Picture this scene — four rotating chairs set up in a single row, all in front of a single long mirror. The attached dresser table, of the same length, is laden with an assortment of clippers with individual hairs all over them, dryers, bottles of powder in bright hues of green and pink, and frayed brushes that have seen better days.
We are in none other than Odyssey Salon in Mandaveli, the workplace of Sam, a strapping young twenty-four-year-old lad, and also an immigrant from a small village near Gangtok, Sikkim.
For the average Indian, the friendly neighborhood barber also doubles as a psychiatrist. We pour our hearts out to the barber, never mind the lack of privacy. It’s a classic two-for-one deal. While Covid-19 has multiplied conversations on digital platforms, it has also curbed face-to-face talk. And one of the people now silenced by the pandemic is the barber, as neither he nor his customer wants to risk infection through droplets that may escape the ever-so-present mask. And that’s a great loss for anyone interested in illuminating lectures from the professor emeritus at the University of Life on everything from politics and pandemics to the weather and whatnot.
Due to a lack of opportunities for work in Sam’s hometown, he was forced to move all the way down south to Chennai, where one of his uncles helped him find employment at the salon. Holding down his customer’s head as he prepares to trim the back of his head — a middle-aged man with a lush mop of hair — Sam carefully starts running the trimmer along the back as he talks to me. As he recounts to me the experiences he has had with customers, he says some people are positively saint-like, the people who think about others, that is. On the other hand, there are also those that turn out to be some of the rudest people he’s ever met. “Maybe they’re unhappy with something in their personal lives and decide to take it out on me. Most people who come here are friendly, but some are very fussy.”
“I manage to earn about Rs 10,000 a month. Apart from the Rs 2,500 rent, I have to send a large chunk of it to my parents who live back in the village,” he says. “Apart from the not-so-great pay, I quite enjoy this line of work, not because of the work I do, but because of the conversations that I get to have. You never know who’s going to occupy the chair in front of you next — every day brings a new surprise, a new experience.” When asked about future plans, he replies — “I plan on staying here for another 2–3 years, after which it’d be time for me to move back to my hometown — after all, there’s nothing like home, is there?”
~~ Written for Aspire India, as part of a series exploring the lives of blue-collar workers. Illustrations by Supraja.