A Short Story by Richard Rupnarain
One of the nicer features about the modern vanity is its adjustable side mirrors. Depending on the position of the mirrors one is able to view oneself from a multiplicity of angles. For Krishna Ramgoolam the versatility was much appreciated and he frequented the vanity at least four times a day to satisfy a narcissistic fascination with the back of his head. That morning he twisted his face from side to side and then adjusted the mirrors for a rear view. The thick locks that cascaded down his neck rarely grew this long, and he treasured every moment of the experience for, later that day, Mr. Sammy, the village barber, would shear them to the scalp with pitiless indifference.
A few blue sakis landed on the guava tree outside his bedroom window and for a brief moment the fluttering of wings and sweet cacophony of birdcalls distracted him from his main attraction. He looked at the antiquated clock on the nightstand. It was 7:45 a.m.
"Too early to leave for school," he muttered to himself as he grabbed his plastic comb for a final touch-up on his muffed hairdo. As he drew the comb back and across his scalp he could hear the din from the bustling main street as lorries, motor cycles, Land Rovers, bicycles and pedestrians headed for work at the sugar estate. The bulk of the noise came from the red lorries that transported canecutters and weeders to their destination miles deep into the canfields. The women perched on backless wooden benches and faced one another while the men stood in the middle of the flatbed and held on to galvanized crossbars. The women prattled away while the men appeared stoic and contemplative as if they were being ferried to a long-term penitentiary. All of them except Gowkarran. He cared for neither seat nor bars and lacked the ability to contemplate anything but foolishness. When he kept failing kindergarten the experts from the Ministry of Education told his mother he had A.D.D. She though it meant he was good at math and gave him things to count. Nowadays Gowkarran prefers to hang unto the back of the lorry like a saki winki monkey and make passes at the female commuters. Like an excited Tasmanian devil he would whistle and coo and blow kisses at the girls, often with invitations for a romantic rendezvous in the cane field. That morning when he saw Kowsilla, the young fair-skinned coolie girl who worked at the pay office, his blood pressure hit the roof. The sight of her hairy legs, thin as a pointer broom and well coated with coconut oil was for Gowkarran like an aphrodisiac. Unabashedly he put his thumb and index finger to his lips and summoned her attention with a shrill blast of sound and spit.
Hey Kowsilla! What say abie meet back a pay office after wuk? Me can gee you wan lil ting.
Without giving him the pleasure of a glance she sucked her teeth and pouted her lips so viciously outwards that an oncoming cyclist had to swerve to avoid an oral collision. Although she was getting tired of his daily harassment she did well to hold her peace. All the canefield workers knew Gowkarran was a moron who took insults as a token of love. His grandmother used to tell him that when people like each other they often exchanged hostilities, like throwing bricks at houses or picking at each other at the drop of a pin. Gowkarran believed his grandmother more than the Bible, Koran or the Ramayan. So he tried to show his love to fat man Gokuls daughter by hurling rocks at their house at night. Unfortunately, Gokul was never blessed with the wisdom of Gowkarran's grandmother and the infuriated fat man retaliated by giving Gowkarran a good beating and had him locked up overnight at the police station. Of course Gowkarran does not remember the experience. He still suffers from A.D.D.
When he had no other pedestrian to molest he usually turned to the women seated in the lorry. That morning he singled out the morose sadarine, Betya, as his target.
"Eh, eh! A what you a watch me so fah, sadarine? Na jealous me and Kowsilla; me can meet you back a canefield and gee you some sugar too."
But unlike Kowsilla, sadarine fought back with vicious words.
"Na bother wid you. You head na good. Only jackass pickney gon want you."
The truckload of workers broke out in hysterical laughter when Jaigo shouted out from the front of the lorry, "You get shot there boy. How you mek the lady wreck you up so man?"
"Nah!" Gowkarran nonchalantly dismissed the indictment, "She like me bad. A jealous full she get when she hear me call off Kowsilla."
Krisha heard the booming laughter from the passing lorry and smiled briefly. But he had more important things on his mind, or rather, on his head, like his hair. It was two months since his last haircut and the hair had grown down to his shoulder, too long for his fathers liking. The truth is he did not mind having his hair cut, though he liked the hippee look, but he resented the fact that he had no say in the style of his haircut.
