Modern Filmy Saloon

Debasish Banerjee

It was just a wobbly, wooden shack. Despite this, the roof was still proudly upholding the partially crooked and grotesque sign-board advertising Modern Filmy Saloon.

Jhopu was sitting inside looking at himself, his awkward face pitted with scars of smallpox mostly hidden behind a thick milk-white beard. It was his saloon, some thirty years old. He lifted his head to look around his saloon, all made up of some wooden planks, pegs and thick polythene sheets. As for his paraphernalia: two old horse-haired brushes, two scissors, a pair of hair-combs, an aluminium bowl, a straight razor, several packets of Topaz blades, a tube of aromatic shaving cream and rectangular mirror in its archaic fashion stuck on the wooden wall were all that made up the old inmates of the saloon. Only the two hydraulic reclining chairs were the new room-mates there, totally unmatched. Jhopu had bought them just the previous year. He hoped for more customers. Literally, his Modern Filmy Saloon was as old as to have existed beside the highway for more than three decades.

He was getting on well. But now he was not to have the wind at his back. Jhopu's Modern Filmy Saloon was counting the days until eviction. Two men came to him last week and ordered him to leave the place with his baggage, as they had purchased some acres of land there to erect buildings for an English medium school. They had even started fencing the area and Jhopu's saloon was in the farthest corner of the land, from where the highway was at a stone's throw distance. The owners even pitched in a big placard declaring in big, bold letters ST. GEORGE'S where just below the name Trespassers will be prosecuted could meet the eyes of its beholders.

Now Jhopu, a man devoid of any formal education, started wondering who that St. George was that had destroyed his life like a house of cards. The place near the highway had always favoured him for decades, allowing him to make his earnings without a hitch and retain a fair two square meals a day. The last six years saw Jhopu’s barbershop witness an influx of customers, mostly highway labourers and wealthy men who did not worry about screeching their cars to a halt to have a quick shave. Despite this, Jhopu did not hire a helper but carried on quite fairly all by himself. It was his increasing income that convinced him of the basic theory of a successful businessman—customer satisfaction. And it was that very thought that made him realize that his Modern Filmy Saloon was not a modern one. It pushed him to install two hydraulic chairs as a first sign of a modern outlook in his ancient world.

Every morning around seven when the first bus for Delhi would trundle to a halt on the highway, be it a bone-chilling northern winter or the unceasing heavy downpour of a monsoon, Jhopu would get down from his rusty, ramshackle cycle after a rattling kilometer of a journey from his village Andhrigarhi. He would untie the knot from the handlebar to release an aluminium tiffin carrier tied there by his wife Guddi as was routine. He would unlock the wobbly wooden doors of his Modern Filmy Saloon, sweep and dust his working place, and pitch two incense sticks in a lump of earth before the pictures of gods and goddesses and murmur mantras. Then his work for the day resumed. He loved to chat away about any topic—films to politics. But, as he knew that people were prone to get excited and later incensed when politics found its way to their lips and ears, Jhopu never dared to cross this no man's land. He invariably restricted himself to Yeses and Nos for never did he rank below any political party.

Bhalku, the green grocer, rent the air with his usual boisterous laugh through his red lips soaked in betel juice claiming that The Socialists were going to outdo this time the corrupted People's Party. And at this Jhopu's scissors that would run resonating kranshh...kranshh across a school boy's fleecy head halted in response, before being followed by its master's nods and chuckles.

A hurried, affluent customer in a blazer and goggles, who had to put up with the cheap smell of shaving cream lathered across his whiskered face, would shower Jhopu with a smile of satisfaction eventually and reward him with a whole twenty rupee note (for he did not bother to get his five rupees back). Jhopu's heart smiled discreetly. It was his extra-earning of course. Such a miracle became a natural phenomenon in his life. In a nutshell, fortune favoured him.

The village chowkidar admired his mountainous moustache looking himself in the big mirror. Layers of red oxide peeled off in many places though he had nothing to do with it. Bansilal would roll his grey moustache and drone, "My moustache is my pride. Kishanlal, my grandfather, fought the British, walked with Gandhi Ji and observed a hunger strike for twenty four days when Chauri Chaura police station was set on fire." He then roved his eyes and would rattle, "and my father? Ha...ha...ha...only by dint of his courage did he raise himself to the rank of Subedar, Subedar Satyapal. I am their descendant." Saying so the man halted, looked around, shot up his brows and pointed to his well cared for moustache before repeating, "So, my moustache is my pride."

