He didn’t look old and at fifty-five he wasn’t really that old either, but people in the area felt Mama had been around forever. That feeling may have had something to do with the fact that Mama was an extremely likeable, popular person. His ‘likeability’ quotient was indeed not only very high but quite extraordinary extending as it did from fussy five year olds to equally fussy eighty and ninety year olds. He was sought after by the rich, he was sought after by the not so rich and he was sought after by the very poor.
His simplicity and warmth coupled with an unassuming nature were part of the secret behind his likeability. He always had a smile, a good word and a ‘salaam’ ready for everyone which is probably what prompted someone to endearingly call him ‘Mama’ (uncle — mother’s brother) and the nickname stuck. Nobody knew or even bothered about his real name. He was Mama for everybody.
In addition to his likeability, Mama was also in great demand for his skills. A good shave, a good haircut, a good massage, a good pedicure or manicure, it was Mama who was always requested to do the needful. It was a combination of his likeability and his skills which had catapulted him in just a couple of years from being a street barber to becoming the owner of a flourishing hair salon cum parlour. He hadn’t allowed the rise in fortune to affect him but new workers at his salon soon discovered that the affable Mama had another side to him too.
He was a stickler for doing things right, for doing things on time and always giving the best possible service and he expected everybody who worked in his salon to follow the same principles. He led by example and he expected others to follow. “Not everybody can be a sant (saint)”, he would say “I too love drinking and country liquor at that but I make sure I do it after I’m home. My working place is like a temple for me and my work is the worship I offer. Everybody here should leave bad habits if any at home or elsewhere. No drinking, no drugs, no swearing, no laziness, no shortcuts here”.
Mama’s salon opened to the public at ten every morning, but he would be there on the dot at seven, long before other workers arrived. Mama sitting outside his salon immersed in a newspaper with a cup of tea in his hand was a familiar almost landmark sight for morning walkers and joggers. But last week, on Wednesday, thirteenth April to be precise, many of them noticed that the salon was still shut and there was no sign of Mama with his newspaper and tea.
This was most unusual but maybe because of Baisakhi ( the Hindu New Year day) some of them surmised. Salon workers too were surprised to find the shutters still down when they arrived and began worrying when repeated calls to Mama’s phone met with the ‘switched off’ response. Two of them went to his house to check and were told that Mama’s condition was critical. His liver couldn’t cope with decades of drinking country liquor and doctors couldn’t save Mama. Before dying his last wish had been that the salon should not close even for a day because of his death. Accordingly, his grieving family handed over the salon keys to Munish, a young hair stylist who had been the closest to Mama.
When Munish, who had been aware of Mama’s routine, went early to open the salon he found Mama sitting outside with his newspaper and cup of tea. Mama looked up and said, “Achha kiya, mere jaise jaldi aa gaye.” ( “You’ve done well to come early like me”) Munish was not only taken aback but totally confused. Mama had died yesterday. He and others had been present at the cremation. Then how come Mama was sitting here with his newspaper and tea and speaking to him as if nothing had happened?
Mama spoke again. “Why aren’t you opening the locks? Why are you looking at me? I’m still here, I haven’t yet gone”. This confused Munish even more, so much that he became tongue tied. And then he found he couldn’t open the shutter locks because his hands were shaking. Mama let out an exasperated sigh, took the keys from Munish, opened the locks himself, pulled up the shutter, opened the glass door and then looked Munish in the eye with a single word: “Padhaariye” ( “Enter”). Munish entered the salon and crashed on a chair. He couldn’t take it.
When he looked outside there was no sign of Mama or his newspaper and tea cup. This was the last straw for Munish. He fled, leaving behind his two wheeler and the salon open and unattended. He wanted desperately to talk to someone who knew Mama, not on the phone but face to face. He half walked, half ran the three kilometers or so to another salon worker’s home and narrated what had happened. But the worker didn’t believe him, especially when they went back together to the salon and there was no Mama around. “Okay, make fun of me”, Munish responded, “but it happened. But how could it? That’s what I can’t get over”. Subsequently, Munish’s unlikely ‘story’ was corroborated in various ways.
That day and in the days that have followed till now workers at the salon have seen and felt and heard Mama. He seems to materialise when something is not done properly or somebody is lax or someone ignores the work credo so dear to him. Once he sent the clipper flying from the hands of a worker and hissed angrily in his ear, “Is that the way to use the clipper?” Fortunately, the client sitting in the chair at that time didn’t see or hear Mama.
But now the workers are worried on another score. What if some clients do actually see or hear Mama? Nobody, no matter how fond they may have been of Mama will want to come to a haunted salon. “How can it be?” (“Kaise ho sakta hai?”) they had asked me initially but now they are asking repeatedly with a compelling urgency, “Isko kaise theek karen?” (“How to set it right?”). The only way to set it right is for the workers to adhere strictly to the work ethos and excellence that means so much to Mama. He will leave for the other world only when he’s certain that the salon he set up is functioning in accordance with the high standards he valued.