Some time ago Father and I got stuck around B & B Hospital, Lalitpur, waiting from 8 am till 2 pm for a follow-up appointment with a neurologist. What would we do till 2 pm and even later? Were there so many places to go to with a sick old man, who was equally sick of the Kathmandu roads?
We had to find ways to pass the time.
So, in the first round of waiting, he wanted to get a shave as soon as he spotted a salon nearby the hospital. I also realized my hair was long enough for that morning.
I do not want to remain deaf and dumb while a barber’s dexterous comb and scissors are running on my head. To me silence means complete submission of my head and throat to a weapon-bearer. And, since I don’t generally believe in being served by a single hand, and keep visiting salons, every barber is as strange as familiar. Everywhere I better remain equipped with small, friendly, familiar gossips. Let the fellow have some outlet for himself after the drudgery of dealing with heads and hairs of manifold shapes, feels and smells.
This man started a rather long autobiography.
I am from Mahottari. I came here fourteen years ago. The rent was 700 rupees per month when I started in this shutter. It is 5000 now, seven times more. The charge for a head has not increased in that rate. It is just 30 rupees per head, maybe only three times more than fourteen years ago.
I made my life myself. Nothing came to me from the parents. Since my father died when I was six months, I can say I never saw him. He left my mother with three small kids and with almost no land and wealth. Mother had a hard time bringing us up. We did not see school. I grew up working on different odd jobs in Nepal and India. Mother died when I was fourteen. But by then I had helped to buy some fertile land that would nearly feed us for a year.
When I was fourteen, I was engaged to a ten year old girl. When I married her, she was still not big enough. I had to go away to work. She stayed with my brother’s family. It was uncomfortable for her, naturally. But I had no choice. Then one day I realized that brother had already begun to think ill about her. Though I sent home enough money to cover her expenses and even to help brother’s family, she was treated as an outsider, as a sponger. I did not openly complain about it. Before I said anything, one day brother asked us to stay separate. I agreed.
The separation brought greater hardship. Brother gave us only 12 rupees cash and 5 kg of rice. He also kept all the fertile land for himself and obliged us to accept a small piece of barren plot of sand. Our neighbors and relatives advised me to fight for a just share of property. But I gave up thinking that it was futile to waste time fighting with a kin. Alone, I had been able to do a lot before separation. With my loving wife along, I could do even more. This was my hope, my confidence. If God was there, he might show mercy to my brother even for his criminal intentions. God would always help me during difficult times.
Life was very difficult, difficult beyond our imagination. My wife and I almost regularly shared one piece of millet-bread and passed nights. But mutual love and promise to survive misfortunes gave us additional nourishment and motivation for struggle. I learned the salon work, which I had missed learning from my father. This opened way for life. Initially, I made rounds to market-places in my own vicinity to find long hairs and long beards. Then, I heard that Kathmandu had a bigger market. I left home without a second thought, and with little grudge my wife let me come. It’s already fourteen years since.
I have about two bigahas of fertile land now and a concrete house in the village. My sons go to boarding schools here, in Kathmandu. The elder is a boarder, the younger stays with me. I did not try to teach them this skill thinking that they should grow to be educated and should be doing more lucrative jobs. But the elder has learned it on his own, insistently. He believes that a barber’s son carries his life in fingers, and will never have to starve if he has a towel, a mirror, a stool, a razor and scissors. I like this optimism in him. I am sure he will be capable of doing things apart from tending hairs. My wife and daughter stay at home looking after the land and livestock.
My brother has not increased an inch of land ever since he threw me out of home. His sons have spread to different places and have their own salons. But they have never gone to school. My brother earns in bits by going around villages.
I have not forgotten those days. I had the ability and determination to find my own world and surely would not trouble him if I was allowed to stay close. But I think, I would not have done much if he had been too good and protective. I would not come here. But as he shunned me, shunned my bad luck. No grudges for that. He should at least have made himself a good human being. I wish he would still do it.
But I have no bad feeling about the past. I only wish he would remain away from me. I wish I did not have to give him money, which he never returns. He knows how he had deprived me of my own earnings, but is never ashamed of asking me for money now. I gave him ten thousand rupees for his daughter’s wedding last year. My wife never likes it. She constantly reminds me of the 12 rupees and 5 kg rice. But I help him stealthily. What can I do, he is my brother. And, the people who knew of my hard days are not around to tell the people who are around that he does not deserve any help.
The story would go longer if we had more heads to offer him. But, since we had no hurry, we allowed him to finish the narrative to this point even after he had finished with us. He was as comfortable and intent with other customers as he was with us. But after years of handling heads, he knew which one had ears and which not.
Well, the barber made me ponder. “A barber’s son has his life in fingers; give him scissors and he will never remain hungry. ”A teacher’s life as well depends largely on his fingers – the things he writes, the gestures he makes and, now, the gadgets he can handle. What do I have that my sons would proudly inherit and brag in their teens and later?
But I asked Father, “What did I inherit from you that will help me even when my degrees fail?”
“Never mind, you have your fingers. You know how to set the plough and oxen, and hold a spade, plug burrows and pluck weeds. And there is some land likely to go barren when mine go crippled.”
[From Midlife Montage]