Half a century ago a visitor passing through some Mauritian crossroads in town or village would have inevitably noticed the presence of a Chinese shop. Not far from it would be a wooden and tin sheet roof building of 2 to 3 rooms, which would become the workshops of artisans: tailor, barber, shoemaker. Just as we know that cities and civilizations have flourished along the banks of famous world rivers, so also these shops and place of trades have epitomized such centres of local activities and culture on a minor scale – they became the rallying point for the nearby poor folks.
For those people, the Chinese shop was a daily beckoning, the perfect excuse to escape the monotonous routine of house life. Children sent on errand to the shop would take their time — and could even have a glimpse of those forbidding nearby barbers and tailors. They were a different brand of beings from the Chinese male shopkeeper. A daily interaction with the latter had brought us children to believe that he was a very adapting, tolerant being, with a different, slightly funny, nasal-sounding staccato Creole accent. But as to the barber and tailor, it was a monthly or yearly interaction.
As we grew up we got to know the latter better; after all they were good pals of our elders. And as we crossed over into our teens we discovered that there was a lot of news to be gathered at the barber’s or tailor’s place. It’s not that those tidbits were gems to be shared with the family, but rather they had started to titillate our imagination about life in other spheres of society, where the male reigned supreme.
As tots, we had learned that Tonton Basdeo, the barber, was to be shunned at all costs; he would seat us in some tall, special kid’s chair. He would attempt to take control of our head, twisting it right, left, up and down much against our will; the more he tried to flex our neck, the more we extended it. It was a tug of war between David and Goliath, while the father would be cajoling us by helping to hold our head in some odd positions as directed by the barber ‘surgeon’. We were scared of the long, curved razor, of his pointed scissors and their metallic ‘tcheick tcheick’ sound as they were manipulated round our ears. We yelled and wept to have our father take us back home – and it needed the patience and hands of those grown-ups to keep us still.
But as the years went by we would become more cooperative and would not even mind to wait for our turn for a haircut. Our job, as the barber was shearing the extra long hair from the back of our flexed neck, was to stretch our ears as much as possible to get the latest adults’ tidbits. That waiting business was manna from heaven to our growing, boyish curiosity. What a better opportunity to stay away from home, where our share of week-end house chores was waiting for us, and to drink in as much hearsay and news as possible from the barber’s mouth or his acolytes’? We could always put the blame on the former’s shoulders for our prolonged absence, the collateral windfall of which was to get the chance to interact with grown-ups and listen to their most illuminating chatter. Looking back, we realize that it was an apprenticeship into weaning oneself off mother’s skirt, learning to distance ourselves from home and establishing social contacts.
While at the barber’s we had wondered about those tins and cartoons full of black hair, and those bits and pieces that would stray around on the floor or be trapped in the cobweb in a corner of the room. How Tonton Basdeo would take his gleaming, white metallic razor, and with some relish would go into the to-and-fro movements with his right hand as he slid the razor on a long, slender blackish brown strip of leather which was anchored at its top end to the wall. We always looked with wonder and guarded curiosity, because our tot’s memory and fear of that razor was still green in our young mind. Why should the barber go into that ritual we never knew at that time.
And what to say of those hundreds of rectangular, green pieces of paper stacked on his table — a mystery in our kid’s days. But soon we would see that the barber would use one of those odd bits of paper to dispose of the lather and shaven beard of his clients, which he would throw into the dustbin. Only later we would know that these were “Lotterie Verte” — a reminder from those unfortunate punters and losers, who in trying to make up for their bruised pride and reverie, had decided to contribute those “Lotterie Verte” to a good cause at the barber’s!
Tonton Basdeo was not the villain that you may think him to be; far from it. In fact, having been exposed to the many clients coming into my dad’s shop/bar and the clientele at my grandmother’s market stall — she always spoke in loud tone – I was, for the first time, to come across someone who spoke so softly that one had to stretch one’s ears to hear him. He was a nice, roundish man with a moon-shaped, relaxed face. More surprising than this capturing unique voice was the colour of his eyes; his iris was of a lighter brown colour than ours. My dad and Tonton were quite matey, more so as they were not indifferent to the calling of Lord Bacchus, especially on weekend nights. These two friends, I would discover years later, had something in common; as they immersed themselves in their glorious escapism and fun, they would grow more mellowed, relaxed and most smiling, most likely after shedding their last shreds of mental inhibitions, seriousness and worries. One can always wonder what did these poor, hard working folk talk about on those nights.
One good day Tonton Basdeo would close shop; so we shifted allegiance to Ton Pierre, the other hairdresser of the vicinity, at the opposite intersection, at the south end of Pasteur street. As we grew taller we came to appreciate that there was a triangular wooden footrest, which definitely made our life more comfortable. We would now have our hair moistened, and our scalp given a mild massage before the start of the main task. Here we were more amazed by his metallic alcohol spray, anchored to a rubber bulb wrapped in a woolen mesh.
After a haircut, and the usual shaving round the hairline, Ton Pierre would use that wonderful implement, press on the bulb to send a fine spray of cool alcohol on our neck. We enjoyed that funny, nice ticklish sensation. Sometimes the barber would even use his hair brush, and powder us with some Johnson white Powder to give us a finish worthy of a king. Gradually we came to love that visit to Ton Pierre’s place so much that we wished we could have a weekly haircut, head massage and someone to fondle our hair.
Ton Pierre was a quiet, soft spoken person, a man of few words as he concentrated on his task. But his salon was always crowded with visitors, talking about politics and football. So we had noticed that on some Sundays he along with my dad would don their pullovers to go to George V Stadium, with a raincoat on their arms – all well-equipped to face the capricious weather of Curepipe. Or, on some rare occasions, a gang of supporters would gather at his place early, and would later shift place to under the verandah of the opposite Chinese shop – where a loudspeaker connected to a faraway radio, courtesy of the shopkeeper, would be airing the football match going on at Curepipe.
We children would not be welcome to those grown-ups’ pastime. The cold shifting stare of those elders was enough to send us reeling home. Our place was not to be under a shop’s verandah.
It is said that the king’s barber of yore was the only privileged person to “unhat” the monarch. But we, of modern times, would say: hats off to those patient barber-cum family friend of our youth, who had had the responsibility of the hair lock of hyperactive children, of gesticulating and working so close to their ears, eyes and head with their frightening sharp instruments.
But children of the 21st century are braver and different – they smile and talk to the barber during their haircut. Times have indeed changed.
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