A day after I arrived in Kanpur, my father suggested – just like the olden times – that I get a haircut. So in the evening, I walked down to Liaquat’s saloon. Liaqat and I go back a long way, in the sense he has been cutting my hair right from the time I was eight or nine, till I left Kanpur in 1994. After that, I may have visited his saloon a couple of times, in the mid-1990’s, during my trips home. And now I was going after 15 years. The saloon, called Unique Men’s Parlour, turned out to be shut. I enquired from the shopkeeper next-door and was told that Liaquat opened the saloon only at five. Fifteen minutes to go. So I walked down the road, bought a cigarette, lit it up and strolled up and down, just to get a feel of the place. It felt the same, just the way it felt decades ago, only that there were many, many more houses now and that now I could smoke openly unlike back then when there was always a risk of being spotted by a passing neighbour.
By the time I returned to the saloon, Liaquat was already at work, snipping away at the hair of a teenaged boy. I walked in and asked, "Liaquat bhai, kaise hain?" He merely nodded at me and continued snipping. I sat down with a Hindi newspaper. And then it struck him. He stepped out, spat the pan masala he had been holding in his mouth and extended his hand, his face beaming, "Arrey dada, kahaan hain aaj kal aap?”
"Badi door chale gaye hain. Ab to marriage-warriage ho gayi hogi?"
"Haan, ho gayi."
And so, the journey back in time began.
Liaquat went on to explain how he had planned to open the saloon a little earlier that evening, but how circumstances prevented him from doing so. He had just stepped out from home when it began to rain. So he went back home and asked his wife to prepare the chicken he had got earlier in the day. After all, he hadn’t had lunch. After he had had lunch, and was about to leave, some guests came home and tea was prepared for them. And so he thought, why not have tea as well. Therefore he could open his shop only now, after having had his lunch of chicken followed by the tea. All this explanation was totally unnecessary, but this was vintage Liaquat. In the 45 minutes that I spent there, I heard the rain-chicken-tea story repeated three times as more people – mostly hangers on – started trooping in.
In small towns, it is common for people – jobless or working – to hang around in shops in the evenings. From these shops – be it a paan shop or a saloon – they watch their neighbourhood go past. They are the much-feared 'society'. They discuss and speculate about the lives of people they see walking past, and often juicy details – real or concocted – tumble out. But mostly it is the physical appearance of the neighbourhood girls that are discussed: "Just look at her, how she swings her butt while walking" or "Look, look! Till the other day she was flat-chested, and now see how pointed her breasts are."
Liaquat’s saloon used to be a hotbed for such discussions many, many years ago. At the time Liaquat himself was young. But over the years he became conscious of that fact that not all his 'custoomers' would be amused by the lewd talk. And there was always a risk: what if the brother of the girl whose butt the hangers on were admiring was right there in his saloon, getting a haircut? Liaquat began to shun such elements. But the small talk, even though sanitised, continued to be the mainstay of the Liaquat experience. It is no fun getting a haircut at his saloon without the small talk and the bantering going on in the background. Even today, as I discovered that evening, his saloon is the ultimate answer to 'Things you wanted to know about your neighbourhood but didn’t know where to ask.'
Liaquat is not your regular small-town barber. He is fashionable. Only that his sense of fashion sense hit the pause mode sometime in the 1980’s. He still wears shiny shirts and white trousers – as worn by Jeetendra and Mithun Chakraborthy back then. But Liaquat’s own hair has thinned over the years, and so has his bottom, which would be emphasised by the white trousers earlier. What he retains is his skills and warmth – a warmth that is typical of a small town.
Kanpur isn’t a small town. In fact, it is the biggest city of Uttar Pradesh. It was typically a British city before Independence, and I am told – though I am not sure about this – that there was a time when the British population outnumbered that of the natives in Kanpur. But the city is broken down into various mohallas – neighbourhoods – in most of which you can still savour the small pleasures of living in a small town even in the 21st century.
