Delicate Ministrations at the Shalimar Saloon
The cracked red leather of the barber’s chair and its rusted gears crack and whine as I settle in, ready in this sweat-slicked heat of Kerala in February to be rid of the beard that has been with me all through my Ohio autumn and winter. I have catapulted seasons across the world from my home by ice-locked Lake Erie to Kochi, Indian city and hundred-degree cauldron boiling next to the Arabian Sea. Three days in, and my facial hair has become intolerable. My savior is a small man in his sixties standing in front of his barbershop. His head bears just the silvered tonsure of age and a clean, gleaming dome, and his own face is grizzled with whiskers. Who barbers the barber at the Shalimar Saloon?
After draping a deep red cloth across me, out come the electric clippers and a few breezy sweeps later the beard has fallen like a cloud into my lap. He hesitates, though, at the moustache. He would so like to keep such an impressive badge of manhood, this moustache that curls over my upper lip and swings gallantly off on each side. He points and looks at me with hopeful eyes, and when I say, “All off,” and wave my hand his brow sinks in resignation. “Clean?” he says, less a question than a sulking fact. “Clean-shave!” I answer. He has, however, left sideburns and now his small scissors chirp like a tiny bird, shaping and grooming them to respectability. I don’t really want them but I know when to give ground and I cede this minor territory of my face to him (for now).
Now the true shave can commence and the gears that have probably swung countless patrons down for fifty years if not a century abruptly drop me back. First there is the spray of some refreshing fragrant water and the delicate ministrations of fingertips that softly but firmly work the potion into the skin in staccato movements, tracing and retracing the same ridges and slopes, the divets and crests of cheek and chin for minutes on end. Then, like a master presiding over his tea ceremony, he handles the stainless steel cup, lays the black-whiskered brush down across its edge, and applies the thick gold paste of the cream in a precise dollop across the brush’s flank.
I watch all of this in the mirror through dreamily sleepy lids three-quarters closed as if I were meditating and join him as spectator in the moment-to-moment calm of ritual. The soft black bristles sweep and circle across my face working up a rich lather and like the fragrant water the brush too at its master’s instigation moves over and over and over my face, less a simple utilitarian act and more another massage, a caress, a swirling message of caring from one human to another, from one man to another. The shave he will give me will be so thorough, so close, that I could never achieve it on my own. For how many millennia has one man drawn a sharp blade across another man’s neck in a quiet corner, like one monkey grooming another in the calm of a tree limb, the concentration breeding silence, the silence breeding trust, the trust breeding friendship? We are two men from opposite ends of the earth, but nevertheless two men, and we share this moment.
At the insistence of the brush my eyes close fully and I lose myself in my thoughts, which drift to the sweetness of young men’s bodies touching and colliding in all sorts of ways here in this India of my travels. Two twenty-somethings walk down the street in Delhi holding hands or curling one pinky with another or with a hand on a shoulder and a forearm resting on a back. High-school boys on the bus in Dehradun joke with each other, an arm collaring a neck, hand against a chest or a belly. In the far north at the guest-house in Mussoorie, the very handsome and charming manager, Sunil, tells me the pages I have just printed out on the hotel’s computer are at no charge and puts his arm around my waist and gives me a small squeeze and a smile.
My partner and I have traveled together here and both been confused, charmed, and tormented by these alien gestures of intimacy. Is it all merely the consequence of so many, many bodies crushed together in this teeming subcontinent where personal space is nill on buses, trains, or on the street where people, rickshaws, cars, cows, and donkeys jostle in fraught movement? Is it innocent touch or do pinkies not only curl into each other but also into belt loops pulling bulging crotch to bulging crotch and wet tongue to wet tongue in dark alleys, boarding school dorms, train station toilets? And though “dirty,” “deviant,” or “criminal,” cannot this also be in its own way innocent? Why shouldn’t young men’s friendship extend to and encompass the mutual quenching of tumescent needs before marriage? Perhaps here the borders of sexuality draw themselves differently, the only treason being to never move beyond this to marriage and children. (I think of my own mother far away in space and time in Rhode Island in 1992 wailing when she found out: “I will never have grandchildren!”)
It’s minutes into the languorous swabbing across my face that I realize the barber’s crotch is pressed against my shoulder as he works, apparently in unconscious need to better angle in for a good lather. Were he one of the young Krishna-dark men with thin arms bulging in sinewy muscles and shining white smiles, my body would boil over in fever, but this old man is almost womanly in his kindness, neutered in my mind by the years between us and by the ritual relation of this intimate transaction. Because we are two humans who relentlessly sprout hair on our faces that requires careful removal, these bodies and their tending engender caring. Perhaps this is what it means to be human, this shedding of our animal evidence together. Because we are two men who know without words just how to open up the neck for the best sweep of the blade and bring this ritual into being together, these bodies and their tending engender gender in this sexed conference against animality. Perhaps this is what it means to be a man, this mingling in sameness, this homosocial comradery where no woman can enter.
Is this why gay men pose such a problem? How many older gay men have I met here who configure their sexuality exclusively around conquest, ultimately alone, the ever-bachelor? Like the university professor making crude come-ons to his male students in public and their sheepish giggles in response, a mark of liberality and openness covering over something else. Does the gay man betray the embodied fraternity, merely publicize it, or complicate it by converting desire as mutual relief into desire as intention? Had I had the presence of mind and cheek to wrap my arm around Sunil’s waist and squeeze back, what then?
My barber whose name I never learned opens up a cabinet to retrieve a fresh razor blade and slips it into the straight-edge. As he does this, my partner steps into the Shalimar Saloon, back from his walk around the block. What does Barber think of us? How does he read the text of us? A few weeks ago back in Delhi, we had dinner with two gay friends Samir and Pratik. Pratik, a law school student in his mid-twenties, when I asked what being gay in India was like (stupid question, like someone asking me what being gay in the U.S. is like), answered that it was good because you could be yourself while being completely invisible, walking down the street holding hands with your lover without anyone giving it a thought.
My partner steps into the back waiting room to watch TV and the shave truly commences. Barber tenderly cups my forehead and shifts me this way and that, pinches my nose, pushes a cheek one way and then the other. His strokes are short and careful with intermittent swipes on squares of paper. This blade could knit us together as fellow men or cleave us apart in a bright red ribbon. If he knew I fantasized about the men falling against each other in the streets, about the charming smile of the manager at my hotel, which way would the razor swipe? Could he know this about me and about the man I love waiting in the backroom and could the fraternity of caring still hold?
After the shave with just a few accidental drops of blood, he pats me down with bracing alcohol and each time I think we’ve finished with each other, he pulls out one and then another cream and calmly massages every part of my face over and over. Fingertip-taps, full-palmed mangles, interlinked finger-jiggles with first one lotion, then another, then another in a prescribed ritual and I relax again.
Eventually it is over, imperceptibly, like a cloud lifting off a mountain. The chair is eased up, the drape removed, the Barber scrutinizes his work with a patient eye, and I wonder if I had even had a father growing up would he have loved me the way this man loves me right now.
Marco Wilkinson’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online, Seneca Review, DIAGRAM, Taproot, Rappahannock Review, and the Bending Genre blog. He has taught at Oberlin College where he is also managing editor at Oberlin College Press, and also teaches in the Sustainable Agriculture program at Lorain County Community College.
The image is a detail from a photo by Andrew Marcus.