My wife Ellen and I woke up in a London hotel on June 5, 1989, on an overnight stopover on our way to India. We turned on the TV to the news of who would later be known as the “Tank Man” standing in front of a column of tanks during a mass uprising in China’s Tiananmen Square. This event made it very easy for us to remember precisely when we went to India.
We worked in India for three months on a project to help improve training programs conducted by the country’s irrigation management and training institutes. They wanted us as educators to take a fresh look at evaluation methods in courses developed and run entirely by civil engineers and agronomists. Our office was based in New Delhi but we traveled over the summer to several sites that were widely dispersed around the country.
Our travels in various parts of the country revealed sights, sounds, and aromas that were new to our Western ways. Among those sights were street barbers who operated with a minimum of possessions—a tall handmade wooden chair, sometimes an easily movable table and box containing haircutting tools, mirrors, lather soap, and a few bottles of hair products for men. We did not see any women getting their hair cut in this fashion, but lots of local men.
One of those street barbers operated under a tree across the street from our hotel in New Delhi. We saw him there nearly every day as we entered and departed the hotel. The best I could tell, virtually all of the barber’s customers were Indian men; I never saw a Westerner in the barber’s chair. Westerners went to barbers in small establishments that looked more like barber shops in their home countries.
Toward the end of summer I decided I wanted to experience a street haircut under the big tree across from our hotel. This was actually a low-risk venture for me since most of my hair had long ago receded into a distinctly bald pattern. How badly could a street barber mess up my hair? My observations of the barber over the summer, more specifically my observations of his customers who got their haircuts there, left me assured that I would get a good haircut.
Late one afternoon after work, I headed to our local street barber. When I told him I’d like to get a haircut, he was most welcoming—even excited—that I had come to him. His electric clippers were powered through an extension cord that ran several yards away to an outlet inside a small building.
As the barber cut my hair, I remembered that Daddy cut my hair at home when I was a little boy, on a wooden straight chair with a large cloth pinned around my neck. In warm weather he cut my hair outdoors under a tree. After we got electricity, he used electric clippers powered through an extension cord from our house. When I got old enough to have a keen interest in girls, Daddy’s haircuts weren’t good enough. Following the example of my older brother Nolen Robert, who reached this point several years before I did, I began to get haircuts from a professional barber in town.
The similarities between the outdoor haircuts that Daddy gave me on our farm to my haircut by the street barber in New Delhi were striking. The tools were similar. The process was similar. And the experiences were on opposite sides of the world.
A big difference between my grown-up experiences with professional barbers in the United States and the New Delhi street barber was the price of a haircut. In 1989 I probably paid around ten dollars for a haircut back home. After the Indian barber gave me a hand-held mirror to inspect his work as he held a larger mirror behind my head, he removed the cloth, brushed me off, and gestured that he had finished. I asked him how much I owed. He said it would be some number of rupees that I happily paid, plus a tip, and went back across the street to our hotel. I did a quick calculation in my head and realized I had paid the equivalent of about twenty-five cents for that haircut.
Oddly, my haircut under a tree along a New Delhi street became a special memory from the trip, among scores of other priceless memories of India. The price was only partly what made it memorable. It was mainly the way it reminded me of those haircuts that Daddy gave me under a shade tree on our Tennessee farm when I was a little boy.