Sunday, May 29, 2016

In Which the PakAmeristanican Gets a Haircut

I accompanied Mr PakAmeristanican and baby to the barbershop today. I was being magnanimous. Husband was nervous about baby's first visit. Haircuts are the one regular kid thing I refuse to take on. It has taken on a symbolic significance for me that is entirely disproportionate with its real life impact.

I've met the barber before because he shaved the baby's head for the baby naming, but I've never been to his shop before. It's a small place, a long mirror and counter along one wall, three barber's chairs, and a long bench along the back wall. A smaller room beyond, which I assume functions as an office or something. There's a TV set up on the wall, set to Geo News. It's more spartan than most women's salons I've visited. Also, instead of ten gazillion varieties of hair product, there are simply several different shades of hair dye.

Husband sits down in the chair, holding the baby, while I sit on the bench. Baby is placidly getting his hair cut. We are all amazed, since baby is usually loud and restless. I'm thinking, "I've been trying to go for a haircut for a couple of months now" ( I think I've gone twice since the baby was born eleven months ago), "maybe I should ask him to cut mine, too". But I think about how strange it will look to be a woman getting a haircut in a men's hair saloon, and worry whether the barber will be uncomfortable if I ask him. So I do some work on my phone instead.

Then the barber asks me where I get my hair cut, and I tell him. He says, "Baji, kabhi mujh se bhi katvaa ke dekh lain" (You should let me cut your hair some time and see how you like it.). He is smiling as he says this, but it's his regular friendly smile, so I jump at the chance, and hop into the barber's chair. He seems a little taken aback at my ready agreement, but quickly gets to work.

He wants some directions on how I want it cut, and I am back in the uncomfortable moment that comes for me in every trip to the hairdresser, or in any encounter where I have to make an appearance-related decision beyond what clothes and jewelry to wear. What if I give him the wrong instructions and my hair ends up being all wrong, wrong, wrong? So I tell him I'll show him a picture, but that it should be short and above the ears.

Because of the baby, we had come right at the shop opening time, so there weren't any other customers waiting. The barber asks me if it's ok if other customers come in. I say sure. He tells me otherwise he has a more private area. I tell him it's fine, enjoying the bucking of the norm.

I'm covered in the plastic drape, wearing pants and getting a mannish cut. Another customer comes in with his two sons. They sit down on the long bench behind me. In the mirror I note the father's beard and the prayer callus on his forehead.

The children make themselves thoroughly at home in the shop. Their father says little to direct their behavior. He's busy with his phone.

As the barber snips away, I hear the name of the trans woman recently murdered in KPK. It's just a quick headline about the investigation. As the focus shifts to a story about a new shopping centre in Karachi that is creating traffic problems due to the lack of an adequate parking area, it occurs to me that I can't remember ever listening to the news while I got my hair cut. It's always music at every hairdresser I've ever visited before.

The barber asks me something and I respond. The bearded father looks up, eyes narrowed, clearly surprised by my voice. I enjoy his frown, which seems to me a combination of confusion, disapproval, and mistrust. I look right back at him and he looks away, discomfited. I'm mean enough to enjoy his discomfiture.

The haircut is done. Do I want it blow dried, he asks. I decide not to push my luck with the baby and decline. Time to pay up. (Husband had already paid for his and the baby's cut before I had been offered one. Rs 350 for the two of them! I have always known that barbers are cheaper than women's hairdressers, but I hadn't realised the difference was exponential). The barber asks me what I pay my regular hairdresser. I pause for a split second, but tell him honestly: Rs. 1500. He laughs, says it's my first time with him so he'll simply keep the change from the thousand-rupee-note Husband had paid with. I'm simultaneously struck by the facts that a) I've paid less than half of what I normally do, for a cut I'm just as happy with, and b) I've still paid more than four times what my husband pays, for a cut that isn't much different than his, and I didn't get my mustache, eyebrows, or nose hair trimmed, either.

I know as I leave that I need to write about this.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Andhair Nagri

I haven't written in a while. How's that for understatement? The urge to write has been only a twinge, buried under the weight of work and baby and home and family. And finally, those very weights have added themselves to the force of the twinge.

Two days this week, I took my baby to watch his brother play cricket at a local club. It's been the first cold week this winter, temperatures going down to freezing. Cold for this part of the world at any rate. Last night, the baby was sneezing. Baby's grandma and I decided it was too cold, and that baby and I should watch cricket training from the relative warmth of the car. Because moms and grandmas worry about babies catching cold.

Then today, I had a chat with a friend who has been working on the citizens' resistance to the Punjab government's disastrously ill-conceived Orange Line Metro rail project, about which expect to read more on this blog. Land acquisition for government projects is often a contentious issue, world over. The Orange Line project land acquisition is contentious, too. Several property owners have managed to get stay orders from the courts. Nevertheless, today I was told that in this cold, in the middle of the night, government goons show up, accompanied by police officers, and toss people out of their homes. The homes are summarily knocked down (these are lower and lower-middle class homes, for the most part), and the families who live there are left without any place to sleep, with no notice. In one case, the demolished property was a clinic. Patients were tossed out, still connected to active IV lines.

A little later today, the power went out in many of the larger cities in the northern half of Pakistan. Six hour power outage for us. Definitely not the worst we've experienced. We considered going out for dinner, but didn't want to expose the baby to the cold.

I spent much of the evening feeling grateful for the roof over our heads, and simultaneously anguished over the children who have been forced to spend this cold week on the streets. My baby was crying because it was dark; a few candles took care of that problem. Where will those other kids go? Are they crying in the dark? Are they too cold to cry? Have their parents managed to find food? Some kind of shelter? What is going through the minds of those moms, those grandmas?

The part of me that is always the detached observer notes that my anguish is a bit like Hope's deep sadness over poverty and inequality and homelessness in thirtysomething, and quietly mocks me for my privileged perch and comfort of my discomfort. It doesn't decrease the pain, however.

We are living in a land of darkness. Kab ujaala hoga iss andhair nagri main?