If there is one thing that economists in this country - irrespective of their Punjabi or Bengali origin - agree is that the biggest beneficiaries of economic liberalization in India is what they call it’s neo-middle class(most of them will be labelled Richie Richardsons instead if the economists know what poverty in this country means), primarily because there is a considerable improvement in their vocabulary of luxury doodads. They now know what Fajitas, Shiraz and Tommy Hilfiger are. This post is on my first-in-life exposure to one such luxury term in the neo-middle class dictionary, caused purely by necessity, the mother of all vices.
Though I economically belong to the weaker sections of the society towards month ends, rest of the year I usually am part of the growing, all powerful Indian middle-class capable of consuming anything modish that comes their way. This brings me the obligation to pay occasional visits to such places as theme restaurants, ‘sports bars’(what an oxymoron) and 'malls'. However, one middle-class necessity that I never longed to enjoy was whatever are the services provided by a 'Unisex Salon and Spa'. From the time I came across this term, I developed some sort of prejudice towards them, mainly attributed to the last three letters of the first word being too suggestive, and also the chances that a woman might be at my service. I'm very uncomfortable when subjecting my body/parts of it for examination/treatment by a woman, be it a physician, dentist or hairdresser. Primarily because of a very masculine trait in me - fear. I'm afraid of the attempted molestation charges I could face if a hand/leg/look of me accidentally come in contact with the lady, even if its due to a reflex action towards a falling syringe or scissors. Reflex actions are not constitutionally legal yet I presume(so be it, desperadoes will otherwise reflect many more women and children to death). Moreover, I was very happy with my barbers so far.
But couple of months back things changed. My regular barber moved out of my locality. Though I'm not a hypochondriac by any standards, the alternate barber shops I explored made me uncomfortable, especially with the wrapping clothes they (re)used and their eyes constantly glued to the third grade flesh-throwing movie songs running on a TV on the exactly opposite wall. I was worried whether I'll come out with some infectious disease or an ear lesser. After consulting many of my relatively well-heeled, high-heeled acquaintance who assured me of the "an-eye-for-an-eye, a man-for-a-man" policy followed at a nearby ‘unisex salon’, I decided to get a haircut there last weekend. Though set out confidently like a victorious Viking, as I approached the salon I was developing some sort of fear that was roughly comparable to a victorious Viking returning home forgetting the tea bags he was asked to bring his way back. But I managed to muster enough courage, briskly opened the salon door and peeked my head in.
The first sight that caught my attention was two relatively stylish women seated on a large black sofa, one reading an older edition of Vogue(I’m nearly confident it was an younger looking Gwyneth Paltrow on the cover). Their upmarket, minimalistic attire kind of made my fears worse. Now I was in a condition similar to that of the prevailing socio-economic situation in our country, with my all powerful head controlling me already in the cool, plush interiors of the salon like the rich and ruling class of our country, while the legs and the rest of the body that should accelerate my movement/progress still out in the scorching May sun like the rest of our poor and needy population. Then suddenly from nowhere a corporate looking lady appeared and posted that all inviting question to me, “How may I assist you sir?”. Now that put me into more familiar and relaxing grounds. As a customer of new generation banks, her attire and question put me feel very much in familiar territory. Yet I asked such an idiotic question that even the lady who was trained to face all sorts of blockheads as a beauty salon staffer had serious difficulty in controlling from bursting out. My question was “Do you do haircut here?”. Still without a trace of sarcasm, she smiled and replied “Yes sir, we do”, and by then I had abandoned my nationalistic posture and was fully inside the salon, but careful not to look left or right so as not to come across scenes that might force me to retract. Then from behind a curtain emerged a man in some sort of a barber’s uniform, with, again an all inviting smile on his face. Now seeing another fellow man in a wilderness of any kind is the most consolatory thing, yet this guy made my anguish worse. His gestures and speech resembled some kind of a gender-neutralized(or is this the 'Unisex' they meant?) person than a man or woman. Now that I was inside and expressed my wish, there was no looking back. I got escorted by the man-in-charge-of-me to a high chair, to my dismay, right against the sofa-settled, Vogue reading ladies. Somehow I got settled on the char careful not to look too much into the mirror, when something unthinkable happened.
Suddenly out of nowhere a blond supermodel came out and embraced me, or so I thought for a while. It took me some time to realize that it was a wrapping cloth with a full-size photo of a Western model that the man-in-charge put around me. Now I’m in a singularly embarrassing situation, sitting opposite a mirror, ‘wearing’ a super model in bare minimum clothing, with two women right behind; I nearly have nowhere to look at now. By then the man-in-charge started his work, with a statement of “Sir, you should dye your hair, its too gray for your age”(He already has my birth certificate!). By now my ego came alive and told me not to let him dominate whatever be the circumstances are, so I shot a question back “What about Richard Gere, George Clooney and..” to which the Vogue woman (pretending to be still reading) replied through telepathy “..and you Mr.Clowny?”. The man smiled, and started doing his job. I must admit he did a far better job than my usual barber(middle-class means class I now realize).
Nearing completion of the haircut, he posted another abstruse enquiry “What else can I do for you, Sir?” which contextually (I assume) means more cosmetologically middle-class things such as plucking, pricking etc than a (cheap) haircut. I politely replied “Nothing more, thanks”. For a moment an expression flashed on his otherwise smiling face, which I felt was more barbarian than barberish. By then the supermodel and the Vogue women had already disappeared from the scene, and only now that I got some courage to look around, and saw for the first time in my life what goes on inside a unisex saloon. I never realized it will be this gruesome a seen. There were bodies of men and women thrown all around, with their faces, hair deformed with people in long black-clothes ‘working’ on them with lethal weapons such as scissors, knives and blades in relatively dim light with some weird sound all around which I guess is from a newly released Bollywood striptease album. The whole ambiance reminded me of a scene from Macbeth, where the three witches rounding about cauldrons singing “..by the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes. Open, locks, Whoever knocks!”, to which I had actually entered like an agitated Macbeth about half hour ago!. Now all I wanted was to get out, so I walked to the cash counter, paid for the service and came out, into the hot sun, to live my rest of the weekend’s middle-class dreams..