The barber, Mr. Sammy, was a disciplinarian, tall and lanky, about forty-five years old and of Madrasi descent. His greyed Hitlerite moustache stood out against his dark complexion and mingled with overgrown nasal hairs. He looked desperately in need of a shave and a haircut. The barbershop was his second income vocation. During the day he worked as a pan boiler in the factory. After work he came down to the village and ran his barbershop until nine at night. His only rival was a hefty butcher they called the sheriff who practiced his trade about a mile down the road next to the sawmill. But the sheriff was not much of a competition. Mr. Sammy had the lion's share of customers, not necessarily because he was a better barber, but because the sheriff had a foul mouth and an even fouler intestine. He farted incessantly and would leave his customer writhing for minutes in the chair under the pain of methane poisoning while he wandered off in search of the culprit crapaud. Evidently his repeat customers were those vile villagers who delighted in his lewd stories and crass jokes. For them the levity of his jokes was worth the discomfort of methane bombardment.
On the other hand it was Sammys morality and discipline that won and retained for him most of his customers. Parents felt safe to commit their children to his care, a chance they dared not take with the sheriff and his ozone depleting emissions. Krishna was one of those children assigned to Mr. Sammys haircutting skills as far back as he could remember. But at times he wondered if he had a choice who he would choose as a barber, the sheriff or Mr. Sammy. The sheriff was vile but did whatever his customers wanted and it was exactly for that reason Krishnas cousins frequented his salon. For a few cents more they were able to manipulate him into giving them whichever style of haircut they desired. If they wanted their head shaven he would comply without a question. Mr. Sukhdeo, on the other hand, took no instructions from children and hardly any from their parents. Haircutting was his business and no one was more qualified than him to say what kind of haircut should be dispensed to his clients. For Krishna, however, Mr. Sammys totalitarian approach to barbering was the heart of his problem.
Without exception Mr. Sammy dispensed to all children under twelve years of age the dreaded calabash cut. Square backs and jacksons as popularized by celebrities like Elvis Presley were strictly for adults. If boys dared asked for a square back they were reprimanded for their precociousness with the charge, You mannish, nah?
The calabash cut was resisted, although with futility, partly because it was an ugly looking cut but mainly because of the consequences that awaited the victim in the next few days. The hairstyle derived its name from an inedible fruit of the same name. The outer shell of the fruit was hard as plastic and out of it poorer people carved out cutlery, kitchen utensils such as rice bowls, and water bottles. The circumference of the calabash was a perfect fit for the standard head size. Of course it could not fit the head of kids like Goobie Simpson, Krishnas black friend from Long Pond, unless Goobie wore it like a yamaca. From the side Goobie's head looked like a double headed hammer, and in dimmed lighting it was hard to tell if you were talking to his face or the back of his head. When he started high school he was the only student without a cap as there were no size 15 caps in the school inventory and the supplies office had to place a special order just for him. But he did not mind the wait as he never had to worry about anyone stealing his cap and felt free to leave it recklessly about the school property. In any event, the calabash cut gave the impression that the barber placed a calabash over the clients head and lopped off everything that was exposed. That meant all hair below the ears was scooped out clean, leaving the back of the head shiny and slappable. Often Mr. Sammy took the first slap, patting methylated spirits on the finished product. If the boys groaned in pain he was likely to reprimand them with the rhetorical question, You wan gal?
Krishna adjusted the mirrors and took one last look at his long shiny black hair before departing for school. The public school was less than half a mile away from his home and it was usually a ten-minute walk. He would leave a bit early for a little bumper ball throw-and-catch contest with the other guys as well as to drop a soor on Priya, a diminutive but pretty girl from the estate, whose father dropped her off early on his way to work. But that morning Krishnas mind was not on bumper ball or impressing Priya. It was on his haircut and the horrible aftermath. His normally brisk walk slowed to a snail pace as he somnambulated through the winding bicycle tract that was cut into the red brick street over years of use. He never noticed the fresh beads of morning dew on the grass that soaked his brown Cebo yachting boots, the kiskadees perched on black sage bushes surveying their surroundings for breakfast, or the brightness of the morning sun as it rose imperceptibly in the clear blue eastern skies.
