Indian streets are always abuzz with stories. Amid hustle-bustle and opulence of city life, the stories of streets are simple and slow-paced.
Like any other city, Guwahati too has its own street culture. The street barbers are an essential part of this culture.
Barbers with a broken mirror, a creaky chair or stool, a couple of combs, water bottle and some basic equipment is not an unusual sight for our city. Amid rising number of hair salons with modern-day amenities, the street barbers struggle to make their ends met on the footpaths of Guwahati. With limited infrastructure, they try their best to serve the customers whose socio-economic backgrounds are quite significant.
Shyam Kishore Thakur who hails from Motihari in Bihar has been in the profession for last 30 years. He sits on the footpath in front of Cotton University in Guwahati.
Shyam says the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on his business.
“It was really a difficult phase. People were afraid of visiting the barbers. The street barbers were the victims of this fear. Even now, the number of customers is less compared to pre-COVID times,” says the sexagenarian with a tone of bewilderment.
On asking about his plans to relocate his shop to a permanent establishment with modern facilities, Shyam Kishore replies that he can’t afford to dream of such a bigger business as he is finding it difficult to earn his bread and butter.
But 39-year-old Lakhindar Thakur is hopeful for better days.
“I hope one day, I will move to a permanent shop. Now, I charge very minimal. For every haircut, I charge Rs 30 and Rs 20 for shaving. I don’t have any specific rate for the head massage. Facials are not available at my shop. My customers range from rickshaw pullers, daily wage earners to high-ranking officers. During lockdown, I used to provide in-home services,” Lakhindar tells these writers.
Lakhindar is also from Motihari in Bihar.
“Earlier, I worked in Kathmandu. I moved to Guwahati around 10 years ago. The experiences in Guwahati are quite good. I have met customers from different backgrounds. They like my works,” he reveals with a smile of contentment.
Dilip Thakur who is from Sitamarhi in Bihar runs his business on the footpath of Latashil. Twenty-four-year-old Dilip has been a street barber for the last 8 years. According to him, most of the young customers like his works as he is good at the trending and fashionable cuts.
Nur Ahmed, in his mid-20s who was having his haircut by Dilip said, “I am Dilip bhai’s regular customer. He is the most reliable barber for me. He can give me the styles I want.”
Despite all these, the questions of hygiene remain a concern.
Suraj Deka is a constable of Assam Police. In his tight schedule of a policeman, he hardly gets time to visit a salon and have some cosy times while having haircut, shaving and other services. So, in hurry, Deka visits Anil, near the Panbazar police station.
“The daily life of a policeman is hectic. Anil’s shop is near the police station. So I get my haircut and shaving done by him on the streets itself. He has expertise, but he should look after the hygiene side. I couldn’t visit him during the lockdown out of fear for COVID,” Deka told us.
Chotu and Rahul Yadav are two street barbers who sit together near the vegetable market in Fancy Bazaar. Both of them are from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh.
Chotu says their customers are mostly the poor section of the society which includes daily wage earners and street vendors.
“I visit Chotu for the price. He takes only Rs 30 for the haircut. I can’t spend so much money at a good salon from my daily earnings,” says Rekib who is a fruit seller.
The reason of Bipul Das who is a casual employee at an insurance company is the same.
On the other hand, street barber Rahul says they receive around 20 customers per day.
“Lockdown period was a curse on us. I returned to my village. I had to cry for Rs 100 then. Though the business is no-longer the same compared to pre-COVID times, we have been making decent money now,” the young barber says.
He is also optimistic of opening a salon where he will provide all the services young and affluent customers demand.
Rahul claims with confidence that the street barbers don’t lack the skills, “We are good at our works. We only don’t have the capital and a permanent shed above us.”
Another barber, on the condition of anonymity, said that they had received no assistance from the government despite their business being severely hit by the pandemic.
“We have not received any help neither from our home states or Assam government,” he said. It is noteworthy that the majority of the street barbers belong to either Bihar or Uttar Pradesh.
On the other hand, as these street barbers are not members of any organisation of professional barbers, their issues are rarely heard.
In such a situation, not only are their concerns unaddressed, they also remain ignorant about the hygiene and precautions they have to follow while carrying out their activities.
Author: Rinkumani Pathak