Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

What the Barber Knows


There is the princess in her bassinet, and the boy child who sprawls on the divan bed. Their sleep is the throb of youth, the let’s get this over with stuff of rest, the excruciable wait of middle-night. There is even one in the womb I thought I’d maybe never use, and it is disappointed with me that I am already so tired. It likes when I lean on the counter, over the dishwasher as it zums. One night, I washed the same dishes thrice—heavy-duty cycle—and read an entire book while baby buzzed with promises of the soon-new world, and at night the cleanness of the bowl and spoon was more flavor than the sherbet that we savored together.

Daddy-baba is working late tonight, and baby knows it because the man isn’t poking at imagined feet above my pelvis, he isn’t cooing at the ear against my naval. It is the 28th week when the book says babies begin to dream, and the umbilical cord is dilating, waiting for some resonance, waiting for me to pour a mash of semantic memories that her wild, undulating imagination can render pleasant. Shall I conjure the spark of life story? The one that ends at the present moment with baby in the holding cell? That’s something to dream on. Let’s see then: it must begin with the barber under the banyan tree when her daddy-baba was young.

He was a boy, and when he wanted his hairs cut, he went to the banyan tree, one of those near to the lake, whose shade is acres-wide. When you approached it, you would never guess it was a single tree, that the whole woody world was grown from a single stem. In India, every banyan tree is mythical, every one has the capacity of a forest, from hubbing trunk to messy crest, and this one was no exception. Just wait until you hear about the flamingo, baby.

Your father, Layak, little boy then, maybe thirteen, went to get his hairs cut, scheming closer to the arterial branches of the banyan, aiming for the girth of its forest, and when he got there, the white-headed barber, Mandara Nai, was sleeping on the ground, his pillow pinched between the base of prop roots. The barber’s nephew saw Layak coming with the paper in his hand, and he woke his uncle with a few soft blows into the shehnai. How you will love the shehnai, baby. The oboe buzzes beyond all expectations, like the dishwasher but without the static; its melodies move like nomads, but combine with cosmic significance. Mandara Nai thanked his nephew angrily for waking him, and he combed his white head, then his saffron-dyed mustache until each tuft drooped over a jowl.

“Is it Layak?” Mandara Nai was squinting, and little Layak nodded.

“Give it here then,” Mandara Nai gestured for the paper Layak brought, the photograph of Aamir Khan, Indian Romeo, and as Mandara Nai studied the picture, planning the cut, the nephew poured spiced tea and played the shehnai. Layak sipped at his tea, waiting, peeking up at all the branches of the tree, searching for the long ones up high that matched the oboe’s reaching upper-octave notes of suspense and glancing briefly at the smallest nodules, coinciding with the deep, beaky blurts.

When Mandara Nai cut your daddy-baba’s hair with straight or jagged blades, the lustrous stuff—damp with the mist of the spray bottle and some spit for his most stubborn locks—fell to the mud. Under that tree, so much hair is moiled over, over a century of Indian fluff, since the time that Mandara Nai’s third-great grandfather settled there after the Sepoy Mutiny and began to cut hair.

“There you have it,” Mandara Nai always said when he was finished with a transformative zest, self-satisfied as he put his comb and snippers back into his kit. “Let him see it.”

The nephew came toward Layak with the square mirror and circled him to prove how near to the heartthrob Aamir Khan one could be, but Layak only glanced at himself. In the mirror, it was the branches that were most profound, how they grew from shoulders like strange and varied progeny. Mandara Nai ambushed his circling nephew, though, gasped, and said, “Ek minat! Wait! I’ve made a thorough blunder.”

Mandara Nai took from his kit the twisted cotton string and rolled it over Layak’s top lip, threading away the neat mustached row. Layak winced as it was all plucked away, his small wealth of facial hair gone in a few tight sweeps across his face.

“Romeo Raj had a baby face, yes?” Mandara Nai reminded him, pointing at the photograph, Aamir Khan’s upper lip.

While Mandara Nai massaged the newly-trimmed scalp, the nephew played the shehnai again, a familiar melody—maybe the same notes as before only backward. Above the banyan jazz, Mandara Nai spoke of the midwife, Gulal, and the babes she would soon deliver, and how he, Mandara Nai Jankaar Matchmaker, bonded the parents of the soon-newborns under that very banyan tree.

