[ Issue 5 / May 2013]

ACQUIRED MAGIC by Anjali Bhatia

Maithili often muttered to herself, “The woman who marries Bhanu will be very lucky.”

Bhanu was no celebrity or industrialist,  not even a large clerical fish in a small government pond. To Maithili, he was more than that. He was her favourite hairstylist.

In all the twelve years she had been living in this small town, Maithili had been unaware of that local landmark—Bhanu’s Hair Salon. Her good friend and neighbour, Suman, had done a course in beauty and hair while in college. Though she never set up shop, she used to cut her friends’ hair “just to keep in practice” as she put it. So for twelve years Maithili gave her hair into her friend’s painstaking hands, insisting on paying her a nominal fee.

A year ago, however, Suman’s husband had received a more lucrative job offer, so they left for Gurgaon. Maithili panicked. Her niece’s wedding was a week away, and her hair needed a trim. In desperation, she went to her neighbourhood beauty shop—and regretted it. Her head emerged looking like something which would have been considered fashionable on her teenaged son had he ever decided to audition for a rock band. “But at my age….?” She cringed, thankful that her husband wasn’t in town.

A friend took one look at her hair and gasped, “Where did you get it cut?” When Maithili named the place, the friend seemed about to hyperventilate. “There? That woman doesn’t know how to hold a pair of scissors! I go there only when I need a facial or wax. For hair, there is no place better than Bhanu’s.”

It was then that Maithili discovered the modest, one-room salon among the cluster of shops leading to the town’s main market, which she had been passing all these years without a glance. Maithili became uneasy when she saw that its interiors resembled a men’s barber shop rather than a hairstyling salon for women. After her recent harrowing experience, she wondered with trepidation whether anyone would be able to correct the haystack her head had become.

Bhanu, a soft-spoken, gregarious man in his early thirties, took his time spraying her hair, teasing out the tangles with a comb, parting and pinning sections, trimming with silent scissors, tousling and finally blow-drying it—while Maithili sat  rigidly in the high chair, terrified of another hair disaster. But when she got up after a good forty-five minutes, she could not suppress a sigh of relief. The spiky, uneven ends had disappeared. The haircut looked sleek, sophisticated, worth every paise of the eighty rupees she had to shell out, even though the amount seemed exorbitant compared to the virtually free service she had been enjoying with Suman.

At her niece’s wedding, it took her a while to get used to admiring remarks from relatives and friends. But the finest compliment came one busy day at the market. Maithili was trying to navigate her scooter through a tricky patch of slow-moving traffic when a large woman rapidly overtook her—on foot—and, waving her to stop, eagerly asked, “Excuse me, could you please tell me where you got your hair styled? I would like to try that place.”

That day Maithili pledged undying loyalty to Bhanu’s Hair Salon.

She started a ritual of going there once every three months. At first, she would sit silently in her chair while Bhanu worked his magic, occasionally turning his head to exchange a word with his waiting clients. Gradually, however, the warm atmosphere of the shop made her open up. Like most of his patrons, she found an Agony Uncle in Bhanu. Without any self-consciousness, she could chat with him about bad hair days, how difficult it was to find the right pair of party shoes, her son’s below-average report card and her husband’s indigestion. He never cut her off, as men are prone to, by demanding, “Well, why don’t you do this…” or appeared uninterested in such ‘feminine’ matters. He invariably listened with sympathy, sometimes clucking in agreement, adding a humorous remark here and there. Better still, he never offered his own theories about how the world should function. Women have a knack for working around issues without being judgmental. Bhanu had somehow imbibed that quality from his clients.

“After all”, reflected Maithili, “he spends his whole day in the company of women. He hears their problems, their comforts and their perspective on the world. My tailor also deals with women all day long, but it is different with him. You enter his shop, show him the material, describe how you want it stitched, let him take your measurements and leave. The only discussion you have is about your outfit. But here, you cannot discuss your haircut for three-quarters of an hour. You have to actually converse.”

Sensing Maithili’s genuine liking for him, Bhanu reciprocated. He started calling her didi (elder sister). By now he had become fine-tuned to her needs.  He used the dryer sparingly on her, knowing that its hot air on her neck made her ticklish. When in doubt about how much to cut, he kept the trimming to a minimum, knowing that Maithili had a lively horror of having her hair cut too short. If she was in a hurry, his scissors would flit and fly, finishing the job in twenty minutes instead of the usual forty-five.

He also told her something about himself. His father had started this shop years ago, in a tiny room attached to his house, a few metres away from its present location. They had land in their village in the hills, but it did not yield enough to sustain their family. Besides, his father was passionate about getting his children educated. There were no schools in the village. So they came here.

However, Bhanu’s education was cut short by his father’s untimely death when he was just a boy of fourteen. Staunchly refusing to return to the village, as relatives advised, he took over the reins of shop and home. With his increased responsibilities, he just about managed to complete school. Determined, however, to let his sister become a graduate, he kept at the shop, fine-tuning his skills, expanding the premises and hiring assistants, till his reputation earned him an ever-growing clientele.

