Col Avnish Sharma (retd)
Barbers are an affable community. Despite huge technological advancements, no alternative to a physical tryst with a member of this fabulous group has been discovered. The old-timers who launched this profession had a vision par excellence in conceptualising the nuances of a haircut and the dependence that society reposes in them.
Khem Singh, aka Khemu, joined our unit as a barber (they are combatant tradesmen) almost the same time as I joined as a Second Lieutenant. He was confident in his profession, coming from a family of Army barbers belonging to upper Himachal. Amicable, he immediately caught the fancy of officers, including the Commanding Officer (CO). Therefore, he was in demand on Sundays, being a personal grooming day in which a crew-cut was a must. Apart from a non-negotiable convenient time for the CO and the 2IC, the other slots would come to officers based on Khemu’s preference, which we realised soon, depended upon the listening ability of the officer to the unending gossip and display of his knowledge. The prospect of extracting worthwhile news affecting the troops, which he would selectively disseminate as langar gup, was another factor.
To cut down our crew-cut fixation, he would wisen us up on maintaining a cavalry tradition of longer hair than our other arms counterparts. Feeling sheepish on possessing better cavalry spirit, his visits reduced to alternate Sundays, thereby giving him more time to indulge in langar gup.
The setting up of a unit barber shop was a new concept during the nineties, wherein unit personnel could visit it at their convenience. He opposed the concept since it didn’t suit his extracurricular hobby of private gossip. Nevertheless, a barber shop was established, but not without my friend designating himself as a roving barber to attend to officers at their residence. His new role was on popular demand of one and all.
Years went by, the unit won repeated compliments for its well-turned-out soldiers. Though many others contributed to this achievement, it was attributed to Khemu. When I returned from a deputation to command the unit, Khemu, witty as ever, was summoned to give me a crew-cut prior to my first meeting with the GOC. He refused to move his scissors beyond the length of a horse’s mane. ‘Saab, agar hamara CO saab apni pehchaan nahin banayega to laftain saab log ka kya hoga!’ The GOC, next day, was more transfixed with my hair than my professional introduction. Khemu, henceforth, was nominated as the personal barber of the GOC. His availability for a Sunday haircut, thereafter, was subject to availability.
Today, as I sit in a fancy salon for my monthly grooming, I miss my comrade over the mane.
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