“Not so long now, Layak. Something special for you too.”

A wife for Daddy-baba, he meant. An arrangement.

It was the barber’s irony that he sat under the tree because how wild and untrimmed it was, how small his snippers around the flesh of even the smallest twigs of the banyan. Years later, before he went to medical school, Layak wanted his hairs cut (like Anil Kapoor this time, he fancied). Mandara Nai measured and shaped the hair, and when he was finished, he lathered the badger-hair shave brush, dragging its ivory handle from ear to ear, chin to gullet, leaving only a caterpillar strip of fuzz over the top lip.

“There you have it,” Mandara Nai said, and as the nephew circled with the mirror, Layak saw the barber’s hands slapping at his cheeks and throat, the talcum powder, which was rumored (but eventually confirmed by Mandara Nai himself) to be mixed with scored opium pods. Because of this, many men came twice a day—you see, they were addicted to Mandara Nai’s narcotic shaves. For awhile, one even required his services hourly. And Mandara would pull at the man’s chin, searching for the prickled penumbra, and tell him: Maybe you’ve a five o’clock shadow, but six, seven, eight? You’ve turned cuckoo of the banyan. I’ll cut your skin if it’s any closer. And the customer said: All the better, but don’t forget the powder! With Layak’s eyes closed, his mind in motion with the morphine, Mandara Nai was massaging the scalp through to the tissue. The shehnai thrummed jaggedly.

“What will you do with medical school?” Mandara Nai asked.

“I want to be a surgeon.”

Well, it was a coincidence to Mandara Nai because his third-great grandfather was a surgeon in the Sepoy Mutiny. Long ago, barbers too were surgeons (don’t let Daddy-baba ever tell you differently). When there was peace, they cut hair; and when there was war, they cut limbs. (How long the hairs grow in wartime.)

Mandara Nai’s third-great grandfather amputated from the shoulder, the elbow, the cuff; or the lower extremities from the hip or the knee or the ankle—and fingers or toes. Your arms and legs, baby, I know, are so new. How you thrash them when you’re restless or when my stories lull! At this, your before-age, the limbs are so demonstrative that you might never suspect that you can live without much else, aside from the heart. How black and gangrenous the limbs turn, though, in a war as awful as the Mutiny, and Mandara Nai’s third-great grandfather hacked with his open razor to damper infection.

One day, when the violence against Indians was without precedent, when the amputation line was exceedingly long, he calmly left his station with his newest body part (a gray hand with a scab of crystalline pus) tucked in his armpit, razor in hand, and walked directly to the East India Company and asked the British officers, Do you know what you are doing? You are mutilating us so that even if we do come to a truce, even if we try to shake your hands at the chosen time, we won’t have any left. Forget your cotton crates, your silk and your tea and your indigo. To hell with saltpeter, opium, and coffee. Your cocoa and spice will never compare because here it is. Here is real commodity, and he held up the gray hand and waved it, and for the moment it had again, life of its own.

An officer tackled him to the ground, dragged him across dust, and put him in an inconceivable place. The officers dumped Mandara Nai’s third-great grandfather in the carcass of a cow and sewed him into it. You see, in a war that had so much to do with the corporeal carnage of Royal Bengali Tigers at the hands of the statant guardant lions of the Kingdom, few often remember what it was that initially came between the two: the cow and its multi-utility lard. From inside the cow, Mandara Nai’s third-great grandfather had the choice to respect the sacred cow as he suffocated to death or to momentarily betray it so that he might immediately defend it. He butchered the cow from the inside out, prepared too to butcher the British officers, but when they all saw him emerge from the cow in ugly resurrection, bloodied by mauve lumpy entrails and cupric venous blood, they ran away, quite afraid.

The barber quit the city, went south, south, South until there was a lake and a banyan tree, and he never left. Mandara Nai told Layak that, in fact, his third-great grandfather was beneath them since his funeral pyre was burned at the trunk of the banyan, and his ashes were immediately absorbed by the roots.

“This place calmed him,” Mandara Nai said. “Look at all the limbs of the banyan.”

Layak looked around, thought that they were maybe flexing, the hundreds of wide or wimpy prop roots, most strangulated by the invasive figs.

