The Barber’s Trade Union
Among the makers of modern India, chandu, the barber boy of our village, has a place which will be denied him unless I press for the recognition of his contribution to history. Chandu’s peculiar claim to recognition rested, to tell the truth, on an exploit of which he did not know the full significance. But then, unlike most great men of India today, he had a very exaggerated notion of his own importance, though he shared with them a certain native egotism which was sometimes disconcerting and sometimes rather charming. I knew chandu ever since the days when he wore a piece of rag in the middle of his naked distended-bellied body, and when we wallowed together in the mire of the village lanes, playing at soldiering, shop keeping, or clerking and other little games which we invented for the delectation of our two salves and our mothers, who alone of all the elders condensed to notice us. Chandu was my senior by about six months, and he always took the lead in all matters. And I willingly followed, because truly he was a genius at catching wasps, and at pressing the poison out of their tails, at tying their tiny legs to cotton thread and flying them, while I always got stung on the cheeks if I dared to go anywhere near the platform of the village well where these insects settled on the puddles to drink water. When we grew up he still seemed to me the embodiment of perfection, because he could make and fly paper kites of such delicate design and of such balance as I could never achieve. To be sure, he was not so good at doing sums at school as I, perhaps because his father apprenticed him early to the hereditary profession of the barber’s caste and sent him out hair-cutting in the village, and he had no time for the home tasks which our school master gave us. But he was better than I at reciting petry, any day, for not only did he remember by rote the verses in the text-book, but he could repeat the endless pages of prose in that book so that they seemed like poetry. My mother resented the fact that Chandu won a scholarship at school while I had to pay fee to be taught. And she constantly dissuaded me from playing with him, saying that chandu was a low-caste barber’s son and that I ought to keep up the status of my caste and class. But whatever innate ideas I had inherited from my forefathers I certainly hadn’t inherited any sense of superiority. Indeed, I was always rather ashamed of the red caste mark which my mother put on my forehead every morning, and of the formalized pattern of the uchkin, the tight cotton trousers, the gold- worked shoes and the silk turban in which I dressed: and I longed for the right to wear all the spectacular conglomeration of clothes which Chandu wore-a pair of khaki shorts which the retired subedar had given him, a frayed black velvet waistcoat, decorated all over with shell buttons, and a round felt cap which had once belonged to Lalla Hukam Chand, the lawyer of our village.. And I envied Chandu the freedom of movement which he enjoyed after his father died of plague. For then he would do the round of saving and hair-cutting at the houses of the high-caste notables in the morning, bathe and dress, and then steal a ride to town, six miles away, on the foot-rest of the closed carriage in which Lalla Hukam Chand Travelled to town. But Chandu was kind to me . he Knew that I was seldom taken to town , and that I had to trudge three weary miles to a secondary school in the big village of joadiala with the fear of God in my heart , while he had been completely absolved from the ordeal of being flogged by crul masters as he had left school after his father’s death. So he always brought me some gift or other from the town-a paint brush, or gold ink, or white chalk, or a double-edged penknife to sharpen pencils, and he would entertain me with long merry descriptions of the variety of things he saw...
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