Those days went by like a hit movie and Jhopu could easily have bet to have learnt every dialogue of some of his distinguished customers by heart. Now, it would likely be a dream. He would often look out of his cell and gaze at the placard—his enemy. After stammering through the spellings and scratching at his bearded chin for two struggling minutes or so Jhopu succeeded in deciphering that St. George must be a man of letters or the real owner of the proposed school building. Sometimes the barber clenched his teeth in anger staring at the placard and the fence of barbed wire. How desperately he wished to pull out the placard was something known to his afflicted heart only. But was he not helpless?

The next day when the village chowkidar Bansilal came Jhopu's first business was to gather as much information about that St. George as possible, for the chowkidar was the only literate person among all his regular customers. Jhopu was certain to have his answers. So he asked, "Do you know, chowkidar sahib, who this St. George is?" pointing at the placard. His finger was straight under a pair of crooked brows. Bansilal, who knew next to nothing of that St. George, was flummoxed by such a question and tried to find a suitable answer for it. After a minute's thought the chowkidar replied dubiously, "I don't know much of this man but he may be a great English man." Then the man looked at the direction of the placard and continued, "I think this man must have something to do with schools."

"Angrej (an English man)," said Jhopu with a current of bitter surprise surging within him. "They had left our land many years ago. Then why did this man come back again? What will he get here by ruining our life again?"

Chowkidar patted his shoulder and smiled. He could understand that the erected placard and the barbed-wire fence were a jinx to this old barber.

Jhopu on the other hand wondered, "Had that great old man been still here, that Angrej wouldn't have dared to encroach this land to get him in trouble. Damn this St. George!" he cursed.

Then one of his customers told him that some rich men were going to build a big school there and that St. George was the name of it. In the noon time when the sun was beating down upon the roadside tamarind tree and someone's tired goat tethered there was bleating for water looking at the road-side dry hand pump, Jhopu thought to have a siesta. At this time his business slackened. But every once in a while a few called Modern Filmy Saloon just to have a shave or get their heads massaged. Therefore, Guddi's routine phone call inquiring if Jhopu was taking his lunch in time and having a bit of a nap was the ultimate satisfaction for him. He would retire this time to the pair of hydraulic reclining chairs, where he would cross his legs and click his mobile keypad to some old Hindi songs—mostly in combination with Raj Kapoor-Mukesh or Dilip Kumar-Rafi. They lulled him to sleep so easily amidst the turbulence he was going through. An ocean has great turbulence on its surface but there lies within an insurmountable tranquility. New-found trouble was tormenting the barber's life but amidst this mess he was blessed with a little peace to usher in his sweet dream: every letter of Modern Filmy Saloon was twinkling in striking and vivid fluorescence. Large distempered walls cubicled with translucent glass panels, shelves lined with an expensive assortment of shaving creams, foam tubes, hair dyes, face wash tubes and more than two hydraulic reclining chairs with rich and distinguished customers sitting in them looking contented before giant rectangular framed glass panels. The barber and his assistants were criss-crossing their scissors while the aristocratic fragrance of expensive perfumes pervaded the saloon. Money was raining—no more a dream it was for Jhopu, but a likely reality. But the dream succumbed to a loud honking. A luxurious Volkswagen screeched to a halt just before the Modern Filmy Saloon. Tormented, Jhopu opened his eyes amidst the bleak bundles of wood planks and patches of polythene sheets consigning his vision to the river of reality—a very practical world he now disgraced.

No sooner did the car's wheel come to a halt when the old barber drew the wobbly doors away. He peered out to see two well dressed men coming towards his cell.

"It's still here… this damn shack! ... not gone away yet!" spoke a fat man volubly stretching his suspenders with his thumbs.

The words reached Jhopu's ears. He felt threatened.

"Hey!" hollered another one who was rather thin in his jeans and T- shirt. "You're still here? All the rest have gone away. Haven't I told you to go away and pitch the tent somewhere else?"

Jhopu, who was blinking like an innocent cat, gathered enough courage to utter, "But where will I go? I've been here for thirty years. Where can I get land to set up my saloon now?"

"This Isn't our headache," the fat man spoke out bluntly. "This land is ours. Go away from here by tomorrow and do your business somewhere else."

