The conversation went all over the place after that, but it still held my interest.
The other day I dropped in at the local barbershop without calling the barber, Abid, in advance, to book a slot. When I reached Abid’s glass-fronted shop I saw that he had just finished shaving someone and there was no one on the long sofa on which people wait to have their hair fixed. But as I parked the bike and turned to the shop entrance, three men entered, all unshaven and long-haired, obvious custom for Abid.
My heart sank. I didn’t fancy a forty-five minute wait in a barbershop, but then my wife had already reminded me seventeen times that I needed a haircut and I had no idea how she would respond if I got home with my hair still over my ears, so I decided to brave it out. I entered the shop and sat down gingerly on the sofa just as the lead man of the three climbed into the barber’s chair.
When I hung up after telling my wife I was going to be late, I found that my phone was low on charge, and so I had no Facebook while waiting, which made the immediate future even more difficult. There were newspapers on the shelf by the sofa, but they were all in Kannada, which I don’t read yet.
I was about to tell Abid that I was going to the shop next door to buy something — wandering around a shop is a harmless way to pass time when you know you’ve got nothing to buy — when I heard one of the men on the sofa tell Abid that his brother Akshay had had an operation. “For what?” asked Abid.
“Akshay fell off a ladder and broke his hip,” replied the man, whose name, I gathered, was Hari. He pointed at his own pelvis. “So he had to have an operation there. He was saying that they gave him a new type of anaesthetic. I don’t remember its name, it was something in the spine and something in the back of the head, and it was a wonderful experience.”
“Spinal epidural?” I asked, butting in.
He smiled at me. “I’m not sure, but it sounds right.”
“So what was so wonderful about it?” asked Abid.
“He said it made him float”, Hari said. “He could hear people speaking, and moving him around, and there was bright light, but everything was fine. He must’ve been telling the truth, because when I went to see him after the operation he was smiling all over his face.”
“Really?” Abid asked. “When I visited my cousin after his operation he looked miserable. He wanted to throw up, and his head hurt a lot.”
“That’s what I’ve heard, too,” said the other man on the sofa. “This must be something different.”
“Was it expensive?” asked Abid.
“I don’t know,” Hari replied. “He said his company’s insurance covered it, so he paid very little.” He lowered his voice. “The thing is, Akshay has tried all kinds of things. Ganja... Even stronger stuff! And he said this is much better.”
My ears perked up. This is the kind of thing you hardly ever hear, and I was suddenly glad my phone was low on charge! The conversation went all over the place after that, but it still held my interest. From anaesthetics the topic shifted to doctors growing ganja in their backyards, and how tomatoes were a better cash crop than ganja.
By now the first man’s hair was done. He shifted to the sofa while Hari mounted the throne, and with that the conversation shifted to growing tomatoes in pots and having enough to sell, and from there to the erratic weather, and how Hari’s father, who had been quite good at predicting rains, could no longer do so.
From the weather, the talk shifted — naturally — to the gods, and the three all turned out to be believers, regulars at the nearby temple, which is large and old, but rarely crowded. By now Abid had finished with Hari, who came back to the sofa while the last man took the big chair.
Hari now took charge of the conversation again. His sixteen-year-old son, he said, had finished school, and wanted to study further. “He wants to be an electrician,” he said, “but with a diploma.” He looked at me. “You’ve studied,” he said. “What do you think?”
“You know him best,” I replied. “Do you think he’s serious?”
He smiled. “That's the difficulty. He changes his mind every few weeks. I don’t want to pay his fees and then discover that he wants to study something else.”
“Does he believe in God?” I asked.
“Yes,” came the reply.
“Do you go to the temple together?” I asked.
He shook his head. “My wife and I like to go early in the morning, but he wakes up late, so he goes by himself.”
“Right,” I said, “so take him to the temple one day and tell him that he can do whatever he wants, but he’s got to tell the deity his choice.”
He stared at me for a moment. “That’s a good idea,” he said. “Might work. He’ll think harder before he says anything.”
“Don’t press him,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll try it.”
The conversation meandered along for a while, shifting focus as these conversations do. When Abid was done with the last man, Hari turned to me. “How do I let you know what my son decides?” he asked.
“Tell Abid,” I replied. “I’m a regular here.”
And, as I took the throne for my haircut, I decided never to call Abid in advance. Abid, I reflected, was better than Zuckerberg.