By Nadeem F. Paracha
01 June 2014
A week or so ago I was delighted to bump into Mukhtar. Mukhtar used to be one of my favourite barbers back in the 1980s when I was a college student.
He used to work at a barber shop near my college in Karachi’s busy Saddar area. He used to be a robust man in his 30s and hailed from the city of Sialkot in the Punjab province.
When I bumped into him at a chemist shop recently, he looked extremely old, tired and ill. But somehow he recognised me immediately. After hugging me, he touched my hair and laughed: ‘So short,’ he said (in Punjabi). ‘Nobody’s giving you a Che (Guevara) style anymore?’
Mukhtar remembered how I had liked my hair to look ‘radical’ in those days; and since I used to lead a left-wing student group at college, he would often give me tips how to challenge the Ziaul Haq dictatorship.
Walking down memory lane, the writer encounters a personality from the past
The truth is Mukhtar wasn’t a particularly good barber. But I kept going back to him because of the way I had first discovered him. In fact, though in those days I was intensely lapping up the writings of Karl Marx and Mao-Tse-Tung and the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and other progressive Urdu poets, Mukhtar ended up becoming one of my favourite mentors.
This was in spite of the fact that he never attended school after he dropped out when he was in the 7th grade. He got a sound beating from his father who was a low-paid peon at a government office in Sialkot.
But Mukhtar was a stubborn and restless soul. When he left Sialkot at the age of 19 (in 1973), he just had two wishes: To meet his political hero, the populist then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Z.A. Bhutto, and to get a break in films.
His main desire was to play the role of Major Aziz Bhatti in a Pakistani war flick. Bhatti was one of the most heroic figures to emerge during the 1965 Pakistan-India war, after he was killed in action.
Instead, having no place to live and no job in Karachi, Mukhtar ended up spending his nights sleeping in the sprawling city's public parks before he was recruited by a kind owner of a barber shop.
The owner trained him and then gave him a job at his shop where Mukhtar rose from being the guy who used to sweep bundles of cut hair from the floor to becoming a popular barber in his own right.
Everyone knew he wasn’t much of a barber. But he was a great talker and his clients loved his jokes, comments and analysis on politics, cricket and film.
I first visited the shop in 1984 when I was a second year student at a nearby college. While waiting my turn, I couldn’t help but notice Mukhtar giving a stern-looking middle-aged man a haircut and humming verses from some obscure Urdu poem. All the while he kept winking and smiling at a fellow colleague. The colleague smiled back but continued to gesture him to keep quiet.
After his haircut was done, the stern-looking man got up, paid the shop owner and left. Mukhtar and his colleague burst out laughing only to be admonished by the owner: ‘Mukhtar, your antics will make us all end up in Karachi’s Central Jail!’
I was next. ‘Aap Inquliaabi Lagtey Ho. Che Cut Doun Aap Koh? (You look like a revolutionary. Should I give you a Che cut?)’ He smiled.
‘Give me any cut you like, comrade,’ I replied. ‘As long as you tell me what you were humming and why?’
From Urdu our conversation switched to Punjabi. He asked: ‘Are you interested in poetry?’ But before I could answer, he added … ‘beyond Faiz Sahib and Faraz?’
I asked him what he had in mind. ‘You know,’ he replied, ‘that old angry looking man to whom I was giving a haircut is a corrupt government official. Allah knows better, but some say he is also a spy of the Zia regime who spies in shops in this area. His salary isn’t that much but he is loaded with black money. He also thinks he is a very cultured man. So whenever he comes here I start to hum Noon Meen Rashid’s ‘Scheherazade’. Ever read it?’
I said I hadn’t read Rashid much. He told me to read it and only then will I understand why he hummed it in front of the government official and why his colleague and he were laughing and why the owner was getting angry.
Over the next few days I managed to get my hands on a copy of Noon Meem Rashid’s poems one of which was ‘Scheherazade’. He had written it a few years before his sudden death in 1975.
The poem is a surreal tale of a barber who has the ability to cut open the skull of his clients, wash their brains and put them back in. One day he was doing the same to a high-ranking minister when he was suddenly summoned by the king. He put the minister’s brain down and rushed to attend the King’s call. When he returned he saw that the minister’s brain had been eaten up by ants. So, to avoid persecution, he put a bull’s brain in the minister’s head. And voila! The minister emerged sounding wiser and more intelligent than before.
It’s a vicious satire on the intellectual level of the rulers. So Mukhtar (who never even finished school) used to hum it while giving the corrupt government official a haircut and get a kick out of the fact that the official had no clue as to what he was humming.
I stopped visiting the shop after I finished college in 1987. In the early 1990s when I went to the shop to meet him, I was told that he had married the owner’s daughter and left Karachi for Sialkot.
I never saw him again until last week, almost two decades later. He was still married and lived with his wife and one of his sons in an apartment in Karachi’s Khada Market area. Now in his 60s, he looked haggard. He said he’d been suffering from various ailments.
He had two sons. One was settled in Oman and the other was a junior officer at a government bank in Karachi.
I asked him whether he was still reading and humming Noon Meenm Rashid. He managed to crack a tired, brief laugh: ‘No. But I would like to go the way Rashid went.’
After I bid farewell, I wondered what he meant by that. But then it struck me what this once robust, rebellious and articulate, but now old, ill and sad barber was really implying. Just before his death Rashid had supposedly asked his wife to cremate his body. And that’s what she did.
I just shook my head and whispered to myself: ‘Mukhtar Bhai. Still cutting open heads and replacing brains.’