“Tut, tut! Come quick, help my hair,” a well-built, bald man, aged fifty, hitched up the dirty curtain and stormed into the lean-to, and sat heavily on the lonely rusted wooden chair. He was admiring his look before the cracked mirror, and crooned. He turned his head side to side, and happily twitched a week’s grey beard.
The boy just opened the shop and was sweeping the floor. His head spun, and he muttered, “Ugh! The day is lost!”
“Why moving lips, my boy? Have you cut tongue with your tiger teeth?” Mr Saputa carelessly asked without turning his head.
“Eh…sir, a mouth sore.”
“Oh! It’s common. Eat some guavas, and it’ll vanish. Do you eat guavas?” asked the man in a soft voice.
“The tree died yesteryear,” the barber boy flatly said.
“So bad, you need a guava a day. It’ll keep your skin and bowel clean. Come, help me. So many works left. Sunday or Saturday?” Mr Saputa turned his face inquisitively toward the boy who was now sprinkling water on the dust before his shop.
“Head or cheeks, sir?” the boy was solemnly poised with his scissors in his hand.
Mr Saputa looked grave. He rolled his eyes, and didn’t speak for a while. The boy cut his tongue. And minutes later Mr Saputa softly asked, “Am I of your age?”
The boy scratched head and flashed his shinning teeth, and rued, “Sorry sir if I hurt. A fashion of shaving heads ravages the town of late. Old and young and, sir, even the girls and housewives line before the shops. Such is the craze!”
“Ah…! Not a word more! Why do you fuss over little things? Have no manners!” said he in a gruff voice.
The boy calmly lathered and asked, “Sir, why so early today? I know your house, beautiful, white painted, and you never go out of your fence. Miss Topato does the kitchen things, and you keep a garden, and some wild flowers are there.”
“Don’t put shoes into my yard, boy. Make hands free, and let me go. I’m late.” Mr Saputa reclined on the chair and closed eyes. The boy was not happy. Silently he shaved, tapped cheeks thousand times, rubbed shoulders, twitched his brows, and pulled and cracked fingers. The sun was up, and the man fell soon asleep.
A diesel locomotive, meanwhile, whistled past, and the shop, stood on four old wooden poles beside the track, jerked. Mr Saputa was jolted, opened eyes, and looked blank for a while. Nobody was there, and the sunrays slantingly playing with dust in the shop. He stood up; spasmodically unwrapped the sullied nylon sheet from his neck, flung it into the chair, and hollered the boy.
The barber boy stumbled back from a nearby crowd, flashed teeth, wore a funny look, and said, “Sir, don’t mind, have gone to douse the fire between those old hens.”
“What? Who’re they?” naggingly he asked.
“Why? Mr Kodalia and Mrs Kodalia! Dr Rameez forbade Mr Kodalia to walk at dawn as it was not good for his old bone. But lo! The old haggard would wake up daily at 4 a.m. He would then switch on the light, and uncork taps, gurgle, brush, cough, sneeze, thump shoes, and go for a walk at five with a bang at the door. Mrs Kodalia, a fat lazy old woman loved to be in bed till noon. For thirty five years she bore his nuisance. Now she readied a divorce file and a man with a black coat came early morning at Kodalia’s , and before the black coat, they fought, hurled utensils, thrashed flowers, stomped ground, and cried together. People crowded the house, and the men stood by Mr Kodalia, and women pouring water on his wife. Only one client I did, and see such a hullaballoo! ” The boy looked wistfully at Mr Saputa’s face for a pat.
“Ok, boy, don’t hammer. I’ve no time for such offal, wild old bats. Oh! The sun is quite up. Catch it,” he scrambled out of his pocket a crumpled note, and ordered the boy, “keep your own, and with the left bring some fresh flowers home before sunset. It’s urgent. Don’t forget my boy.”
“He has living flowers at home? Why need I buy dead ones?” the boy looked puzzled, but did not argue further.
Mr Saputa hurriedly strode toward his home.
At sun set the barber boy fetched fresh flowers to Mr Saputa’s. Two or three big cars stood in front of the gate. A soft music was playing indoors. Rolls of laughter and cacophonies wafted the surroundings. The boy roamed among the strangers for a while. His eyes searched for Miss Topato. She fled that night. The boy heard it a few days later.
(First published in Anthology, titled Awareness, Ed. by Jhimly Chakraborty, in March 2019)