Pyare Lal of Mhow – Tonsorial Artist Nonpareil

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A Veteran’s Reminiscence
Brig V A Subramaniam (Retd)

By the time that I retired from the Armed Forces, most of the hair on my head had disappeared. Thus, when I go for the periodical ritual of a haircut, the barber hardly spends any time on me. Fifty years ago, the cost of the haircut was just a quarter of a rupee – but these days, it is generally upwards of one hundred rupees!

Hence the last time that I went to my usual barber, I gently suggested to him that he needed to charge me much less as I had very little hair.

The barber replied – “Sir, I need to actually charge you double.”

“What on earth for?”

“I need to look for the stray ones and trim them to the same size and thus should really charge you much more.”

I decided that speech may be silvern but silence was golden – and kept my peace.

The first time that I heard of the word “tonsorial artist” was when Mr. Ludovik, our English teacher when in Class 5, gave us a General Knowledge quiz during his first year in school in the middle of the year 1950. Most of us were totally flummoxed with the test and scored badly or none at all. But then that was an incentive to learn – something not given in our textbooks. That also spurred many of us to read the newspapers more regularly – and also go through pages other than the sports page. We learnt that the word had its origin from old French or Latin ‘tonsura’, which meant ‘shear or clip’. In other words, the tonsorial artist was the common barber, now more uncommonly referred as a ‘hair stylist’ or ‘hair dresser’ and the like.

A decade later I was commissioned into the Corps of Signals. Those days, soon after commissioning we proceeded to the School of Signals, Mhow. While at the Indian Military Academy (IMA), we had got used to having our hair cut once every week. As they say, old habits die-hard. Hence even after becoming ‘officers’ some of us continued to get our hair cut every other week.

Mhow was an old small, sleepy British cantonment. One of the reasons that the British chose this place is that its elevation of 556 msl (metres above sea level) makes it much cooler than the surrounding city of Indore. Mhow was also the meter gauge railway district headquarters during the British Raj. The Railway District Headquarters shifted to Ratlam after Independence. Pathetically, Mhow continues to be serviced only by the metre gauge even today.

At the time of joining the IMA, the cost of a haircut was just four annas (equivalent to 25 paise of today). In the Academy, we never had to pay for the haircut. When we landed at Mhow, we were pleasantly surprised to note that the cost had gone up “steeply” and it was one solid rupee. There were a couple of barbers who would come over to the barracks where we were staying and offer their services. As their timings were uncertain, it made better sense to go over to the Mhow bazar and visit a hairdresser, where one could get the hair dressed in the manner he desired. After a couple of months, it dawned on some of us, that there was another barber – apparently a more special one, who for a common barber, appeared over-dressed. He sported a coat over his shirt and wore a black cap. But the distinguishing aspect of this man was that he spoke chaste English, unlike the others who conversed in Hindi.

Prior to joining the IMA, I was habituated to have my hair cut in the mornings – preferably on a holiday. At Mhow a couple of barbers who provided ‘home service’ did so generally in the evenings, which did not suit me. I sent Rangaswamy, my Man Friday, to try and check with the coat cladded capped barber. Try as he did, he was unable to get him to come in the mornings – as he was “busy” with senior officers. Apparently Young Officers (YOs) were of no interest to him. I was upset that the barber in question felt that to cut the hair of the YOs was well below his calling. It was more than five years later, when I returned to Mhow for the Officers Short Telecommunications (OST) course, that I was able to understand the Barber’s view point.

July 1966 saw us to return to Mhow for the second leg of the OST course. All of us were older and hopefully more matured than what we were half a decade earlier. Mhow was experiencing an extreme ‘water famine’ then. Water was brought from the Narmada river at Omkareswar – about 40 km away and transported by tankers and hauled by a train to deliver at Mhow, Indore and other places in the near vicinity.

I firmly believe that all human beings have access to extraordinary energies and powers. Judging from accounts of mystical experience, heightened creativity, or exceptional performance by athletes and artists, we harbor a greater life than we know.

~ Jean Houston 

This time, when I asked the bearer about that ‘particular special’ barber, he mentioned that he would call him. The bearer also mentioned that the name of the English-speaking barber was Pyare Lal. In due course of time, Pyare Lal came over and – this time readily offered his services. I asked him if he could come early on Sundays. We mutually agreed on a suitable time. When the following Sunday, Pyare Lal came over, I realized the reason for the excessive demand of his services. He was not only an expert at his chosen profession but would incessantly keep talking. And his chatting was quite meaningful. After listening to him, one realized that he was a veritable storehouse. His knowledge about the officers of the Corps was amazing. He knew where almost every officer of the Corps was posted at any point in time. While cutting one’s hair he supplied information as well as gathered the same from the concerned officers. If he felt that there was a mismatch between what he knew and what was then mentioned, he would ask for dates for the change and update that information – in his brain! Though there were no computers then, he stored everything in his head. In fact, at times, he would come out with his own views on various postings; often his predictions were quite accurate. He would gather information on various training courses done by the officers. With his knowledge, he would have been an asset to the Personnel Branch, which dealt with periodical transfers of officers of the Corps. His command over the English language would put some of the officers who studied in not-so-great colleges or universities to shame. At the same time, Pyare Lal was an efficient tonsorial artist. As an add-on, he would also pare nails for selected customers. It must be mentioned, that as a professional, he was certainly one of the best.

We became good friends and every second week on the Saturday, he would remind me of our engagement for the following morning. He continued to take only one solitary rupee from me, during all the years that he attended on me. And besides, cutting my hair, paring nails, he would also give me an oil massage for the head. And the reason that he did not favour going over to the YOs was that he could not get any useful information about other serving officers of the Corps. And due to our gelling together, Pyare Lal condescended to have a cup of coffee with us, after he had completed his artistry on self and at times on my dear son.

A few years later, when I went again to Mhow, I learnt that he had passed away. For a moment, I was quite lost. But then I did learn that his nephew, Tej Kumar, who was employed as a clerk in MCTE continued the link, but only to a limited clientele, as the office work kept him quite busy. And Tej Kumar was no patch on his uncle – either in the skills of conversing in English or in his tonsorial artistic abilities.

If you want to lead an extraordinary life, find out what the ordinary do – and don’t do it.
~ Tommy Newberry, ~ (Success is Not an Accident: Change Your Choices, Change Your Life)

Pyare Lal was an institution in himself. He had dedicated his entire life to being of service to officers of the Corps of Signals.

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Ltcol a.srinivasan rtd

Sir, pleasure to read .humour has coloured the write up. No one gives importance to people like tradesmen. I had served in all most of the ascon installation as a INF ta offr. I enjoyed my tenure with corps of signals . Jai hind

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