“It’s our national tree,” Mandara Nai said, and as he thumped the ground, he added, “and nobody knows it the better. My third-great grandfather said that none of his descendents should leave the shade of this banyan until all limbs of the sun have regenerated. That we only use the razor for stubble, not surgery. And that we should manufacture love alone.”

By this time, Layak’s brain had been kneaded into the consistency of a chutney. The massage, the story, the fluidity of the shehnai, the nerve-blunting opium, each at its own level had so steeped him in the folk tradition that he could not argue when Mandara Nai, in parting, said it: “I’ve talked to your father. Her’s too. It is nearly settled.”

“Whose?” Layak asked.

“No worry. Go ahead, first, Layak Anil Kapoor. To medical school.”

He went, baby, to Siddhartha Medical College in Vijayawada, and he excelled.

He graduated, a twenty-six year old surgeon, nearly top of his class, and handsome (too handsome if photographs can tell the whole story), and you might think that all that was quite enough for him. Your father is a man of ambition, though. Two surgeons from the state, from Andrha Pradesh where Daddy-baba’s roots spring from abysmal lows, were given fellowships in the exotic West; one to England (reparations, you might call it) and the other to the United States. Daddy-baba, smug as could be, was Manhattan-bound, to teach, to learn, to perform in the Big Apple.

He was ready to go, bags stuffed like all the gadwalls and bee-eaters that fatten before flying on a tailwind to India when their home season grows cold. His mother, though, (the woman you might hear me call Maataa! when she enters and Siradarda, headache, when she leaves), detained him a bit longer.

“To Mandara Nai!” she pushed Layak out of the house and towards the lake district, toward the bowl-like lanka islets, and he walked with his earth-clapping sandals over rice paddies, through elephant grass and water hyacinth, beneath chains of pouchy pelicans that landed where the water wriggled and shimmered with the prospect of dinner, and fished with open bills.

Layak went empty-handed, and Mandara Nai was perplexed when Layak said: “I don’t know. Something more American.”

Mandara Nai looked suddenly old. His saffron mustache was frizzled at the ends like it had been singed in a pipe, mistaken for strands of mango-cured tobacco. As Mandara Nai considered whether he had ever successfully performed an American haircut, Layak drank spiced tea and watched the nephew, his shehnai leaning preposterously on his shins. Beside the nephew, a distressed flamingo glared at her company. She was elevated by a mud nest, upon which her downy chest feathers covered the egg, a chalky globe brushed by the thin protection of feathers like oleander and hibiscus.

“She won’t let me,” the nephew whispered, pointing alternatively to the mean-looking black and vermillion beak and his own impotent shehnai. “Really, she just starts this hideous honking.”

With the banyan so broad, a whole forest within it, why did the flamingo come to this very spot where humans could hinder it? Layak remembered reading—was it in Sálim Ali’s book of Indian birds?—that flamingoes were gregarious and lived in crowded colonies, so maybe it came here, near to Mandara Nai, because of the habit of community.

The barber clipped away Layak’s hair confidently at first with some model obviously in mind, but as time went on, his confidence dwindled, and he paused to think. As the design materialized before him, Mandara Nai worried that maybe America was not the thing he had imagined it to be. When he finished, it was not with his usual flair. The nephew stood up with the mirror, but the barber waved him off. “We’ve no comparison anyway.”

Mandara Nai shaved Layak hastily, it seemed, nicking him several times, and the blood glided like small rubies down Layak’s cheek. Layak wiped it away with his own hand, refusing the powder, and Mandara Nai was anxious to begin the massage, to speak at Layak.

“You saw the flamingo?”

Of course he had.

“You know, it is no coincidence that it came to this spot.”

But your good daddy-baba saw nonesuch coincidence. For him, nothing seemed to be coinciding. He was silent while the barber pushed his thumbs into the scalp as if trying to open the mind like peeling the cleavage of a pistachio nut, then pinching like dough the cartilage of his ear so that the blood rushed to aid in earnest listening.

“Layak, the flamingo and her mate knew to come here because this is where love is made. Every day, I do my best to make love between strange families, to bring them together. I know love. Ask the midwife, Gulal, how many babes have been born out of my artifice. She tallies in the dirt, and the dirt is striped as a tiger reserve.

