Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Cycling Barbers of Yore

KENNY MAH recalls his childhood days when he used to dive for cover when it was time for a haircut

I HEAR THE RAPID-FIRE staccato of a bicycle bell and I know it’s time to run and hide.

The first place that comes to mind is always my bedroom. It’s my secret sanctuary. I’ve had it since I was two, a place for spending silent hours alone with my books. But that’s no good. They’ll find me there—it’s the first place they’ll look. The storeroom under the staircase? Too dark. The balcony? Too open. The garden? Silly place to hide considering that’s where the Indian barber will park his bicycle and set up the torture chamber, right under the biggest of the mango trees, the Siamese one. No, it’s probably easier to give up this flight; they’ll find me sooner than later.

Mom’s already calling me. Sighing, I plod downstairs and out into the garden. The barber’s already pulled out the stool and gathering the rest of his equipment, his sarong wrapped confidently around his waist. His face grim, never smiling; his voice curt and impatient. A pure-white skull cap on his head, thin-framed spectacles and a crisp and startling peppery beard. This is the face of authority.

He calls me over, hands me an old bronze cup. It is really light in my hands and for a minute, I am mesmerised by the dark and light smudges, the beatings it took to shape its near-perfect form. It’s this that I remember most today—the cup, the water I must fill it with.

These days, there really aren’t many traditional barbers, Indian or otherwise, left in Malaysia. I see a few authentic barber shops around, usually manned by a pair of grizzled old Indian gentlemen. The large, ungainly barber chairs that used to frighten me at the age of seven are still here; now I am taller than my barbers and my legs drift away from the chair into the corners. The mirrors are bigger, brighter, cleaner; the music is rarely Hindustani songs, more likely the latest pop hits on the radio. Of course, it’s no longer hot and muggy in there; there are air conditioners now. I miss the smell of jasmine incense in those shops. A haircut has become sterile now, safer, and duller.

And I haven’t seen a cycling barber in years.

The cup. The water. The blade—the terrible shaving blade that he’ll whip around the back of my neck, over each side of my big, plump head. I am stone when he wields it over my head for fear of getting sliced. I take my time filling the cup with water from the garden hose because once I’m done, I will have to sit down on the stool, and he will begin his work. It’s inevitable, but somehow every minute delayed counts, like a respite from an unjust sentence.

Eventually, the barber gets annoyed, shouts at me to sit down and stop playing the fool. He grabs my head in his hands roughly (how hard his fingers, how cold) and tilts my face up. It’s a moment before murder, I think, and this thought relaxes me somewhat. I always plead, “Jangan pendek sangat, jangan pendek sangat.” His reply: “Botak baru cantik.

Bodoh,” he adds, a little later with a self-satisfied smirk.

I believed from the age of six till 11 that the cycling barber would shave my head bald one day, as promised, simply because he believed it was beautiful. A naked scalp, like his, wrapped snugly under the snow-white skull cap he always wore. I remember staring at the flecks of white in his short, well-trimmed beard. It told me that he was wise, in his own way.

The red fire-ants from the mango trees begin crawling up my legs. Or so I imagine. I’ve never been bitten yet, but who dares tempt fate? I fidget and he smacks the side of my head to remind me the operation isn’t over yet. Be still. My skin feels raw. Time for the blade. Sizzles—I can feel every pore at the back of my neck opening up. I am convinced if I move even one millimetre in any direction, he’ll cut me and I’ll bleed to death right there, in the middle of my garden. So I keep still and quiet, and blank out the imaginary ants from chomping into my thighs.

When he’s finally done, I remember to breathe again.

No wisdom greets me when I walk into a hair salon these days. No barbers for me. No time. The new hairdressers are young boys from small towns who have migrated to the city. Not unlike this old Melaka boy. The magazines at the hairdresser’s outlet are FHM, Men’s Health, Torque. There are no cups here; no need for that as water is not used in cutting the hair. A vacuum tube and a sterilized brush-head does the job well. Quick and easy. They won’t even remember your name when you leave. You have a membership card and an identification number. Before the door closes behind me as young hairdresser at the counter calls out, “Two more cuts, sir, next one free!”

Ah, for the days of scary cycling barbers!

Reproduced from the 2011 Annual Issue of Quill magazine


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