The ustara (straight razor), seven pairs of scissors, a shaving brush, two rusting bowls, a red bottle of Cinthol powder, a frayed hair brush that has seen better days, and creams and lotions in bright hues of green and pink. Those, and a small wood-framed mirror hanging on to the grille of a municipality park in South Delhi’s New Friends Colony, complete Zahiruddin’s workplace.
Now holding up his customer’s chin — the youngster is sitting on an elevated chair — Zahiruddin carefully slides the ustara down the man’s neck.
For over 30 years now, Zahiruddin, a barber from Asawar village in Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr district, has run his makeshift salon on the footpath of the upscale Eastern Avenue lane in South Delhi, charging Rs 30 for a haircut, Rs 20 for a shave, and Rs 15 for a face massage with ‘Chital’, a brand of perfumed cream that he buys from the weekly bazaar near his slum.
Last week, to help barbers like Zahiruddin, the Delhi government approved the setting up of a Kesh Kala Board to “promote the traditional art of hair grooming”. Pointing out that the barber community, a backward class, has remained “largely un-benefited” from the advan- ces in the Rs 22,500 crore industry, the body aims to provide “adequate training on latest technology prevailing in the industry” to the section.
Zahiruddin says he has not heard about the government’s plans, “but it will be useful if it helps us earn more”. “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 wife and four children who live in the village,” he says.
His customers are mostly labourers and daily wagers who live in the slums nearby, separated from the ritzy homes of the neighbourhood by an overflowing sewage.
“My customers can’t afford to visit a salon. Garib toh garib ke paas hi ayega na (The poor will come to the poor only),” he says, now busy massaging a customer’s face after a shave. “The cream will make your skin glow,” he tells him.
Beaming, the 34-year-old migrant worker from West Bengal, Mithun Rubidar, jumps off the chair. “I work at a general store and deliver drinking water jars to homes in the area. With my income, I can only afford a haircut on the footpath. I paid Rs 50 for a shave and a massage. It would have cost me much more at a salon,” he says.
Following the Delhi government’s announcement, the state’s Social Welfare Minister Rajendra Pal Gautam clarified that they were “not targeting salons, which are fancier and more refined” for the project.
Across the street, the owner of a plush salon that charges Rs 230 for a haircut and
Rs 160 for a shave, says he doesn’t see the barbers on the street as a threat. Refusing to be identified, he adds, “They are all doing their business. Our clients are different.” There are at least three barbers who run make-shift salons on Eastern Avenue lane.
A little after noon, Zahiruddin, dressed in a striped shirt and loose trousers, a few strands of grey streaking his thick mop of hair, takes a break as he waits for customers. Recalling his days in the village, he says, “When I was 10, my father, who made hookahs for a living, sent me to his friend, a barber, to learn the job. At the time, many barbers from my village were migrating to Delhi for jobs, and I accompanied them.”
Since then, says the 50-year-old, he has helped many members of his family and village set up barber stalls on Eastern Avenue.
One of them is his cousin Shahid, 28, who is now busy giving a haircut to a boy in his mid-twenties. “Main guru hoon, woh mera chela hain (I am the teacher, he is my students),” laughs Zahiruddin, looking at Shahid, whose stall is less than 20 metres away.
As he snips through his customer’s hair, Shahid, a father of three, complains about the poor business today. “It’s not very busy today because people have gone home for Diwali and Chhath puja… I don’t make much money, but since I stay with my uncle, I don’t have to pay rent,” says Shahid, who earns about Rs 7,000 a month and has been in the Capital for the past 10 years.
Both uncle and nephew say that they give their customers ‘sada (plain)’ haircuts. “I don’t even have a phone. I don’t watch anything. I simply listen to what the customers ask for and cut their hair accordingly,” says Zahiruddin, as Shahid, who has a basic handset, nods.
“I am happy with what I get. I am too old to pick new skills. I can only use scissors, I have never tried clippers,” says Zahiruddin, adding, “Anyway, I can’t return to my village. My ancestors haven’t left behind any land for me. My 22-year-old son is married and works in a garment factory in Bulandshahr. I haven’t met him in 14 months… He doesn’t contribute any money to the family.”
Zahiruddin says he has had no trouble doing business on the lane. Pointing to a police chowki, about 40 metres from his stall, he says, “They are friendly and never trouble me.”
But his 28-year-old nephew has been contemplating shifting to another profession for some time now. “Par phir main apna maalik nahi rahunga (But then, I will not be my own boss). Now, if I have some urgent work, I can shut the shop at my own will,” says Shahid.
Around 3 pm, as Zahiruddin lights a bidi and calls for some tea from a stall nearby, an agitated Amrit Lal plonks himself on the chair. The 60-year-old, an old friend of Zahiruddin’s who works as a gardener at a kothi in New Friends Colony, fumes, “Budhiya ke pass 700 gamle hain (The old woman who employs me has 700 potted plant). I have to paint all of them. To finish early, I even broke 15 pots, but there are still hundreds of them left.”
As Zahiruddin wraps a white-and-blue striped towel around Lal’s neck to give him a shave, he tries to calm his friend. But Lal continues, “The family also grows a lot of vegetables. I sometimes take a brinjal or two home and cook it for dinner. They taste so bad. When I tell them, they say it’s organic.”
Zahiruddin laughs, and goes on to give his friend an intense head massage. That does the trick, and Lal finally breaks into a smile. “But everyone is in a good mood at home today. The owner has won a golf match,” he says, and returns to the kothi.
Around 5 pm, as the last batch of his customers arrive, Zahiruddin lets out a trade secret. “I offer tea and bidi just like the big salons offer drinking water and coffee to their customers,” he smiles, holding a tray with small cups of tea. “It’s important to respect your customers. That is why they always come back to me,” he says.
An hour later, he begins to wrap up for the day. He leaves his chair at the nearby tea shop, tying it to one of its poles with a chain. The tools and creams are put in a bag. Tomorrow, he will be back at the spot at 9 am again. “I work all seven days,” he says.
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