“Listen, now: Your wife is waiting, a beauty of the state. She wears organza silk saris, sings like Asha Bhosle. Imagine, being pinned to your bed every night by such a beautiful voice. And your babes too!”

Layak stood, though, pulled away from Mandara Nai’s crushing hands, wouldn’t hear any more of it.

“Stay, Layak! India is home, and home is supreme. Look how happy the flamingo—”

Layak could see Sálim Ali, India’s great birder, standing on one leg, blending in with a flamingo colony. As if quoting Ali’s firsthand notes, Layak rebuffed the barber. “The flamingoes are migratory. Nature facilitated this egg, not you.”

“Layak, that city you will go to is a vacuum. Nothing for you. They wouldn’t be honored by your presence; it’s not like whatever the letter said. They need foreign surgeons like you to subsidize their healthcare. Stay, like my third-great grandfather. Operate on your brothers and sisters only.”

“Your third-great grandfather was no surgeon,” Layak said with a spiteful rattle of the throat that echoed throughout the banyan.

Mandara Nai bowed his head to the ground, underneath which the ashes in question reconstituted into bones and rattled too.

“And the flamingoes aren’t in love. Nobody here is in proper love.”

Your daddy-baba didn’t know he had a temper until then, until he went over to the barber’s nephew and his vision poured into the mirror, and he saw the choppy hair, one old Indian man’s terrible interpretation of what it meant to be American, and he shattered the mirror against the trunk, and fig wasps swarmed up-and-outward.

Layak was outside of the banyan’s shade then, unashamed except for his hair-cut. He was embarrassed to show his mother, but paranoia captured him. Had it been her idea for him to go to Mandara Nai not for an attractive haircut, but for one that would make him less confident in New York, prevent him from meeting his mate while he, himself, was migrating West? Or, did she just want for him to have one last helping of tradition, to be reminded of how things were supposed to be by Mandara Nai before he dare to corrupt it in a city prone to infinite corruptions? Or, possibly, it was to be enticed by the girl who had been waiting—what was it, six years now?—for him to be ready to settle down. Either way, Layak was resolved to have his hair fixed straightaway when he arrived in the city.

Layak left with the flamingo honking at his back, wobbling over the egg, and then falling from it onto her side. It was not because of the mirror-throwing or even the stinging wasps who pierced through her downy chest, but the faint sound of the egg-tooth cracking through the egg. The flamingo leaned over the egg, wailing at it, and Mandara Nai with his nephew watched from further back.
“Call for Gulal,” Mandara Nai whispered, and his nephew took his shehnai to the fringe of the banyan’s shade and blew.

It is getting late, baby-love, and where is Daddy-baba? Your sister, your brother sleep like batteries recharge. I see them fidgeting with gained energy, thrown by dreams, self-generated. And have I yet given you enough to dream on? All those trips to the banyan as if it were you with the locks, you with the wife-in-waiting, you with the bulging temper. I can tell by the weight of you that I’ve made your head heavier with all this stuff of history, but I’ll dare make it heavier still—only, I’ll sit in the rocker now.

I’d be a fool, anyway, to think I could sleep before he comes home, before he hugs us both to morning. Let’s rush him home then, by following him to Manhattan eight years ago—where else, but at the barber’s—and let’s put a flame under his toosh, race him to the end when he comes home soon, still in navy scrubs, and stops our rocking with the butt of his hand.

So, poof away with brother, poof gone princess sister; even I am yet unseen in your daddy-baba’s mind (yes, that’s poof for you too, baby-one). His hairs were under the scrutiny of the thick Caribbean hairdresser at the Cut Above salon. He had wandered there that morning as he walked through the neighborhood that he adamantly pronounces the Lory Side (no matter the number of times I tell him that Lories are nectar-hungry parrots.)

The hairdresser was shampooing his hair, bemoaning its length. “When you last cut on this?”

Layak shrugged. He had been in New York for six months. The first thing he had done—still pulling his suitcase on wheels and the acrylic duffel bag across his shoulder—was go to an uptown salon and overpay (in excess of $80) for a corrective haircut.

“This stuff’s grown here long time,” the hairdresser said.

Layak was sandwiched between two identical women, both covered by a magenta blouse, tousling his longish hair, one immediately behind him and the other a flat reflection of the first. When he saw her peppery black mustache in the mirror, faintly furrying her upper lip, he couldn’t help but think of Mandara Nai.

