If we picture the Indian rural setting we see before us today, we'll see cows being milked, goats grazing, chickens pecking at the ground to find some grain. Then wander along from here in the direction of the town, and sooner or later you'll see a hair-cutting salon or perhaps a "Beauty Barlar" with its price list displayed for all to see.
When I go into such a 'barlar' I feel as though I've been warped into a parallel state somewhere between the sixties and seventies, and yet in neither of these states. Smart young men saunter in and out, admiring their own and their friends' hair-dos, hips swaggering and trousers flaring away like mini-trombones at the bottom of their legs. You may be in a 'barlar' but you never dare say 'barber' for that is now such an insulting word amongst the young that it's most impolite to utter, or even to think. 'Barber' is Out and 'Disco Ravi' is in with the Hip-Hop, the One-Stop Shop and dishy-dashy Don't-Know-What.
Disco Ravi is a Cool Kid who dances lightly on his toes, his smile and fingers flashing as the SunBeams catch them on their homeward journey through the bars of his window onto the soft moisture of his slightly parted lips and flashing blades. He's not fat, and his nimble legs display soft black trousers which show off every muscle curve of his prancing thighs ~ the fit is snug, and yet Ravi manages to stay mere millimetres away from being fat. He's lit by sunlight because there's a power-cut and the heat is sweltering; many of the young men have to mop their brows; yet by a miracle of physiognomic impossibilities, Ravi always manages to look Cool. Without even a bead of perspiration on his smoothly-shaved face, you suppose he'd keep that dusky hue even in the Sahara.
You feel that he's so entrenched in his work, and is so much part of the furniture, that he arrived with the arrival of the town: you feel that Ravi is rooted in.
And yet in this town, his roots are completely lacking in depth; they travel horizontally out into the country field before taking a nose-dive into the arid soil, hungrily seek reserves of moisture trapped between the ground, on the quiet land of their fathers or grandfathers, to their relatives who are not ashamed to be referred to as 'barbers', not ashamed that they never had a shop or dandy barlar, rustic barbers who are there in the village to visit you at your beck-and-call, at any time of the day or night, ready to wait on you with every need that you may have, to convert their passion into your pleasure, for their passion is human body hair, its variety and growth patterns — to study the way in which it grows, and the best method of removing it.
Broadly speaking, their services fall into two unequal parts. The first —and by far the most common— part being head-focussed, or that pertaining to your noble bonce and the panoply of hairs which crowd, gather and curl upon the nut, growing out of its cracks and fissures on your visage with its level plains and curvaceous dales. These can be trimmed, smoothed or removed, wherever and however they desire to grow. Eyebrows, moustaches, beard and rebellious whiskers. Ear-hairs are no problem and when it comes to nasal follicles, the cowardly had best close their eyes, whilst the brave may brace themselves to cast their eyes down to see long blades scything their windswept harvest on their journey into your nostrils.
This hair-cut and shave is the be-all and end-all for many a fine Tamilian, and for men like this, the line is drawn. Yet as some of us find ourselves unable to paint one room without wanting to daub more rooms in our houses, so some Tamils, after submitting their heads to the hands of the village snipper, want him to treat another part of their body, and for many it's little short of sacrilege to shave and smooth the plains of the face, to harvest off the moustache which crowns the hole where air and food flow in, only to neglect the orifice on the other end where waste and gases flow out. For men such as these the area surrounding the body's exit needs to be smooth and hairless as as the entrance.
This offers an exquisite delight for the razor man, who applies his skill with equal deftness here. But he needs help from the client, who must put his arms behind his back and applying one hand to each buttock, draw them apart as he opens the anal slit into an 'O'. This exposes the duck down, and the barber then begins working away. He gently caresses away the fluff and as he works a reciprocal energy comes into play. The client, acutely aware of the knife-edge between ecstasy and pain, hovers on the threshold as the tingle runs up-and-down his spine, goose-bumps helpfully bringing the fluffy hair into attention.
All too soon the delight has passed and eager for more, the client will then turn round to face him with the barber's bladed fingers following in close pursuit through to the remainder of the perineum. Their journey only ends when all the hairs on the genital region are scythed. The gent feels the winnowing caress of the wind over the area and after paying —or deferring to pay— thr barber he'll head for the shower to take his own private douche. After doing that, he may well visit his friends and lifting up his lunghi, will display himself, front and back. Showing off his satin smoothness he'll be the envy of his buddies, who'll want to follow suit. So they're soon waiting patiently for their head hair to grow another crop for the barber to harvest.
Our sketch of one of the hidden sides to Tamil Nadu is now almost complete: only a small portion in the corner remains, the empty gap which tells us that the tale is not quite finished, but I don't have the space left for the conclusion of the tale, neither is my pencil thin enough to cram in all the lines. I'll just have to shade it in for now, draw a modesty line beneath it and tell the remainder on another day.
I'm grateful to S Arumugam for taking the photos and for the characters' permission to use them in this blog.