I’ve had my hair cut in many different countries. India is by far my favorite. I’ve had buzz-cuts that took only a few minutes and cost 60 cents, to hour long ordeals costing much more. I even opted for a “massage” in a barbershop recently on the recommendation of a friend in Bombay. Indian barbers usually throw in a quick, rigorous head, neck and ear massage with your haircut. But, if you simply visit the barbershop and ask for the massage it’s a completely different, mind numbing experience, enhanced by the fact that none of the barbers I’ve had speak any English.
The massage starts out with having your scalp doused with some sort of oily substance. They ask first, in Hindi, and you nod. The strong menthol smell makes your eyes water. He rubs and rubs and rubs. The scalp, ears, neck, forehead, all rubbed strongly. Then he pulls your torso back and pushes his head into your upper back. He’s usually really strong. Then more menthol oil. About 15 minutes into it he asked you something else – about a “machine.” I nod again. He reaches up high on a shelf and pulls down what appears to be an small, hand-held, orbital sander.
The sander must be modified of course, maybe with a 1/2 inch of rubbery, foam padding attached where the sandpaper would normally be. He plugs it in and then guides the sander all round your skull, neck and upper back. Your jaw drops as it relaxes. Your entire head relaxes. Your eyes float in the vibration. You start to drool.
Next he moves on to the final part where he attempts to crush your skull with his strong fingers and hand strength. You try to relax, praying that you don’t have un-diagnosed osteoporosis. This is not how you pictured yourself dying. Just when you think it’s finished, he slaps your head a few more times, pulls your ears, and pushes his head into the back of your head one final time as he grabs your face. Sort of like the Vulcan mind meld. You compliment him many times on your way out as you leave dazed and confused and feeling high as a kite.
Today, I’m 2 weeks overdue for a haircut. But I wait patiently until I’m settled in to our apartment in Rishikesh. I know a place right around the corner, Sony’s (pronounced sunny’s), where I got my hair cut back in 2017. The guy did a great job. He charged me 2 or 3 times the going rate. But I didn’t complain. The haircut was that good.
Sony’s is a tiny, hole in the wall barbershop on the main drag in Rishikesh, close by Kailash Gate. Even though it’s in a dingy area it’s a huge step up from a lot of barbers in India who cut hair right on the side of the road. I’ve haven’t opted for the side of the road cut. Yet. Maybe someday. I had some spare time today so I headed over to Sony’s. There was no one waiting so I greeted him in Hindi asking how he was, then I held up 3 fingers, then rubbed my hand all over my head. This is the international barber signal for using the number 3 clipper attachment, and cutting the hair all the same length. He nodded as he understood.
Included in the haircut are various amenities. Sony stuck the barber scissors up my nose, way up. He snipped rapidly in a circular motion trimming any and all nose hairs. Then he grabbed the cape I was covered with, and with 2 fingers cleaned out my nostrils. At this point I’m hoping he washes the cape between customers. Then he went for the ears. Cut, cut, cut. I guess I had hairs in my ears. Then he took his finger into my ears, probably to retrieve any cut hairs. A quick trim of my eyebrows and we were nearly finished. A few more brief massages and I was ready for the final brush off where he took the brush (from a dustpan & brush, but not the one used to clean the floor) peppered some powder onto it, and brushed me down.
Sony is a great barber. From my haircut and conversation in 2017 I have come to understand his story. As a young boy he spent most of his time hanging around his father’s barbershop. Year after years he watched carefully as his father cut men’s hair. His father would show him some things and allow him to help out as he could. When Sony was 11 his father dropped dead.
After the cremation ceremony and family grieving time, without missing a beat, Sony returned to the barbershop. He grabbed a wooden step stool and started his full time career as a barber. That’s how he got his name, Sony – the barber’s son. Customers continued to show up to get their hair cut and Sony became a great barber over the past few decades. I’m happy to have crossed paths with him a few years ago and have my haircut by him a few times.
As we ended our visit today we smiled and shook hands and made some small-talk. He was really happy. I find that most everyone in India is happy, way happier than we are, it’s in their blood. As I was leaving Sony mentioned that he had lost his only child. I was completely caught of guard. He looked at me but continued to smile, still perfectly happy with the life he’d been dealt. He told me he was fine. I told him I’d be back for another haircut in 4 weeks. I walked home feeling grateful for the life I have that allows me to have experiences like this one. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.