, all the barbers were large black America women, wearing black tights, lots of large fake jewelley on their arim and ears, which jangled as they cut the customers' hair. The customers wer also all women, all black, their hair as that of the barbers done up in elaborate and complicated curls and dyes.
I wanted to get out, but I could not. The main door of the shop was kept locked at all times to protect the shop from any hoods walking in, with or without tommy-guns.
After a wait of an hour or so, during which the barbers and customers kept eating fast foods from large paper bags, as all American do, I was taken charge of by what I though was the seniormost barber there. First, she took me to a basin to wash my head. When I said I did not require it, she said it was the state law. So I submitted to it, and I submitted to the haircut, which was what is known as a black haircut and makes all balck American males look like Mike Tyson.
It cost me nine dollars, and when she gave me the change and I was walking out with it in my hands, she told me. "Put it deep in your pocket love. Hold it like that in your hands and they'll rob you."