His prematurely old face showed no signs of hostility. It did not betray any emotions at all. His voice also discloses anything. He spoke as if he was reading news on the Door Darshan.
The village barber had diffidently asked the visitor if he could take two minutes. He needed no permission because he and the visiting journalist sat on the same bench for three years in the village primary school before the barber dropped out.
But, the income divide creates a wide chasm in society and many people deny friends marooned on the have-not side. The journalist could not but acknowledge the friendship for more than one reason.
The barber’s father was horse-carriage man of a buggy owned by his doctor father. The barber’s mother was the Dai (a class of women who assist pregnant women at the time of delivery and then for days to come look after the infant) who was present at the visitor’s birth.
Yet, the fragile man sought permission to speak. The visitor nodded a wordless yes. The people seem to think that the scribes knew more than what they are telling.
The village barber, wearing a shirt with a torn collar and pyjama displaying loose endings of his customers hair-cut, began his quizzing in a matter-of-fact tone.
Was it true that the visitor had done well in his life? The visitor mumbled non-commitally: Cannot complain.
The villager returned the serve rather quickly. He said: Well, better than he had. The scribe essayed an affirmative, puzzled about the drift of the chat.
There came a query like a good length ball that often makes a batsman lose his wicked.
Was it because the barber had dropped out of the school and the visitor had gone ahead? The newsman again nodded yes.
Now a googly came. Was it not because the barber’s father was poor and needed his son to add to the family earnings quickly while the visitor had no such compulsions as his father was a middle class man. The scribe could not but say: Yes.
Why were the poor parents blamed when poverty was responsible for school drop outs? The barber followed up smartly: Do the middle and upper class babus and politicians really know poverty? How can one formulate policies to combat poverty if one didn’t know what it means to be a poor?
Reading the journalist’s mind, the barber said: you are wondering about my questions. Even though he had only a smattering of education, poverty made one think. Better education would have helped him think and understand better, he said.
The poverty in the barber’s house had been a hereditary reality, an empty virasat. The veranda of the mud house had now for three generations served as hair-cutting shop, sometimes half-mockingly called a saloon or still worse men’s beauty parlour. There was a single chair for hair-cut. One of its four legs was broken and had been kept in place by wrapping round pieces of a thin rope. In front of the wobbly chair, the mud wall was adorned with a mirror cracked in several spots. When a customer looked at himself in the mirror, he would see multiple images of his face. The razor and a pair of scissors dating back to the barber’s grandfather were still on active duty.
The razor was used to shave both men and buffaloes.
The journalist was feeling distinctly uneasy now. His barber friend went ahead mercilessly. He could not renovate his shop, buy new razors and scissors, acquire new furniture, and install new mirrors because that needed money. His grandfather, father and he himself had been unable to borrow from any source. Everybody asked for money, something called margin money. Some banks were said to be giving the full amount but you needed touts to get and touts demanded a cut.
In fact, everyone in the world was asking for money. He asked the scribe if there was a way out. Nobody gave money to poor to make them earn more. Again, in the past decade another threat for the poor had come up. Everybody said the government was getting out of education and health, allowing private money to make more money through hefty fees.
The village barber said now it appeared impossible for his grandchildren to make good in life because their parents would not be able to find money. The same situation prevailed in medicine. Even for traveling on some roads one has to pay toll.
Then came a rocket. How and where would the poor find money for all these facilities? His own reading was that the life of the poor had already become more difficult with the recent years’ pro-poor policies.
The barber did not know but he was echoing a question raised many a moon ago by the economist and at one time finance minister of West Bengal, Dr Ashoke Mira who had said that market economy was fine but what about those who were not in the market ?
A missile attack followed. If all the politicians proclaimed from rooftops that they are for the poor, how come the prices of foodgrains, pulses, vegetables and other day-to-day things were not going down and the authorities keep saying: mahengai kam ho rahi hay?
The barber now fired the mother of all the questions. Are the political parties saying something and doing something else?
Or, to put differently, are they using the poor as election winning pawns and after getting into power misusing their mandate to further worsen their plight? Sometimes he wondered if men and women in positions of power were working to eradicate poverty or to eliminate the poor.
The visiting scribe began to feel the burden of guilt and started perspiring.
Then came a nuclear-head salvo. The village barber quietly put in: Are you better-off people in a majority or are the poor larger in numbers? The hapless newsman murmured: the poor are more in number.
Now it was the turn of the barber to be bewildered. His voice trembling, he croaked. So far the haves were reaping the fruits of Independence. If the have-nots are more in numbers, why do they allow this topsy-turvy governance of our Republic?
Why, why, why?
What is the remedy?
The visitor was speechless.
Instead of going on with the chat, he did the only thing he knew to escape from the reality.
He ran away.