This is a story about a haircut, some bad news, life in Kuala Lumpur, and crocodile poop.
Before I set off for my first trip abroad to India many years ago, I harbored visions — visions of mystical women in colorful saris who would place their hands upon the crown of my youthful head and say, “I see great things in your future.” Through osmosis, I would absorb their wisdom and they would enlighten me with the path I might take to achieve such great things.
Instead, 14 years later, as I sat in a barber’s chair in Kuala Lumpur, a man named Deepak, a Gujarati Indian barber from Mumbai decked out in too-tight jeans and a checkered shirt, placed his hand upon the front of my head and told me I was going bald.
Where did I go wrong?
The Chop, The Bad News
My haircut at the Indian barbershop began innocently, as most haircuts do. Deepak began with a few zips of the electric clippers in the back and on the sides, then he grabbed for the scissors to cut the top.
Chop, chop. Cut, clip, cut.
After a few sprays of water from his pump bottle and a comb-through, he delivered some astonishingly unsubtle bad news: “Hair very thin. In four, five years — all gone.”
In all the countries I’ve endured a haircut, never has a barber had the courage to deliver such bad tidings. But that’s what I love about barbers, Indians and especially Indian barbers: when it comes to bad news, man, they give it to you straight.
I was shocked. The blood drained from my face. I squinted into the mirror. “Really?!?!”
Deepak didn’t just answer “Yes.” He didn’t even waggle. He went full bore and gave me the side nod, which as much as said, “You’re in deep shit, cue ball. You’d better find yourself a Ferrari and start ridin’ out that midlife crisis.”
Deepak finished. It wasn’t the best cut. Wasn’t the worst, either. But I bore him no ill will. In fact, he was a rather nice guy.
Life’s Important Questions
As I stroked my impending baldness with my right hand, Audrey began taking a few photos and we engaged Deepak and his colleague Suppeiyav.
They asked to look at the photos we’d taken. Meanwhile, Balaji, one of their friends from the neighborhood dropped in to say hello and read the newspaper.
Eventually, the five of us convened a circle and covered all of life’s critical questions:
Where are you from?
How old are you?
How many hours does it take to fly here from your country?
Do you have children?
I love barber shops.
Low Cost Airlines: The Engine of Migrant Labor
A good deal of our time was then spent exchanging information regarding low-cost airlines to and from India. We found out that Kingfisher is good, but only flies within India. We know Air Asia is inexpensive, but discovered it now also flies to once unlikely cities such as Trichy. Tiger Air is OK, too.
We even got a run-down on which airlines allow you to drink their beer for free. (I don’t believe there are many of those left anymore.)
In a fit of excitement, Balaji spoke up, “Sometimes you can find Air Asia to Chennai or Trichy for under 300 ringgit return ($100). Need to pay attention to sales.”
He, too, had figured out how to play the low cost airline price game.
Low cost airline talk at an Indian barber shop in Kuala Lumpur may sound trivial. However, it’s a key variable in the movement of migrant labor. Like many of the Indians you find in Kuala Lumpur, these men live and work in Malaysia, but their wives and children all live in India. For Balaji, a 15-year resident of Kuala Lumpur, cheap flights mean he can now afford to visit his wife and two young children every few months, rather than just once every year or two.
A Doozy of a Massage
Amidst our talk of airlines and southern Indian food, Deepak looked at me once more and pointed to my hairline: “No shampoo. Only conditioner once a week.”
“OK,” I said, figuring that this untimed dose of advice was an indication of just how advanced my hair loss had become in the few minutes since I’d left his chair.
I felt uneasy.
Suppeiyav, sensing my discomfort, waved me in the direction of his chair: “Massage!”
I hopped up and instantly he began squeezing my neck, pounding my shoulders and back, and tugging around the few tufts of hair I had left. Then he administered a stunning barrage of “prayer chops” — his hands placed together, thwhacking every inch of my skull.
I began to see stars, quite literally.
As I prayed for the massage to end, I was reminded of a recent comment from a friend on Facebook. “In India,” he said, “Indian barber means a head and neck massage that will make you see stuff that isn't actually there.”
When Suppeiyav finished demolishing a few billion more brain cells, I found myself struggling to get up from the chair. I had forgotten my name. Well, my middle name at least.
Don’t ask me why I was searching for my middle name. A mild concussion will do that to you, apparently.
A Chinese Perspective: Traditional Medicine
When we returned to our guest house later that evening, we ran into a Chinese Malaysian man who’d taken up residence. A permanent fixture of the joint, he was also a font of practical local knowledge. We needed a notary public. He knew of three nearby. We wanted an acupuncturist. He told us of a tea shop in Chinatown with a connection.
Then I mentioned that the barber told me I was going bald.
“Oh, my friend was going bald. He uses crocodile shit.”
You have got to be kidding me. He didn’t just say what I think he said, did he?
Before I could respond, he followed up with, “I heard your foot was hurting. Are you diabetic? My friend’s foot was hurting and he went to the doctor. The doctor told him he was diabetic and he had to have his toe cut off.”
“Let’s get back to the hair loss. Tell me more about the crocodile poo.” I redirected.
“I think he uses it once a week. I don’t know where he gets it. I can ask him.”
“Thanks. I think I’m OK. I’m trying to cut back on the excrement treatments these days.”
I ran my fingers through my hair — out of habit, or perhaps in anticipation of it slowly vanishing.
If only I could find those mystical women in colorful saris, perhaps they could help me find the wisdom to go bald gracefully.