29 July 2004

Naipaul on the Barber-Factotum of the Northwest Frontier

A small dark mustached man came in and, without saying anything, sat down in one of the armchairs. He was wearing the flat pie-shaped felt cap of the frontier and the mountains. He was the nai, the barber, Rahimullah said, and he had come to find out whether anyone in the house wanted a trim or a shave. His name was Qaim Khan. He came every Friday, and sometimes on other days as well; there were certain households that he served. This explained the ease with which he had come in and sat down, while others appeared to wait. He was in a pale blue shalwar-kameez with a raw-cotton gilet. Rahimullah and his brother and his son were in pale peach; the color spoke of cleanliness and sabbath rest. For the barber, though, the sabbath was a busy working day, and the blue he wore could more easily disguise dirt and wear.

And, indeed, as Rahimullah began to tell me, the barber didn't only cut hair. He had other duties, and he was available all the time. He could act as a cook when there was a wedding or a death; he would bring his big pots and tubs and cooking implements to the house, create a cooking place in the yard, and cook rice and other simple things in quantity. He was also a messenger; he took round wedding invitations; he broke the news of deaths. He could do circumcisions. Qaim Khan had an extra, inherited skill. He could sing and play on the flute, and people sometimes asked him to perform. His wife also sang. She and Qaim Khan's mother and sister were also always on call, to serve the women of the households in certain ways, taking messages for them, or accompanying them when they went out.

In the transplanted Indian community in Trinidad, on the other side of the world, the village barber (where Indian villages existed) had ritual duties like this (though not all of them). This went on up to fifty years ago, when I was growing up. So what Rahimullah was saying was half familiar to me; and I thought it remarkable that in a shaken-up and much-fractured colonial community this ancient kind of messenger and go-between and matchmaker should have reappeared; and that in that other world people of this caste calling, not a high one, should have declared themselves.

The nai Rahimullah was describing was also, I thought, in some ways like the village coum of converted Java: the handler of dead bodies, and also the cook, a man of low Hindu caste absorbed into Islam. Though the coum had been given the dignity of leading the Muslim congregation in prayer--as if in this new incarnation he destroyed older caste ideas--his other functions were still, after five hundred years, recognizably part of the old Hindu order.

In some such way, here in the frontier, the nai, as Rahimullah was describing him, seemed to be part of the Hindu past, a thousand years after conversion. (Though here, too, there were fantasies and a general neurosis about racial origins and the history.) Sitting in Rahimullah's guest house, considering Rahimullah and the blue-suited nai, the one man big and scholarly-looking and gracious, the other small and dark and with respectful eyes, I felt I could see how, when the older religion lost its footing, the antique social order had been lifted with small adjustments into the new religion. It was as though in the subcontinent the idea of caste was ineradicable.

Qaim Khan had no land and no house. Many nais had become well off now, but few of them had their own house. Qaim Khan would have loved to buy some land and build a house, but he had no money. To earn money he would have to go away. He wouldn't mind going to local towns like Mardan and Peshawar. But--he was speaking through Rahimullah--he didn't want to go too far. What he really wanted was to live and work here in the village.

When I asked--Rahimullah translating for me--whether he wouldn't like to go outside the village and open his own barbershop, he fixed Rahimullah with his eyes, familiar yet respectful, as though the question was Rahimullah's own, and he began to look very small. He said that if he went to Peshawar or Karachi and found a job in a shop he would make thirty-five rupees a day at the most, less than two dollars. With that kind of wage he wouldn't be able to save. A number of his friends and relations had gone to Karachi. He himself had once gone to Karachi. He worked for somebody who had a barbershop, a richer relation from the village. He was the servant of this family, and he got twelve hundred rupees a month, sixty dollars. It wasn't enough for him, so he came back.

He had gone to school until he was eight or nine. He had reached the third class. He had had one daughter, and she had died. That was his story. He had nothing else to say, and he was content after that to sit in the armchair and say and do nothing.
SOURCE: Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1998), pp. 317-319

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