“Why cut on it now? Why not wait teel it mops up da filth on da streets?”

“My mother is visiting.”

“Ah! Is nothing wrong with det. Puts da pressure on me, do’.”

Layak was uneasy, not because of the large Caribbean woman who was clumsy as she rummaged for her sharpest scissors, but because of the presence of the flamingo. No, baby, the flamingo did not chase Daddy-baba all the way from India. It is nothing fantastical like that.

In the mirror, stickered with styling product advertising, just beside the reflection of his own face, the hand-colored flamingo—neatly ripped from a coloring book—was taped to the mirror, a bit skewed. It was because of the haphazard taping that Layak was inclined to believe that the coloring was otherwise flawless, except that it spilled out of the lines in the direction it was mistaped. He tilted his head to see if he could correct it.

“Why the flamingo?” he asked. He needed to know because if this coincidence (and it was undeniably a coincidence) was not settled, then Layak would be led to believe that Mandara Nai was right all along, that Mandara Nai knew love, and a mean lake-bird had come to this conclusion before him.

“I colored it,” the little girl’s voice said to him. She was sitting in the scarlet leather dryer chair, her braided head beneath the hood and her feet dangling above the hairy linoleum. Beside her, an old zonked woman seemed to have been melted into a puddle of wrinkles by the dryer.

“With deese,” the girl said. She was tempting Layak to look, but he knew better. He continued staring at his feet while hers were absorbed in rhythm, moving with the faint Ooh-na-na crinkling from the small CD player on the counter beside hair pastes and waxes.

“What I say, Indilyn? Every time you open you mouth, you gone go out the line. Then what, girl? Then I get an ugly pisha on my mirra.” The hairdresser looked up with some hostility at the flamingo.

In the time it took for her to chide the girl, Layak managed to peek up and see that the girl was showing off her box of crayons. When the hairdresser returned to his hair, Layak asked Indilyn: “Hey, little girl?”

“What?” Indilyn’s feet were swinging, her heels thumping at the leather, syncing with the na-na.

“What colors do you use for a flamingo like that?”

“Da pinks.”

“Yeah?” Layak asked.

“Yeah. Diss one, and—” Indilyn, realizing that she was soliciting Layak to look again, tried sounding the names of the colors. “I used the Cerise and the, uh, the Carnation Pink. And Jazzberry Jam!”

“Jazzberry Jam?” Layak asked. (Your daddy-baba has always known how to talk to little ones, baby.)

“Yeah, but I’m out that one now ‘cause I used it all up. See? I mean—”

“You liked det one, uh?” her mother asked, somewhat affectionately as hair crunched between the blades of the scissors, shorn, and tumbled to the floor.

Layak suspected Indilyn was nodding.

“Have you ever seen a flamingo?” Layak asked the girl.

“The Bronx Zoo got ‘em,” she said noncommittally.

“How you know something like det, Indilyn?” her mother asked as she pinched Layak’s hair in a sort of flopping mohawk. “You never bin dare.”

“They on the sign. On the subway,” she explained to her mother, leaning toward her. “I tried to color it like doze ones on the sign,” she said to Layak.

“You did an admirable job. A real good job,” Layak said, and he was quiet for some time, waiting for the hands in his hair to wipe away the recent clippings, to turn him to an angle more conducive for storytelling. He was going to tell Indilyn about the flamingo who sat on her egg under the banyan tree in his home country; he was going to tell her about how it honked anytime the barber’s nephew tried to blow into the shehnai; and he would tell her how the barber was crazy enough to believe that he was the matchmaker, though he feared Indilyn might not think Mandara Nai so crazy. Layak never got the chance to tell her, though, because a man entered, his hairline zagging like Charlie Brown’s shirt and lips. He talked briefly with the magenta hairdresser and carried Indilyn away, leaving behind only the piece of paper on her seat, an alligator, expertly colored in Granny Smith Apple, Caribbean Green, and Asparagus.

When the hairdresser finished, Layak seemed to be waiting. “What’s it, sir? I tink I did a damn good job, don’tchou? Forget ja mada, this cut’s fit for a chick. You got’cha one?”’

Layak blushed, nodded. While he had no anticipation of a head massage, he did wonder if she would shave his beard.