Very close to my house, on a busy road, is a cattle-shed where about half-a-dozen cows and buffaloes are milked every morning and evening. Though packaged milk is available, those who want it fresh from the udders have the choice of signing up with the doodhwala on a monthly basis. (When I was young, one of the chores assigned to me was to fetch the milk and to make sure the milkman did not carry water in the bucket on the sly as he proceeded to milk the cow). Right next to the doodhwala’s shed is a cyber café, where mostly the college-going crowd hangs around. So, on one hand you still get fresh milk, while on the other you are connected online.
And then, the other small pleasures of life. For instance, when you feel like having jalebis, all you need to do is stop by at a roadside mithai shop. The halwai would gently squeeze the cloth and pour out the batter in small circles on boiling oil. Once fried, the circles would be ladled out into a large bowl containing the sugar syrup. Your jalebi is ready. The thing is, when you watch samosas or jalebis being fried, your desire to savour is heightened several times than when you buy them off the glass-case in a so-called reputed shop.
Just because a samosa is hot does not mean it is fresh – you can always heat it in the microwave, like most big shops in big cities do. You know a samosa has been freshly fried when it need not be so hot on the surface, but the moment you break it open, you see steam rising from the potato filling. In the past few days that I have been in Kanpur, Tiwariji’s samosas have burned my tongue several times. Getting tongue burned in this fashion is a luxury – a luxury I cannot expect in Chennai. Kolkata is probably the only metro which takes food very seriously and where you still find people heading to the nearest mishtir dokaan early in the morning to purchase freshly made roshogollas, shingara (samosa) and kochuris.
A small town is also ridiculously cheap. My wife wanted to buy a dupatta, so last evening we went to Lal Bangla, the market a stone’s throw away from my house. Lal Bangla is a testimony to the never-say-die spirit of the Punjabis. Most of the prosperous shops in the market are run by Punjabi families who came empty-handed during Partition but went on to do well in life as well as business. The owners of many of these shops had started off – so I have been told by people who knew better – by mending punctures in bicycle tyres.
Lal Bangla has always been the ideal, self-contained market for the small town – by small town I mean a place where people are guided by the value-for-money principle, who simply can’t understand why a saree should cost Rs 5,000 or a dupatta Rs 250. Not that the quality of what they purchase is inferior: the same pieces of clothing, when they travel to the metros, become obscenely expensive. Wife was shocked when she enquired the price of the dupatta: Rs 40! At first she couldn’t believe her ears, and then she became so ecstatic that she bought five more pieces of different colours.
Finally, why she had to buy the dupattas. We have a new pet dog at home, a female, just six months old. One morning, just after it was born, she had strayed into our house and since then, has stayed on. She does not have a name, neither was she ever put on leash, because my father was not sure if he was going to keep another dog after the death of Nano (the handsome, cheerful mongrel who died in an accident last year). Moreover, keeping a pet restricts your mobility. But then, as was expected, my father never had the heart to get the dog out. As a result, the dog without a name, who does not know what it means to be leashed and who has only been used to extreme pampering, is the queen of the house. In one of the playful moments, she shredded the wife’s dupatta into tiny pieces.
The dog was a bit shy of me the day I arrived, but since has been spending all her time with me. Even when I write in my room upstairs, till four in the morning, she is always there next to me, sleeping on her back like a human. And each time I make a whining sound from my throat (the first time when I had made the sound I had wanted to sound like a whining puppy just to see her reaction), she, without fail, rushes to me to hug me and lick my hands and face.
And the other night, after I had finished my quota of writing, I was sipping my last drink and humming, "O raat ke musaafir, chanda zara bataa de", the song from Miss Mary. I had heard the song a couple of times on You Tube a few weeks ago, and the tune remained in my head. Suddenly, the nameless dog sprang up from slumber and started pawing and licking me. Since then, I have tried humming other songs but this song alone gets her all loving and licking. Strange dog, very human dog. I wonder how she is going to cope with my absence when I leave Kanpur tonight.