Image by deep shot via Flickr
May 30th 2010 was just another Sunday for me. I woke up quite late and on confronting myself in the mirror saw that something needed to be done to tame the wild state that the hair on my head had progressed to. So digging out a old T-shirt and retaining my over-worn pair of shorts, I walked out of my house and took the corner just a couple of steps away from my main gate. "Janta Hair Dressers" said the board which must have been painted 30-40 years ago and it is very much the typical Indian barber shop with its customary creaky old slow ceiling fan and creaky old wooden chair on which customers relax while the barber does his job. As with the board, not much has changed since the shop opened its doors with framed pamphlets on the walls still displaying a sampling of haircuts which could have found social acceptance only in the crazy 70s.
There is a senior hair-dresser or 'naapit' as he is called in Bengali in charge of the saloon and a number of his younger trainees who report to him in the important task of getting rid of unwanted facial hair. Depending on who's free at what time, the master or the trainees take up the challenge of executing a unstylish but effective haircut. My lot fell with the grizzled old master who was in his late 60s by now and I could foresee one of our usual hair-cutting conversation on the horizon.
As expected, half a minute had not transpired before he began in his gruff voice "It is about time you got married, Babu!" 22 years of cutting my hair, back from when I was 3 years old and my uncle's, father's and grandfather's before that, had earned him the right to advice me on anything at all so the only reaction I could muster was a sharp "Why?!!!" The reply did not take long in coming "Marry while you still have such great hair. Once you start going bald, which good girl will like you, tell me?" Why such a critical chapter of my life should be decided by the lushness of my hair was beyond me but it was his perspective of looking at things and very much in line with what a barber would think of as the single most important criteria in life. So I just rolled my eyes at which my hair surgeon found reason to smile. He liked the idea of having a captive audience at the mercy of his scissors and blade on whom he could foist his hair-centred ideas.
In the meantime, another regular to his shop popped into the shop and asked the chief barber "Have you voted already?" He replied without pausing in the snip-snippy motions around my head and with a sense of resignation, "I did. Early in the morning when the queues were small. You've got to do. what you've got to do!" Today was municipal election day for Calcutta, I remembered and also encountered a rising sense of guilt because I had not even registered myself on the voting list here. I knew what question was going to be thrown at me next. "And you, Babu?" was the query to me. "Yes! Yes! Of course!" I swiftly lied, more out of shame than anything else.
Here was a man in charge of civilizing my hair, a man who took his daily bath at the public municipal taps that line Calcutta's streets, a man who could never dream of earning even half as much as me and who was just educated enough to read the Hindi newspapers which he subscribed to. His voice did not contain any trace of hope that his vote was going to make any difference to whoever he brought to power and he was old enough to be cynical about election results after having seen so many of them come and go.
Would the ridiculous corruption levels go down; would the area see long due development; would the promises of a better tomorrow for him and his children be fulfilled? All he had his mind set on was that he complete his end of the duties. Because he did not need a college degree or an MBA to develop this most basic of understandings about the democratic process. It is an understanding that millions of 'uneducated' voters who line up to vote at the numerous polling booths around the country have while the majority of the cynical urban 'educated' snigger at the effort put in by the other not-so-privileged half while they enjoy a day off from work. After all, your opinion and importance on any matter related to deciding the fate of you yourself, your family, neighbourhood, city, district, state or nation,will only be as important as you yourself think it to be. There may be a million other factors that determine what eventually happens but if you have the slightest belief in your own capabilities and your ability to make a difference to the world around you, you will cast your vote, no matter how long the queue.