Sunday, 20 January 2008

A Close Shave, Mumbai Style

For most of the second half of the India trip, I had my heart set on getting a shave from a roadside barber. You'd see them setting up under trees on the side of the road, just a chair and a mirror, a few shaving materials, and presumably some hot water. Just the basics. I was looking in Chandigarh, then briefly in Delhi and finally in Mumbai, all the time holding off shaving myself in anticipation. We were keeping an eye out in Mumbai, but I couldn't find one. They seemed to be everywhere before!

It got to the last full day in India . After shopping all day and keen to get a bite to eat and then to the pub, we still couldn't find one. I had an offer earlier in the day, but we were on our way to breakfast. We walked back to Crawford Market where we saw the guy. He'd gone but there was another guy there, who was busy with a local. His operation was set up in this tiny booth, slightly bigger than a phone booth. Ironically, he had a three-day growth himself.

We poked around seeing what was going on, and I think we attracted a bit of attention. We found the bloke free, and the attracted crowd of about half a dozen bystanders ushered me into this booth. The bloke didn't speak a word of English. To be honest this spurred me on a bit – made it seem like less of a touristy thing I was doing. And besides it was pretty obvious what I wanted as I had very ginger five-day growth (which is strong below the jaw-line but almost non-existent and camouflaged by freckles on the upper lip).

Or so I thought.

He lathered me up with shaving foam. It felt a little different. It was cold. He was gonna give me a cold water shave! That's not something I'm used to, but at least it's not a dry shave. Something else was different too. He'd missed my upper lip. I tried to sign for him to shave it – I tried to rub my finger along my upper lip, dirty-sanchez-style, but he took it as confirmation that he would retain my "moustache" and enthusiastically nodded. I tried mimicking shaving motions, vertically stroking my upper lip. He confirmed that he wouldn't get rid of my moustache. Finally I took some shaving cream from my cheek and rubbed it over my upper lip, and "moustache."

Finally he clicked. Blokes wanting to ditch the mo must be very rare in India, so tough was it to convince him to take the blade to my upper lip (and any incidental hairs thereon).

We were off shaving! He took to my cheeks with expert precision, and my jowls also got a clean shave. Outside the booth the onlookers were watching attentively and with much amusement. I got a couple of very enthusiastic and friendly head-waggles from the men watching. Presumably they were amused that a white tourist's idea of immersing himself in the Indian experience was entrusting an unshaven stranger on the roadside with a razorblade with care of my facial hair and throat, without the means to communicate with him through a common language. If that was the case, I could certainly see their point.

He was a bit more careful when he finally embarked on my upper lip. Why was he being careful? I couldn't figure it out. He stood back (as much as one can in a phone booth), and admired his work. He took out a cloth and wiped my face clean, including the shaving cream on my upper lip. He hadn't shaved my moustache – he'd styled it. He gave me a pencil moustache which, if you could see it, would make me look like a South American cocaine don. All I needed was a panama hat.

I was about to raise objection but I saw he'd lathered up again and was ready to do a second pass. This guy was a pro – one shave with the grain, and one against the grain! But my optimism that the minute burning embers on my upper lip – all that remained of my fiery red stubble – would finally be extinguished was short-lived. He just did the same thing again, leaving me with the same pencil moustache. I smiled, paid him and thanked my observers for watching me, and we walked back to the hotel to get changed and go out.

Chop, of course, insisted I wear my "moustache" out that night. At first reluctant, I soon realised that it wouldn't cost me a thing: no-one would be able to see it anyway. Take a look - if you squint you might just make it out.

And I was right: the only time someone commented was when I had some Baileys on my upper lip from drinking my " lady boy." I rubbed it off and they said I was OK. Nonetheless, I had no hesitation in shaving it off first thing the next morning.