He continued in that state of uneasiness all day at school and found it arduous to concentrate on his lessons. Even teacher Singhs revelation of the year having three hundred and sixty-five and a quarter days instead of three hundred and sixty five did nothing to divert his thoughts from the impending haircut. Notwithstanding the teacher explained the discovery with such childlike delight and enthusiasm that made Columbus discovery of the new world seem like a vapid piece of history.
But perhaps the real reason he found it difficult to escape from the haunting thought of the calabash cut was because palpable reminders were not too far away. Booklall, Surujballi and Mukesh sat directly behind him in class. The duncified goats raced to the back bench to avoid being singled out for questions and to be able to cheat without detection. Why they even came to school was for Krishna an unsolved mystery. They never paid attention, were always late for school, never did their homework, cheated on tests, and teased the girls with Gowkarran-like persistency. In all likelihood they would be swinging from the back of lorries as soon as they were eligible for the cane cutting gangs. That afternoon, the three missing links that evolutionists so desperately seek were testing their potency. The test was to see who could elevate the orange Students Companion the highest. Booklall claimed victory after moving the book about two inches but Surujballi appealed on the grounds that Booklall cheated by not wearing any buckta. The hardcover book slid from the lap of his khaki drill pants unto the floor and the commotion that ensued at the back of the class caused everyone to look back in disgust. Everyone except teacher Singh. He had learned that it was costly to rebuke Booklall and his gang. Once they let the air out of his bicycle tire and on another occasion they hid his bicycle in the canefield behind the headmasters house. Now, Mr. Singh turns a blind eye and deaf ears to the shenanigans of Booklall and company.
Unfortunately it was not as easy for Krishna to ignore the nefarious miscreants. He knew that when he returned to school the day after his calabash cut they would slap him repeatedly on the back of his head until it was red and ablaze from friction. Of course none of them would take responsibility for the smacking and no amount of pleading would be good enough to placate the low class imbeciles. Once he tried appeasing them with a plastic bag full of sweet gooseberries. Like hungry wolves they swallowed the berries, seed, stem and pulp, and within moments resumed the attacks on their benefactor. Krishnas only hope for a one-month head slapping moratorium was to wait until the hair began to spurt again.
Three o'clock arrived with startling quickness. The loud clanging of the school bell jolted him out of his preoccupation with the unholy trinity and transported him back in time to the old days of Westerns when men slapped leather at the drop of a pin. He was up against Mr. Sammy and the battle was at 4 p.m. He could even visualize Mr. Sammy sharpening his razor by slapping it back and forth on a three-inch wide leather belt strapped to the wall.
He, on the other hand, was disarmed but had at least a few minutes to procure some munitions for the battle. He was determined to go down fighting for his locks. After school he hurried home for a quick bite and collect a bob for his haircut. His mother also packed a bowl of hassa curry for her brother who lived a few streets away from the barbershop and asked him to drop it off on his way to the barber. His uncle liked to eat fish head and suck out the eye.
The street was bustling with workers who hurried home after a hard day's work. Despite the dust clouds from passing vehicles Krishna could still see the red and white sign Coca Cola on the roof of the barbershop. He could also see the wiry form of Mr. Sammy on the narrow bridge that spanned the four-foot trench that led up to the steps of the barbershop. From the manner of his gesticulations and rhetoric Krishna could tell that the barber was enraged over something or the other and, as he approached within hearing distance of the shop, his worst fears began to materialize. Mr. Sammy was belching fire and brimstone on the hippees as recompense for their destruction of the hairdressing business. In his words, "One ass had made many asses," a reference to the impact of the movement on the young men who now refused to cut their hair. He was so engrossed in his tirade against long hair that he never noticed when Krishna squeezed past him on the narrow bridge.