The thin man smirked. The old barber helplessly scowled at this.

"You've just a day more," the fat man spoke out."Construction work will start tomorrow. Go wherever you can by tomorrow or your saloon will be pulled down."

They drove off belching a trail of black smoke.

Now tormented and ruffled, the barber cursed those rich men whom he thought had infiltrated his peaceful life and poisoned it through their own will.

He first thought of Shivaji Market as a probable place for him to set up his saloon. But he had rather an inclination to give up on that plan. Jhopu assumed that to set up his saloon at Shivaji Market would be only a dream. Such a big and crowded place like Shivaji Market, where there were dozens of saloons already with their market and all maintaining a monopoly on the affluent customers of the township Shivaji Nagar could hardly give a room for Jhopu, this unsophisticated village barber. It was a rich place that would only welcome a rich investment of sixty thousand at the minimum, which the barber could afford only after emptying his sole bank account, all his savings and selling off Guddi’s two gold bangles. Now Jhopu wondered how easily accessible it would be for one to reach the wonderland of his dream. To actualize this dream one must have the guts to traverse a road full of thorns.

He thought of other places but those melted away in the wink of an eye for he knew he would be discarded everywhere in an age of luxury, recreation and affluence.

His thoughts started fluttering briefly and then subconsciously kept to a corner he always despised.

Birju... he gradually grew to despise him.

Guddi did not… could not, for being an affectionate mother.

Birju, their only son, could have been a great support at this juncture of insecurity. It always happens: old clings to new. Of course a pair of old eyes and wrinkled hands needed to be propped by sinewy and trustworthy limbs. But for Johpu and Guddi this doctrine of life did not apply.

Birju was twenty when he turned obstinate, to their shock. Why? Some of his friends, the village youth, were leaving for Mumbai to seek their fortune and Birju, too, wanted to follow them. As for education? That episode had already been wrapped up after his laborious effort to get through class seven three times. His frisky youthful nature quite easily justified his father's profession—a menial task, only meant for a nonentity. He thought that a city like Mumbai could cater to a rain of opportunities. There was nothing in his village for him except drudgery and struggle but he could easily find a job in Mumbai for it was the city of the rich folks, hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, ultra-modern theatres and much more. In a nutshell, their life ran with a dizzy laughter but here in this village, life slogged. Hence, one dark morning the house door was found unbolted and a folded letter discovered under the pillow to their horror. The letter was all about going away to far off Mumbai to work in a hotel or restaurant. Providing a pinch of hope, Birju had promised to come back once he settled there but it was a mere formality. He had never come back since then. Twenty six years slid past. But their hope remained stagnant as before.

Now, as though lacerated by this fatal blow hurled at him by those ravenous for wealth, the barber decided to take revenge. He grunted a vicious oath— he would rip out the placard where St. George was still smirking at him. That acerbic smile the barber could no longer put up with, and to pacify this turbulence revenge became inevitable, however less poignant it was.

He decided, thus, to wait for the night.

Jhopu heard Guddi chanting Hanuman Chalisa, a signal that she would be in bed soon. The clock hands were about to strike eleven. He could hear the faint refrain of jaagte raho. The village chowkidar was on his beat. He was patrolling. The symmetrical tap… tap… tap of the chowkidar's lathi was an antithesis—all and sundry were sleeping.

"How can I break the rule of the night?" he thought. "If the chowkidar sees me out at this time, what will I say to the man doing his duty? He's there to keep the peace but I'll be there to act for violence—I never did anything violent till this age," Jhopu writhed as a series of thoughts gripped him all at once. But he tightened his jaws in decision. "I can't help but carry out this violence! The least I can do to appease my soul.”

Before long, Guddi was snoring, as if inviting the night to become more tranquil and in deeper favour of her husband's secret act—revenge before the doomsday. Even a non-venomous snake battered almost to death desires tooth and nail to chuck out his saliva and implant his fangs into his foe, however deadly he may be.

