I had seen streetside barbers in India and admired the speed and fervor with which they went at their job. Speed I can understand, for occasionally they had waiting customers in the morning. But you had to admire the punctiliousness they brought to their service. They left no stubble unturned.
I saw it day after day, and then, one day, unable to restrain myself, a little late in the morning when there was no line of impatient customers, I sat myself down before a barber who operated at a street corner a hundred yards from my house in New Delhi. I had noticed him on several occasions and liked his pleasant aging face topped with a mop of abundant graying hair. He seemed to have a bright smile and a gentle, reassuring air.
That was my first clue to the quick-witted person he was. He had swiftly gauged that I didn’t really need his service, but had come principally to have a different experience. He asked if I wanted the quick service or a full-tilt treatment. I had come, out of curiosity for the experience and promptly, unhesitatingly asked for the latter. He smiled, nodded his head and asked me to sit down and relax.
He wrapped my upper torso with a fresh towel, taking care to tuck the end over my collar. He poured warm water from a flask into a shaving cup and stirred some dry rose and sandalwood powder. He moistened my chin thoroughly and repeatedly with the perfumed water. The water may even have included some other mysterious element, for I had a pleasant tingling sensation.
Then he began lathering my face inch by inch. Not just a layer of soapy water. He used some kind of pleasant-smelling mentholated cream and painted layer after layer of white stuff all over my face until he was sure my skin was ready for the blade. Harjeet brought out a glinting cut-throat razor and did several swipes over a leather strap that hung on the side. When he brought the razor to my cheek, its trajectory over my face was like a song. His hand glided from one side to another swiftly, surely, in confident strokes. In a few minutes every trace of the overnight stubble was gone.
I now know that, as one shaves hair from the face, the process itself pulls out the remnant of the hair from its groove. So Harjeet did the right thing. When the shave was over, he lathered again and went through the entire process of shaving once more. When finished, he removed the enveloping towel, taking care first to brush away every shard of wayward hair, and helped me stand up. It was truly the end of a magical process. I felt genuinely renovated. I knew I was compensating Harjeet poorly when I paid him his charge of fewer than two dollars.
He smiled graciously as he took the money. I thanked him and said I was grateful to him for a wonderful experience. He did not ask me to come again, for he well knew that I had come for a unique experience.
Harjeet had done more than take away unwanted hair from my face. He had taught me a valuable lesson.
For most of us, who do not maintain a mustache or a beard, shaving is a daily imposition. It is something to be done ahead of the shower. It is something many of us do half-heartedly, often irritably, as a boring task that had to be done before we face our day. Harjeet Singh made an art of what we are tempted to consider a lowly, tedious chore. We do it carelessly, desultorily, listening to music, thinking unrelated thoughts.
In his quiet way, Harjeet let me see, in a few minutes, on that bright-lit spring day near a street corner of a busy New Delhi market, what I had never noticed. Shaving was a daily but important part of my routine, an activity that had genuine significance, which I needed to treat with respect and, by doing well and happily, I enriched my life and added meaning to my brief existence on this earth.