90. Foreign Haircuts

Foreign Haircuts: If only I could gift to you the joy I get from visiting these men, these foreign barber gods with their peculiar methods. If there is one area of hygiene that Indian men will not slack on – regardless of class, caste or living conditions – it’s hair maintenance. Slick combed, perfectly coiffed heads of hair and impeccably trimmed Magnum P.I. mustaches are the standard on the street and in the office. Not surprisingly, participating in the ritual of the Indian haircut is a precious cultural experience. Here’s a summary of my visit to Raju, a lifelong barber in the city of Aurangabad:

The Ask. Most barbers will try and ascertain what length you’d like your hair. Not Raju. He already knew. After thoughtfully surveying my head and tugging on a thick handful of my hair, he looks me in the eye and says soberly, “haircut.” That sounds perfect, I say.

The Cut. No electric razor, these guys are magicians with their one pair of freshly sharpened, 30 year old scissors. Lightning quick on the top and impossibly close cropped sides. I’m convinced he could have cut my hair drunk and in the dark with nary a scratch. The cut was near perfect (a little too short) and finished in less than 10 minutes.

The Shave. He makes a big production of washing the razor in front of me – I’m not his first foreigner. He snaps in a fresh blade and makes quick work of my sideburns and neck hair. He offers to shave the rest of my face but paranoia gets the best of me and I decline. Disappointed, he dismisses my stubble with a wave of his hand and says, “rough.”

The Oil. Asian haircuts always come with little bonuses, so I expected some kind of treat after the shave. He asks if I want “light oil,” but he’s already holding a mysterious looking genie bottle above my head before I can answer. Out of the bottle comes a dollop of ayurvedic oil that warms my scalp and envelops my eyes, nose and mouth in a sharp menthol cloud. My eyes water, but I can still see him strapping an electrical appliance to the palm of his hand. It looks like an orbital sander. He turns it on and it sounds like an orbital sander. I finally get a good look at it and it’s basically an orbital sander – a small vibrating power tool for sanding wood – but with a soft cloth pad in place of sand paper and a gentle curvature to it that perfectly fits the shape of my head. He moves it around my head in slow circles, long enough that I nearly fall asleep. Then he moves the massager around my neck, shoulders and back. Then he sprays my head with water and massages my face with his hands. All of this goes on for a period of time longer than the actual haircut. I was only semi-conscious, so let’s call it 13 minutes.

The Adjustment. When I’m at my most relaxed and trusting, he stands behind me and cradles my head in his arms. With one lighting fast jerk to the side, my neck cracks like Black Cats at a mid-summer block party. I’m so startled by this that I resist a little bit when he twists my neck to the other side. He wags his finger at me and I relax again. He grips my head once more and bingo; bubble wrap in a pre-school.

The Peanut Gallery. At home, no visit to my favorite old timey barbershop is complete without a crowd of old men sitting around talking about bullshit. I’m the attraction in this barbershop (called “saloons” in India), so all of the old men sitting around want to ask about America. They don’t know where Oregon is, but they can picture “North of California,” so we go with that. One well-read man begins recalling wacky news headlines that have come out of California over the last decade. There’s general agreement that the people of California were wise to elect The Terminator as their leader, on account of how strong and incorruptable he is. Another man tells me he has a son studying in Maryland. Have I been there? He wants to visit next year. They have very delicious crabs.

The Damage. I paid five dollars, an outrageous amount presumably charged because it was Raju’s day off (the shop was technically closed when I walked in and found him giving a gratis cut to an uncle) so he considered it an overtime, emergency haircut. He agreed to cut my hair because he knew I could, and would, pay a an inflated price. That’s travel in India. After hearing my excited description of the whole affair, Doug went into the same shop when it was open and fully staffed the next day. He paid one dollar for the same experience with a different barber. I paid a 400 percent premium. I feel much less guilty about making Raju pose for all those pictures.


  1. Anonymous says:

    i think my favorie post to date.

    raju’s the man.


  2. mom says:

    Also one of my favorite journal entries. Wouldn’t mind one myself, providing he could keep his hands above my neck. I guess Indian men would go in for an old woman if they were really desperate for some American beauty. Enjoyed your exprience. Love ya, the mom

  3. Dan S. says:

    I once got ripped off by an Indian barber, too – one who couldn’t have been older than 12! But, as you’ve discovered, even with a foreigner surcharge it’s still well worth the experience.

  4. S says:

    And even with a generous foreign surcharge, it’s stil only half of what the cheapest haircut back home would cost. I wonder if I could convince Wayne in St. Johns to throw in a little shoulder rub.