Jagte raho gradually melted away into the murky lanes of the village. Jhopu, with an iron rod in hand, stepped out of the house and started down the desolate path clad in the pitch-dark robe of the amabashya (new moon). The July clouds were snarling above, ready to pounce upon their prey unprotected and unsheltered. The barber felt gratitude towards the occasional lightning bolt flashing like a torch-light helping him have a brief, clear view of the landscape. He felt walking to be quite safer than cycling at this time for the sharp screeching and clanging of his ramshackle, rusty cycle might arouse the sleeping street dogs, which barking might summon the chowkidar and leave him to be caught red handed. He chose a shortcut through lanes and alleys (the shortcut did not in any way matter to him. What mattered was to keep himself from being discovered). The wide village road stood out for being transparent; meanwhile, those lanes and alleys bore the quality of opaqueness, meant only for carrying out any secret task the meek, peace-loving people of this so-called society despised.

A loud crash of thunder woke up Guddi. She was nearly puzzled when she did not find her old man there. To her anxiety, he was not found in the bathroom either. Now, panic overpowered her. The clouds that were snarling a while ago now started roaring. Guddi's tensed countenance gave out a call, "Jhopu… Jhopu!" The occasional flash of lightning revealed the face lines of a lady on the verge of senility. More suspense brewed when her thought to phone him was dashed—his cell-phone was lying by his pillow.

Now, big drops of rain began pattering down onto the earth. The more the raindrops glistened with lightning, the worse the old lady got. She cursed the falling rains, crackling thunder and obstinate lightning ripping the dark sky into pieces. She once thought to go to her neighbour but refrained thinking that he might come back soon, and thus waited.

By now Jhopu had reached his destination. He was drenched to the skin. Walking past the barbed wire he found himself before his eternal foe—the placard boasting St. George in big bold letters. The old man, looking all at once rickety and haggard and soaked in the falling rain, stabbed at his enemy. The big, iron placard remained stable. Suddenly with a strong current of demonic force the barber pierced the rod through the placard. Mangled it. But he tightened his jaws and scowled when he saw the placard still standing erect, as though smiling at his failure to drain the entire strength of his enemy—bold lettered St. George. Now he looked down the ground, breathed restlessly under a pair of burning eyes spewing only revenge and hatred. He realized what he needed to do to wipe out his arch-rival. The barber started panting heavily at the sudden exertion. He lifted his rod and hurled it down into the ground that had by now turned soft in the rain. He dug on and on. Kept on buckling down. Eventually, the mighty iron pole of the big placard grew wobbly, trembling and shaking like a defeated, surrendered soldier. What was needed: just a final blow. The old man curled up the sleeves of his kurta, his fingers smeared with soil and dirt. Picked up the fallen iron rod. He blew his rod down fiercely into the bottom of the pole. Raked up lump of soil.

All at once, Jhopu's eyes gleamed. He grinned to his heart's content. A burst of laughter—ha… ha… ha… ho… ho… ho… rent the air of the turbulent monsoon night. He looked as though his eyes would pop out of their sockets. With a loud crash the big placard collapsed on the ground puddled in the incessant downpour.

But, what was the man doing? Was he still a man? It was so unnatural of him. It looked as though he had lost his senses. He laughed on and on with a rising crescendo—ha… ha… ha… ho… ho… ho… Then he stopped suddenly and kicked the fallen placard lying dead as a corpse. Picked up lump after lump of soil and hurled them down at the placard. Smeared all over in soil and mud the man was beyond recognition. He picked up a lump of mud and pressed tightly against his chest, eyes bloodshot, and announced like a victorious warrior, "Mai is Angrej ko maar diya… mere jamin se nikal diya… (I killed this English man... drove him away from my land).

The man kicked the placard, threw lumps of mud and danced in his revelry in the puddle.

Finally, he was no longer a man. Insanity left him. Revealed a lunatic.

Unaware of the rain and mud, the man was busy throwing, kicking and dancing. Why not? He had achieved a victory unknown to those men, sensible and civilized.

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Born in Durgapur, West Bengal in 1979 on 1st August, Debasish Banerjee earned his Master's degree in English from Burdwan University in 2003. He's a teacher of English language and literature in Arcadian Public School, Mathura, Uttar Pradesh. Some of his English short stories "A Guardian Signature,” "Golok Bagchi's Silver Coins," and "His Last Clay" appeared in the (CLRI) Contemporary Literary Review India. The prestigious Kitaab International also published his story. Some online Bengali journals Samantaral Sahitya Patrika, Ujaan Sahitya, and Barnik Sahitya also brought some of his stories into light. YAWP Little Magazine brought out his short story "The Rose was As Vain As the Geraniums" in 2020. Debasish Banerjee has been shortlisted for INDIA PRIME 100 AUTHORS AWARD 2021.