Every one of us carried a typical “Shaukat Ali stamp” on our heads (as per army regulations). Shaukat Ali cast his impressions deeply not only on our heads but also our minds as school children.
As my father served in the army, we grew up in cantonments. Life revolved around activities in the unit, mess, open-air cinema, club, swimming pool, canteen, Sadar Bazar. A workforce of devoted civilians, (trained under the British) manned everything for the fauj. Our maalis, dhobis, chowkidars, drivers, and khansamas, were diligent and old hands at their trade.
Shaukat Ali was one such civilian, official barber of the army unit at Lucknow. A call to the mess havaldar promptly brought Shaukat Ali on his bicycle to our bungalow. Clad in spotless white kurta-pyjama-topi, warmly welcoming you with an Adaab-arz, huzoor. A chair was laid out for you – in the verandah during the monsoons, the front lawn in bright sun during winter or under a shady mango tree during summer. Ceremoniously, he would lay out his instruments on a white sheet covered side-table, much like a surgeon ready to operate.
During the half-hour hair cut, he would fill you in on cantonment gossip, posting orders, minor scandals and anecdotes of the British. He would not hesitate to confidentially whisper and confront you if he had seen you fooling with the local girls. His mimicry of the British, complete with accentuated Hindustani, was the best part. His diction was cultured and garnished with the tehzeeb of Lucknow. One enjoyed listening to every word he said.
The manicure followed by a minor massage was the finishing touch. When in a good mood, a longer brisk massage would be a bonus lulling you to sleep. He never carried a mirror and detested if you called for one from the house to see the finished product. Every one of us carried a typical “Shaukat Ali stamp” on our heads (as per army regulations). The job and payment over, he would gossip over a cup of tea with the servants. Finally his farewell to my mother meant bags full of home-grown vegetables and fruits from the bungalow.
Shaukat Ali cast his impressions deeply not only on our heads but also our minds as school children. I visited Lucknow a few years back and sent for him. He had grown old but he was the same old smiling person in the same attire. Curious as ever, he wanted to know more about the family. His special interest was the job I did, the salary I earned, if the car was mine. He wanted to know about chhota membsahib (my wife) and how many babas l had.
“Baba Sahib has come to meet me specially,” he proudly called out to the other staff in the mess, narrating to them the mischief and antics we did as children. His oldest son was now the official unit barber. He himself was leading a retired life. Some of his eleven children were married and others studying – I now understood the bags full of vegetables and fruit from my mother to him. I doled out some money to him which he politely refused, proudly announcing that his children were earning enough for the dal-roti. Meeting him was nostalgic, saying goodbye painful. He hugged me very warmly, barely uttered Khuda salaamat rakhey in a choked voice and walked away hiding his face and suppressing his tears and emotions.
Shaukat Ali was killed in the December, 1991 riots in his native district at Faizabad.
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(The views expressed by the author are personal.)
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