Like a frightened puppy Krishna huddled into a dark corner of the salon. The little shop was outfitted like a gas chamber. It had one elevated chair for the victim and a bench for observers. The bench was made of solid two-by-six greenheart and sat up to five people. It had become smooth and shiny with years of wear and tear, mostly by men from the neighbourhood, who had nothing else to do after work but "mek and bruk law". They regurgitated the same conversation, mostly about Burnham and Jagan and how they wrecked the country, and sometimes about cricket.
The single wooden window, held outwards with a broken cricket stump, was the only source of light. If darkness fell before nine Mr. Sammy would close the shop and reschedule his customers. Just outside the shop, under the sign, maribuntas had built a nest and a solitary maribunta landed and took off with annoying consistency. Krishna kept his eyes peeled on the winged wasp. A single sting from one of those buntas was good enough to make one look as though he were left for a few minutes in a ring with Muhammed Ali. For a moment Krishna shuddered at the thought of having to return to school with a swollen eye and a slappable head. The minions of hell will have a field day.
The barbershop was a single roomed hut, unpainted outside and in, about ten feet wide and eight feet deep. An outdated calendar, a few pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses, and a frameless mirror decorated the aging greenheart walls. Krishna found himself strangely drawn to the picture of Kali holding the decapitated head of her victim by the hair as she subjugated the man's body under her feet as if to prevent him from trying to escape. The poor guy looked depressed, eyes still wide opened as if mystified as to why he couldnt hear his own scream. The blood dripped to the floor and Krishna followed it to the floorboards of the barbershop. There was no gore on those boards. At least not yet. But soon the fate of his locks will be in the grip of Mr. Sammy's hands.
The planks had shrunken over the years and opened up huge cracks which revealed sparse clumps of grass and mud beneath the floors. The stench that rose from the mud was nullified only by the clouds of second hand cigarette smoke that filled the room. Without regard for safety, health or cleanliness the barber and his customers alike smoked Broadway brand cigarettes and tossed the smoking stubs out the window. Pastor Brown of the clap-hand church around the corner was convinced that Jesus was making reference to the same brand of cigarettes as "the broad way that leads to destruction" and he constantly expressed his amazement in the Saviour's prophetic abilities.
The sound of approaching footsteps on the creaking floor-boards alerted Krishna to the entrance of Mr. Sammy into the shop. Without saying a word the barber signalled him into the high chair, grabbed a white cotton sheet, flapped it in the wind to dispel bits of hair from his last customer, threw it over his head and drew two ends so tightly around his neck that for a moment he was sure he looked like Kali's hapless victim. The barber, still silent, still breathing heavily after his virulent polemic against hippees, dipped his wrinkled palms in a bowl of cold water, splashed the contents unto Krishnas head and massaged the scalp until it was fully moistened. Krishna cringed as the cold water seeped down the nape of his neck and trickled down his spine. Then the battle began.
Mr. Sammy grabbed his scissors and moved in for the kill. With skill and dexterity he clipped and chipped away at the thick black locks as if he was waging a personal war against the hair. He seemed to take delight in knocking off the dreaded bankruptcy-causing hippee hairstyle. The little transistor radio was tuned in to Radio Demerara and the DJ spun pop music and calypso. To the chagrin of his listening audience the DJ constantly interrupted the music to hear himself bray. That afternoon, as Lady Rose belted out "Fire! Fire!" with such passion that listeners could feel the heat, he berated all black girls for allowing Brooke Shields to snatch Michael Jackson away from them. If only he could have seen the future he would have instead commended those girls for their apocalyptic insight.
Nevertheless, despite Lady Rose's animated performance and the DJ's annoying interjections Krishna heard nothing but the clicking of the pair of scissors and its inevitable move towards the top of his head. How he wanted to ask Mr. Sammy for a square back! Even if it was not as deep as the real square back, at least it would reduce the slappable area at the back of his head, but he was too afraid to break the silence. From his lower vantage point he could see right up the barber's flared nostrils. Mr. Sammy was still breathing fire like a Chinese dragon.
Just as the expressionless barber was about to mark off the lower parameters of the calabash cut, Mr. Mahal Goorwah strolled into the barber shop and Mr. Sammy released the locks to greet his customer.
