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Mar 9, 2020

The Rebel Barber : A Short Story

(This short story of mine was shortlisted in the Writing Nepal 2019: A Short Story Contest.)
"Kathmandu is getting too cold, just like Terai", Umesh Thakur thought to himself as he yawned lazily one November afternoon in his eponymous hair salon in Buddhanagar. The business was slow as usual in the festive months, although the festivals were already over. The rhythmic "snip snip snip" of his assistant's scissors on a customer's hair drove him further into drowsiness. His thoughts turned to Chhath.

"Those asses ruined Chhath too", he thought. "Politics everywhere. They could not even leave Chhath alone."

Terai had been simmering with rage and discontent since September as the country promulgated a new constitution. The rage that erupted like a volcano and spread like wildfire had soon engulfed the whole of Madeshi communities. Umesh's village had not remained untouched. There were closed-door meetings, anonymous pamphlets, and hushed up conversations. The environment had reminded people of the times of the civil war. Everyone was scared and apprehensive. Everyone was suspicious of each other. All of it bothered Umesh. He did not want to be bothered with one more bloody revolution, one more deceit by the leaders, more deaths, and more shattered families and dreams. All he wanted to do was pass through this life quietly as if it were a narrow, dark alley that had to be passed through to go to a brighter side.
But then, the revolutionary fervor caught his younger brother, Mahesh who was susceptible to the fervor as much due to his youth as his disposition. Mahesh had stopped coming home. The infrequency and unpredictability of his visits had compelled the family members to cajole him first and then finally, just ignore him in resignation. Umesh had wanted Mahesh to join him in his shop and earn a living doing what people of his community were supposed to do. But Mahesh was adamant that he would not join his brother. "Who knows what's up with the young people these days?" Umesh thinks with a sigh.
Photo by: www.insidehimalayas.com
"I was never a rebel", he reminisced. He was never the one to complain, never the one to express his discontent. He still remembers how as a child he never complained even when he had to go hungry the whole day as his mother remained busy with the household chores, providing for the family. He remembers how his elder sisters would create a scene or steal mangos from Alok kaka's orchard but he never felt the urge to do so. He still remembers how his Pahade teacher would punish him and his classmates when they failed to correctly recall the grammar rules and make them sit like cocks. Enraged his classmates would find ways to prank on the teacher. But not him, never. Even when he was among the accused by the teacher and got the revenge beating. He still does not understand why he never felt the urge to rebel. It was as if he was a traveler too lost in thoughts, who had only his destination in his mind that all the dogs barking at him failed to register in his mind. 

"If only I had a destination on my mind", he sighs poignantly
But then, there were times when he had taken the initiative to express his desires. That one time when he had been swimming in the Berang Khola with his friends, he had an intense urge to hug Bishwash, his friend from the locality and he had just gone ahead and done it. He had hugged Bishwash as one would hug his lover, as a child would hug its mother's leg. Bishwash had quickly recovered from the shock and pushed Umesh away from himself as if Umesh was a water snake that had suddenly stuck on him. Although Bishwash had not said anything out loud, the intense hatred and disgust Umesh saw in his eyes had brought him back to reality and kept him in check for the rest of his life.

Many years later, one rainy day, when Umesh saw Sandeep being dragged into his salon by his shoulder-length hair by his father, all Umesh could think of was that incident at Berang Khola. The same kind of feeling had simmered in his heart and he had felt the same kind of urge to just go and hug this guy who was red with shame and the pain.

"Oie Bhaiya, come here! Cut down this hoodlum's hair", Sandeep's father had roared. Umesh had quietly pointed Sandeep towards the empty chair. Sandeep had glanced at his father before quietly sitting down on the chair. His father meanwhile had sat on the waiting bench with his arms crossed and eyes looking at both of them piercingly.

"What a useless son I have? Does nothing all day except pruning himself and his hair like a girl! Just look at that hair longer than that of a girl!" Sandeep's father had muttered.

Umesh had tried his best to save the hair but finally gave up under the scrutinizing gaze of Sandeep's father. Umesh had then asked Sandeep if he wanted a massage too. Sandeep had just looked at his father and said nothing. His father also said nothing. Umesh had given him a massage anyway.

Half of Umesh's heart had expected that Sandeep would push him away and look at him with disgust as Bishwash had done many years ago. But Sandeep seemed to enjoy it and taking it all in albeit with trepidation. When he was finished, Sandeep had silently followed his father out of the salon without even turning back to look at Umesh.

Umesh had felt a mixture of joy and sadness. "Which father beats up his grown-up son like that?" he had wondered but then quietly filed it at the back of his mind where all his wonderings regarding the world used to go.

"Will I see him again?" Umesh had wondered. His heart was divided. He would have loved to see him again but then again he was filled with trepidation at the thought of giving in to his temptation.

It was Sandeep's father who came again. One early morning, right before the festive seasons had started, drunk and in an irritable mood.

"Oie bhaiya!" he had roared. "Cut my hair! Make sure I look good or you will get a beating."
Umesh was too scared to move.

"Didn't you hear me?" Sandeep's father roared again.

Umesh picked up his scissors and started cutting the hair. 'Snips, snips, snips', his scissors navigated across the hair.

"You madise people are whiny, crybabies! You are never satisfied, are you? The country gets a new Constitution after so many years and all you people want is to create chaos?", Sandeep's father had grumbled. "You call our Constitution day a black day? Then, why are you living here? Eating our food, taking our money?"