“Not here, I won’t. Ju’ want AIDS? Ju’ want ta die? Buy a Bic, shave you’aself,” she said as she taped the alligator atop the flamingo.

As he walked to Penn Station to meet his mother, he kept hearing the words and seeing, again and again, the flamingo being covered. Shave you’aself. Shave you’aself. Save yourself.

It was long before they reached his apartment, where they stared at each other, already speechless; maybe, it was during the wait for or the ride on the C-train from Penn to 42nd or their walk to the transfer, the 7-train to Jackson Heights, or not until just before he opened his apartment door, when she asked, When are you coming home, beta? that Layak realized this trip was about Mandara Nai, the invisible bride, and dowries-in-waiting.

He went to the hospital Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday while she waited for him at the apartment, alternating between intrigue and outrage as she worked her way through a Western romance she bought at LaGuardia called The Flame and the Flower. On Thursday, when he came home, his mother was crying at his desk. Layak saw the novel on the desk, apparently finished, and thought that she had been moved by the ending. As he got nearer to her, though, he saw that she was crying at what she had found on his computer.

“Who is this email to?” she asked.

“A friend.”

“What friend, beta?”

Layak swallowed. “Colin.”

In the next hour, Layak explained that he had hired Colin, an undergraduate writing major from NYU, per his ad on Craigslist (It’s like classifieds… Yeah, you can sell anything… even cassettes.). And Layak put the personal ad on Craigslist (No, not for money… just a date, maa.). And this girl was interested (From India too… Jammu… We went to a comedy show.).

“Layak, you hurt my head. Didn’t Mandara Nai tell you how your wife will sing?”

“He did, maa, but you’ll never believe: this girl,” he said, pointing at the screen, “she sings too. She’s an understudy. Off-broadway, but it’s superb.”

“So, that’s it then?” his mother was wailing, her hand nervously clutching her romance novel, as if she might throw it out the window to be stomped over by all the passersby of Jackson Heights. The way she was gripping at the paperback, as if she could strangle the life out of it, demonstrated her conviction that love could flourish in the absence of courtship. In the whites of her knuckles, where the blood had left, Layak could see the truth of it, that love manifested pluripotentially.

She gasped before the possibility of what she was to say. “So, I’ll just tell Mandara Nai to forget it all? That you’ll have a love marriage? That you’ll just marry this one, stay in New York? That you’ll forget home, Andrha Pradesh and Kolleru altogether?”

“No, maataa. It’s not that. The fellowship is two years. You know that. I might still come home. We’ll see,” and he shrouded her with a consoling hug.

Sorry, baby. I discontinue now because Daddy-baba is here. He must have felt our rocker stories rushing him home to us. We don’t rock anymore because his hand has stopped us up just as I imagined it would. He is kneeling, unbuttoning just the bottom of my lavender maternity blouse, parting the cloth like drawn drapes, opening the world up to you, kissing at you, hushing at you, cooing at you the list of baby maybe-names we’ve compiled.

I’m sorry we haven’t got to that part when Layak decided on me, and which one am I? I was going to first reveal myself to you from afar, as beautiful as I’ve ever been (though Daddy-baba insists even now that I’m prettier since he last saw me; this, he has promised me daily since we married). I guess it doesn’t matter, though, baby. You know me better than all. You know me inside-out, the pink and blood of me.

Quietly, so I don’t wake your brother or princess sister, I sing. Daddy-baba makes me.

“Please, my nightingale,” he begs. “Sarojini Naidu,” and he kneads me like a jukebox.

Once in the dream of a night I stood… And as I sing this whole bed to sleep—Lone in the light of a magical wood…—Daddy-baba’s head, trimmed apropos, is resting on my belly, on you. Soul-deep in visions that poppy-like sprang…

He whispers to you: “Baby, wait until you’ve found your way to this side. This woman—her voice, everything—is so beautiful.”

Can you feel it when I blush, baby? And spirits of Truth were the birds that sang.

His day was long, and he is already sleeping. Now, so too can we.

Lawrence Lenhart is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Arizona. His favorite writers are his pen pals from the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. He has been calmly fussing over geopolitical issues such as expatriation, religious fundamentalism, and what Salman Rushdie calls imaginary homelands. He is also the blog editor for the Sonora Review.