"Bai, long time no see. Where you been all this time?"
Oh, me deh." How things wid you?"
Me a cut hair, a wah else me does do? You na come for a haircut?
"Nah! Me just drop in for say "hello".
Then Mahal leaned under the barber's hand, peeked at Krishna and asked, A Ramgoolam son that?
Yes, Krishna replied.
How you daadie boy?
Krishna pulled at the knot on the cotton sheet to free his larynx so he could speak.
He deh good.
And you mother?
She deh good.
You got a sister at the pay office, right?
Yes, she deh good too.
She married, boy?
No, she deh good.
Must tell you daadie and mumma Mahal say hello.
Then Mahal turned to Sammy and resumed his conversation, breaking into a fit of laughter as he asked Mr. Sammy, So, you hear what happen to Lalman this midday?
You mean bony Lalman who work at the stock room?"
Yes, that Lalman.
No, me na hear nothing. What happen?
Well, you know how every year them Red Cross people does come for blood."
"Yes, me does give now and again."
Well Lalman decided to give a pint because everybody decide to give and he don't want to feel shame."
"Bony Lalman giving a pint of blood? You must be joking."
No! No joke! The nurse look at Lalman and tell him in a nice way that he don't have to give blood, but Lalman want play big man so he holler pon de lady and order she to take the blood."
"And she take it?"
"Yes, the nurse draw the blood and guess what happened?" Mahal held his belly and laughed until he began to cry a flood of tears.
"Tell me! Tell me! Mr. Sammy insisted. "What happened?"
"Well, Lalman couldn't get up from the couch and everybody thought he dead. So them call doctor Singh who was at the dispensary at the time. Doctor Singh examine Lalman and tell the nurse the man need blood. Them had to give Lalman two pint blood before he get up!"
Mahal's hilarious outburst was so contagious that even the otherwise stoic Mr. Sammy could not help but join in the laughter. After a while Krishna couldn't tell if Mr. Sammy was laughing at Lalman or at Mr. Mahal.
So he okay now?" Sammy asked with genuine concern.
Yes, he lil shame but he aright."
Before the laughter subsided, with Mr. Sammy's hands still resting on his head, Krishna seized the opportunity and made a gentle request.
Mr. Sammy, he whispered under his breath, "Can you please give me a square back?
Why? You dont like round cut?
No, Mr. Sammy, when you give me round cut them bad boys a slap me head in school and the teacher not doing anything.
Sammy paused and Mahal intervened.
That na good. Me remember when you been this high you fall down from the flatform and hit your head. They say you had a fracture at the back of your skull and that you have to be careful and protect your head. Sammy, you better give the boy a lil square back. You dont want them bad boys to slap the pickney on his head. You gon feel bad if anything happen to him.
Alright beta, me gon give you a square back. But you tell your daadie, let him talk to headmaster about them lungera pickney who boxing you on the head. Them want some good lick a them backside.
Mr. Mahal left shortly after, still laughing at the incident involving Lalman and his blood donation. He patted Mr. Sammy on the shoulder. "A gon see you man. You tek it easy, right?"
"Yes, buddy, you too. Safe! Tell the misses me say hello."
Fifteen minutes later Mr. Sammy dusted off the back of Krishna's neck with talcum baby power and brushed the hair from his face and the back of his neck with a soft bristled brush. With a grateful heart Krishna deposited his bob on the counter and exited the shop with short but rapid steps as if afraid that Mr. Sammy might change his mind. The euphoria of his first square back haircut was better than imagined. Now he was prepared to face the spawns of Satan. A weak smile appeared as he visualized the disappointment on their faces.
On the way home he dropped in at his uncle and collected his mother's food bowl. His mamee had already emptied the hassa curry and washed the bowl with salt soap. She dried it with a rag and packed it in a plastic bag with some bird pepper from her kitchen garden. As he was about to walk out through the gate he spotted his uncle in a hammock licking the remnants of the hassa curry from his fingers. He smiled and said, Thanks mamoo. You can really lie you know.
Mahal Goorwah bent his head forwards, looked over his bifocals and smiled, A wah you gat mamoo for?