“For seventeen years, didi, I have dedicated myself to this shop. My little sister took care of me all this while, though she had the pressure of studies upon her. Just last year, I got her married. My biggest responsibility is over. Now I can think of myself.” He continued somewhat slowly, his smile showing itself in the meticulous music of his hands rather than any contortion of the facial muscles. “I will be settling down soon. My marriage is scheduled for next month. The next time you come here, you will see my wife taking care of me.”

Maithili gave him her sincerest congratulations, adding, “I know you will also take very good care of her.” Mills and Boon heroes are all very well to dream about, but which woman wouldn’t appreciate a man who could think like a woman?

The next time she went there, she was greeted by an over-the-moon Bhanu. His wife Neelu, whom he promptly introduced, was a rather shy, awkward young woman; nevertheless, she was gorgeously attired in a bright pink sari, platform heels, jangling earrings and, as a final stroke, at least a dozen silver bangles on each wrist.

“Neelu, this is didi. You must take good care of her whenever she comes. Now watch while I cut her hair. You will do it next time, exactly like me,” he instructed her.

Maithili’s heart sank. Would Bhanu now start handing over his clients’ hair to his inexperienced wife? She might learn, of course, but the ‘Bhanu touch’ would not be there. She hoped he would at least remain to supervise the job. He soon put paid to these hopes, however, as he chatted away happily about his future plans—

“Now that this place has a woman, I’m going to expand my business. We will start giving facials and all the rest of that beauty stuff. We can get girls for that. Neelu will teach them—she has done a beautician’s course. I am going to my village next month, didi. Now I can look after my land. The young people will see to the salon. Of course I will keep coming here—once at least every two weeks. Once the crop is harvested, I will be home again for months.”

You can come and go as you like, thought Maithili, a trifle resentfully, but you better be here when I need my haircut.

On her succeeding visit, the shop had undergone major changes. The name itself had been changed to “Bhanu’s Beauty Salon”. Inside, two new counters spilling over with creams, powders and jars of make-up were being  deftly ‘womanned’ by new female faces. The lanky boys who had hitherto assisted Bhanu with cutting, grinned and shook their heads when she looked  hopefully at them. She realized that she had no choice other than to surrender to Neelu’s tender mercies.

It wasn’t that bad. Maithili could not complain about the end result. But the getting-there had been painful. Neelima had forced a fine comb through her tangled hair, causing her to wince with pain more than once. The dryer setting was too high. Worst of all, the continuous clatter of bangles near her ears had reduced her to a bundle of nerves.

For several days afterwards Maithili debated whether to try another salon. But she decided against it. It was better to “bear those ills she had than fly to others she knew not of”; in other words, she would rather try and get used to Neelu’s method than to break in a new hairdresser. Besides, she thought hopefully, Bhanu might be there next time.

He was, but Maithili barely caught a glimpse of him as he paced back and forth, snapping orders and instructions, going out, coming in, making calls from his new mobile phone. When he caught sight of her, he smiledbriefly, then shouted to Neelima to hurry up and attend to didi. He was obviously too busy to take on clients himself. Maithili felt uneasy. The reason was not just Bhanu’s lack of availability—it was the man-of-the-world persona he suddenly seemed to have taken on. She searched in vain for the warm, unassuming Bhanu she had known for so long.

Another six months passed before her hair came into Bhanu’s hands. By now the change in him was unmistakable. He worked with mechanical precision. Gone was the painstaking, almost artistic handling that used to make her feel pampered, his simple pride in a job well done. Now he  seemed to be in a hurry to finish the task.

Maithili looked  carefully at his reflection in the mirror. Yes, he had  certainly grown stouter. Neelu must be looking after him well. Besides, the expansion of his shop had proved to be fruitful. That, supplemented with his agricultural income, had made him prosperous, as he was explained with immense pride.

She was glad he was doing so well. But she no longer felt comfortable discussing her domestic problems with him. Just once, she mentioned that their colony was facing an acute electricity problem. She had barely finished speaking before Bhanu launched into a tirade about the erratic power supply in the hills, how getting water for crops was a constant problem due to the ineptness of the administration and the inadequacy of the government’s power policy.

His tone was brusque, almost harsh. Maithili realized that months of battling against the unyielding Himalayan soil, anticipating the moves of middlemen, dealing in hectares and quintals, had robbed him of that acquired touch of femininity that had endeared him to his female clients. Now he had shoved his female side entirely onto his wife. He was an ordinary man now.

Maithili wondered if Neelu had observed this change in her husband. But her placid face gave no indication of any sense of loss. Perhaps she had never expected anything else.

Maithili also noticed, for the first time, that the heads rising from the chairs in the shop were unfamiliar to her. Barely one or two of the regular clients were present. So she was not alone in her surmise.

The haircut was finished. As she was getting up, Bhanu asked, “Anything else you need—eyebrows, facial, waxing? We do everything now.”

“No, thanks”, she said, wincing. “Not at the moment. How much?”

“The usual—a hundred for our old customers. We charge the new clients a hundred and fifty, and a fifty more for blow-drying. Raju, take the payment,” he hollered to one of his assistants, moving off to answer the phone.

When Maithili got home, she retrieved the local Yellow Pages from under a pile of dusty magazines, and began looking up the names of hair salons in the town.