Barbering in Kathmandu

Features Issue 75 Jul, 2010
Text by Utsav Shakya

Kathmandu is often said to be a town of temples. But,as is true for every great city around the world, it is also a town of tall tales. If unasked, its stories remain untold and unheard. It’s also a town of barbershops, and a barbershop is one place that not only harbors its own stories, but is also a place that bustles with everyday stories of the people who visit it.

For ages, the barbershop has been a place for a lot more than getting a shave and a haircut. It is also a place where people can talk freely about every little thing, from whatever is on their minds, whatever is happening in the country. A barber is in many ways equivalent to a Western bartender, who skillfully serves you a drink while patiently listening to your stories, sometimes in return for his own. Gone are the days, however, when a barbershop meant a small makeshift salon down a stuffy alley and behind the vegetable market. Barbershops are now big business, as more and more people start believing in what barbers have known since times immemorial—that a haircut is more about the way you feel than about the way you look. With growing focus on individual presentation at the workplace and everywhere else, barbershops are finally getting back a piece of their ancient glory.

There are hundreds of barbers in Nepal, each with a story as varied as their haircutting styles. These artists of coiffure, who have it in their hands, literally to not just change the way we look but also change the way we feel, have been doing just that for longer than we know. A quick look at their history is the least we can do to appreciate their legacy.

The word ‘barber’ comes from the Latin barba, meaning ‘beard’. It might also come as a surprise that the earliest records of barbers show that they were the foremost men of their tribes. They were the medicine men and the priests. But early Man was very superstitious and tribals believed that both good and bad spirits inhabited every individual by entering the body through the hairs on the head. The bad spirits could only be driven out of the individual by cutting the hair. Tribes started to differentiate themselves by thefashion of their hairstyles  and this act made the barber the most important man in the community. In fact, the barbers in tribal days were also responsible for arranging marriages and
baptizing children. During these ceremonies, hair was allowed to hang loosely over the shoulders so that the evil spirits could come out. After the dancing, the long hair was cut in the prevailing fashion by the barbers and combed back tightly to prevent the evil spirits from getting in and the good spirits from escaping.

 In Greece, barbers came into prominence as early as the 5th century BC. The wise men of Athens rivaled each other in the excellence of their beards. Beard trimming became an art and barbers became leading citizens. Statesmen, poets and philosophers who came to have their hair cut or their beards trimmed or curled and scented with costly essences frequented their shops. And, incidentally, they also discussed the news of the day, because the barber shops of ancient Greece, as in Nepal, were the headquarters for social, political and sporting news.

Kathmandu Barbers
Besides a still river with all the necessaries in a wooden box, lodged behind a bustling temple in the middle of the city or perched high above on a concrete nest of luxury, the barbershops of today come in all shapes and sizes. One is the poor man’s stylist, who runs a salon from the street. Another is the layman’s hairdresser, in most cases an Indian from Bihar, who has probably lived here all his life and learned the business from his father. Another may be a local boy turned professional hairdresser, who is now working with the who’s who of the global fashion industry. A few brief meetings with barbers to the various social classes as well as with some of their customers has let me in on some really thought provoking stories.

A Salon on the Streets
When I first came across Rujal Thakur, he was smoking a cigarette and taking a breather under the shade of a huge tree besides the Kupondol Bridge, the one that connects Kathmandu to Patan. Behind him lay a green park, host to playful monkeys and weary pedestrians. It was also, I soon learned, the home of Rujal Thakur—barber, painter, mason and just about every other occupation that allows him to put bread on the table for his family back home in Matihari, India.

As I approached him for a short talk, his face lit up with an eagerness that disclosed that he thought I was a customer. Upon putting a hasty end to his hopes, I sat down in front of his ‘shop’, consisting of a wooden stool and a bag of scissors, knives and some toiletries, and asked about him and his profession.

“I come from a family of barbers and we also have a barbershop in India”, he said as we started to talk about his life. “But, my family is large”, he went on, “and how many mouths can a single shop feed?” I listened intently. “I first came to Nepal about 30 years ago. Business was good then. I got a lot of customers, as there were hardly any barbershops. I would travel the city from end to end and it was enough for me to send money back home,” Rujal said. The city is not so kind to Rujal Thakur anymore. He charges 15 rupees for a haircut and 10 rupees for a shave and in a day, if business is good, he makes up to 200 rupees. He lives in the temple premises behind his ‘shop’ with other barbers like him, and when his family came to the city for a visit this past Dashain, they stayed with him in the same temple’s premises. His story gives a whole new meaning to the words ‘economy traveler’ to me.

Rujal sees most customers in the mornings and the rest of his day is usually spent working as a cheap laborer on construction sites or doing masonry. He also makes a mean paan he tells me with a smile, and often sets up a small roadside paan shop in the winters when his haircutting business hits the annual low. “I have to do anything that comes my way, otherwise I cannot survive and I have a lot of people depending on me,” says Rujal. And yet, even with the massive load on his frail soldiers, he manages to smile for the camera holding up his scissor and comb. Rujal Thakur does not have the luxury of losing hope.

