Once every few weeks, I visit my barber Narayan for a haircut —that mandatory male ritual that accompanies us throughout our lives.
Narayan is a successful entrepreneur, running two shops in Bangalore, employing several people and offering an expanding range of tonsorial solutions.
The haircuts are always accompanied by clockwork-rhythm conversations—we begin as he swooshes his crisp white cloth around my shirt and ties it behind my neck, and end as he brings the framed mirror for me to approve the haircut.
Normally, the topic of our talks are interesting but somewhat generic —movies, politics and cricket. But our last trimming conversation touched on a personal chord—Narayan’s life journey. It was filled with pearls of wisdom—about hard work, running a successful business, and surprisingly, the government’s poverty programmes.
“Narayan”, I began as the starched cloth settled on my shirt, “how long have you been a barber?”
“Oh, 37 years now”, he smiled.
“And how did it start? Did you always have your own shop?”
“No sir, I came to Bangalore from my village at the age of 19, running away to earn a living. No education, no skills, nothing to save me except my determination. I found work as a cleaner in Ashoka Hotel (one of Bangalore’s old premium hotels). One of my jobs was to clean the barber shop floor. Soon, I realized that there was a lot of money to be made from tips as a barber, so I learnt after work. In a few years, I was working as a barber, and did that for several years before I had enough to start my own business.”
“How did you manage to save enough with a barber’s salary and tips?”
“I never said ‘no’ to any opportunity to earn more money. Some of the richer clients preferred to have haircuts at their homes. So I would get there by 6am, finish the haircut, get to the hotel by 8, then repeat the same thing in the evening.
“I scrimped and scrounged—for food, I would go to the Janata Hotel near Shivajinagar, and order one idli, but the sambar was unlimited, so I would keep asking for more sambar to fill my stomach.
“Every single day, I saved money. Within a few years, I had enough to start my own business. And now,” he waved his scissors around with a blend of humble pride, “I have two of these parlours in prime locations.”
“And you still do haircuts, despite being quite well off?”
“For some customers, yes. This is a relationship business. Would you come back if I asked someone else to cut your hair?” he smiled cannily at me in the mirror.
“What about vacations?” I asked. “Do you take time off?”
“In the past 40 years, I have taken two holidays, of four days each.”
“That’s it!” I exclaimed.
“Well, I also take a two-day break every year with my staff. We go to some nice hill station, such as Ooty. We sightsee, eat well, enjoy ourselves. And then, back to work the next morning.”
“What about your family? Are they OK with this lifestyle?”
“I have a daughter and a son. My son takes care of the other shop. Daughter was married five years back, big choultry. I spent Rs50 lakh on the wedding. Called everyone from the village, gave each woman a silk saree. It felt really good to see the pandal on the stage that day. I thought of my parents. My family is used to my discipline, it is what saved us.”
He was working on the back of my head now, more than halfway done.
“So Narayan, you are clearly a self-made man, got nothing from the government. What do you feel about anti-poverty programmes such as NREGA?”
“It’s a good thing, poor people will benefit”, he said very matter-of-factly.
“But, you didn’t get anything from government, and succeeded with your own effort. Isn’t that the message we need to send to the poor, that they need to take ownership over their own lives, rather than depend on government handouts?”
“Sir, there are two kinds of poor people, those who have the capacity to improve their lives, and those who don’t. For those who don’t, we cannot just leave them to their fate, they need help. And even among those with capacity, luck plays a big role in coming out of poverty. I was lucky. There are many who are not. This second group of people also need help.
“In any event, most people don’t want to have their hands turned up all their lives.”
He had brought the mirror. I checked my haircut and nodded, even as I caught my reflection in Narayan’s hands.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Mobius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at email@example.com