A People’s Barbershop

Down a small alley towards Sankata Temple, just left of the New Road gate is the small barbershop that belongs to Nasir Mohammed. He has been here for 35 years and charges no fixed fee for the services he provides here. People pay him what they think is suitable. There are no visible signboards to grab the potential customer’s eyes. Perhaps this is intended; I cannot tell. When I asked Nasir, a devout Muslim just back from the mosque, about this, he smiled and gestured towards a seat.

“We hardly get any new customers these days and it suits us alright,” says Nasir, then asks if I would like tea. I kindly decline and ask him why he prefers only regulars. Nasir delves into his past just as easily as he stands up and starts to attend to a customer, all the time talking to me. “I have been working here, serving the locals for 32 years. Before this, we had a small barbershop around Tri Chandra College, near Durbarmarg. And before that on New Road’s main street,” he says. I was curious about how he managed to have a shop along New Road’s main line, one of the most expensive places to rent. Nasir casually mentions that they once owned the house near the present location of his shop. Now, however, he rents his space.

“My father Jahir Mohammed and my grandfather before him were barbers in our hometown of Lucknow. The then Prime Minister of Nepal, Juddha Shamsher Rana, was impressed with my father’s skills as a master masseuse, and asked him to move here. Shortly after that, I came to Nepal at the age of ten. My father worked in close proximity with the Rana family and with Shah royalty; so as a boy I, too, got a chance to visit many stately homes and even the old royal palace on a few occasions. The house in New Road was a gift from the Prime Minister to my father for his services, but my father, a modest man who longed to move back home, declined the gift shortly,” says Nasir with a smile that tries hard to hide a sigh.

Nasir’s family now lives in a rented apartment in Bhotebahal. His sons own and work in their own electronics repair store. They are educated and have never wanted to follow in their father’s footsteps. Nasir understood this and never asked them to learn the trade from him. At the age of 60, having lived here for 50 years, Nasir still does not have Nepali citizenship. “I have tried to get Nepali citizenship for a long time. In those days, citizenship was not an issue otherwise my father could have obtained one without any problems,” says Nasir. Then he adds: “It is quite ironic that my father once saved the life of Nar Shamsher Rana, Juddha Shamsher Rana’s grandson, when he was poisoned. But we have nothing to show for all those services.”

His sons earn enough to feed the family and Nasir Hairdresser, the name of his shop, has become a place for Nasir and his old friends to spend time and reminisce on days gone by. Nasir offered me a back and neck massage using a surprisingly sophisticated vibrating machine, while concluding his story. “My father was brought here to serve the Prime Minister and he did so capably. I have served the people in my capacity as a barber for all my life and continue to do so. I want to make sure I do justice to my father’s legacy.” He also does justice to his own name; nasir in Arabic means ‘helper, servant and protector’.

Premium Class Hairdressing
Entering Kathmandu Guest House and making way to the hairdresser’s has a quite alien feel to it, after visiting Mohammed Nasir and Rujal Thakur. For starters, the way leading to the entrance of the guesthouse barber salon is marbled and the international sign for barbershops, a rotating barber pole with colorful lines, indicates just the type of customers the place wants to draw. A price list for all the services available hangs by the door, informing all customers before entry on what everything here costs. The list includes barbering for men and beautician services for women. The hospitality here is genuine and the  gregariousness of the staff in no way feels forced. In no time, talk leads from hair to politics. There is no escaping politics and badmouthing politicians anywhere in Nepal. Why would a barbershop, the original place where people can speak their minds, be any different?

The facilities are excellent and the prices seem justified. Besides cutting hair and getting a shave, the guesthouse barbershop and beauty parlor also provides Ayurvedic and holistic
massages, facials, hair coloring, foot reflexology, manicures and pedicures. The salon is three and a half years old. A member of the staff lets me know that they mostly cater to the Kathmandu Guesthouse guests who, of Lonely Planet fame, are a loyal and slightly upper class foreign clientele. I met Christine Steck, a Swiss woman who first came to Nepal in 1999 and who, over the past two years, has been living in Pokhara as a Buddhist nun. She now goes by her new name, ‘Khadro’. “I came here to get my hair shaved, since nuns and monks are not allowed to have hair that’s longer than an inch”, says Christine with a smile. She has a place of her own in Pokhara now and after turning 60 a few weeks ago she is looking forward to obtaining a Nepali citizenship which she now can apply for. I wished her good luck as I departed the salon.

In a lot of ways, Christine defined for me one way in which a more modern Nepal is slowly starting to exist. She gave up all earthly desires and pleasures for the life of a nun, but she still has her hair cut at a comparatively upscale hotel barbershop. The modern Nepali man, too, like Christine, is starting to get better at weaving in small luxuries that might not have been acceptable a while back and combining them seamlessly with a more traditional lifestyle.

All locations and all stories evoke a different perspective on the diversity of life in the city. You enter a barbershop one minute as a stranger to others and the next moment, as you turn around to talk, entire lives unfold inviting you to be a part of them. You cannot help but know that your lives have touched, and that every new person you meet, both barber and patron, leaves your life forever enriched.