Umesh said nothing. He felt nothing. "Which caste do you belong, sir? What makes this country more of yours than ours?" he had wanted to ask out of sheer curiosity more than anything else but could not gather the courage.

"Now, don't you slit my throat for that, understand?" the drunkard had mumbled. But still, Umesh had said nothing.

"How would have Mahesh reacted? He would have slit that drunkard's throat", he had giggled at the thought.

A few days later, to his pleasant surprise, Sandeep came back to his salon. He was not only in a jovial mood but had also smiled pleasantly at Umesh. Umesh had tried to hold his gaze in an effort to take peek into his soul.

"Dai, I want a head massage", Sandeep had said.

"Such a lovely boy. Such nice manners. He even calls me dai", Umesh had thought with delight. He was not sure if he liked being addressed as Dai though, at least by Sandeep.

Umesh had been unable to contain his joy and excitement. His hands had moved through Sandeep's head rhythmically and gracefully as if he were performing magic. As Sandeep has closed his eyes and submerged himself in the pleasure, Umesh had gathered the courage to venture beyond the head and neck.

The next time Sandeep arrived at the salon a few days later, very few words were spoken. Very few words needed to be spoken. From the next time, the gap between the visits had shortened considerably.

Umesh was jolted out of his trance by violent shaking. Someone was catching him by his shirt and pulling him. Before he could make sense of what was happening, a fierce blow of a fist landed on his face. The pain and shock made him feel giddy. But before he could respond, another blow landed on his face and with it, countless punches and kicks followed. Umesh fell from the bench to the ground. He instinctively tried to block his face with his hands but the punches were too forceful for him.

As the shock wavered and he became able to make sense out of things, he saw the large, red, swollen, and livid face of Sandeep's father coming at him like an out of control truck.

"You fucking madise! You filthy bastard! How dare you spoil my son? How dare you try to make a eunuch out of him? Didn't you have anyone to fuck because you madises burned all your daughters and wives for dowry?" Sandeep's father was uncontrollable. He, then, caught a broom nearby and started hitting Umesh with it randomly. Umesh's assistant who was over the shock by now tried to stop Sandeep's father. But his frail and emaciated body was no match for Sandeep's father whose energy had been accentuated by the rage.

The commotion had already attracted a crowd of spectators but none of the people ventured to come forward and intervene. Most of them whispered to each other with curiosity to find out what was happening. A Madhesi getting beaten up was not a new thing for them but such violently and within a business establishment was a rare sight.

"He is going to kill him. Please help! Someone, please help!" Umesh's assistant pleaded as he tried to match his strength with that of the assaulter.

The plea seemed to have acted as a trigger to bring the crowd out of its trance. A few of them came forward and caught the assaulter from behind and tore him apart from Umesh.

"Oh dai, please stop! What's up with you? Why are you beating him like that?" Someone said.

"What happened here?"

"Oh, this guy is drunk!"

"Oh, it's Rameshwor Uncle! He is usually drunk. Not a big deal with that."

"But why would he beat up the barber? He does not seem to be here to cut his hair!"

The cacophony rang in Umesh's ears as he tried to recover. The feelings of shame and rejection he had felt in Berang Khola many years ago came rushing to his mind.

Startled by the crowd closing in on him and the questions, Rameshwor looked around and looked at Umesh one last time with disgust before hurriedly leaving the shop.

"It must have been the Madise's fault! They are like that. He must have tried to con him or something!" someone in the crowd said. "They are trying to con the whole country, don't you see?" another person remarked.

Umesh got up from the floor and sat on the bench again silently like an injured dog licking its wounds.

With no more spectacle to see, the crowd slowly dispersed.


Umesh peered out of the thin blanket he was covering himself with as his assistant gently poked him awake.

"Here, drink some soup bhaiya! You must be hungry", he said.

"What time of the day is it?" Umesh asked peering out of the tiny window. All he could see was the wall of another house.

"It is evening. Are you feeling any better? It has been almost a week!"

Umesh nodded. All of a sudden, his mobile phone rang. His maai had been calling. Reluctantly, he picked up the phone.

"Yes, maai! What is it?"

He could only hear sobs on the other side.

"Maai, what happened? Why are you crying?" he sat up concerned and then squinted in pain.

"Umesh, they say our Mahesh has been arrested", maai managed to say between her sobs.

"What? When?" Umesh asked.

"No one knows for sure! A week ago they say. Some say he has already been killed by the police", she started crying irrepressibly.

"Beta, could you come home immediately please?" she said after a while.

"Sure, maai! I will take the bus early morning tomorrow", Umesh managed to reply.

"I told him so many times not to join those groups. Why would anyone with common sense go against the masters, the police?" maai kept crying. "He was always so disobedient. Always asking questions, always questioning the masters. Now, we have to see this day! Why always us, dear lord?"

"Maai, listen, listen to me! I am coming. I will take care of everything, okay? Now, don't you worry? Keep calm, until I am there", Umesh tried to placate his mother.

Maai sobbed for a while more before reluctantly cutting off the phone.

"Why always us?" maai's words kept ringing in his ears as he covered himself up and tried to sleep.

"I really have to sleep", he told himself.

"I have to go back home tomorrow. Early in the morning!" he told himself.

"Is it going to be just another day or truly a new day?" he found himself questioning as he was drifting into sleep.

"A truly new day? Promise?" his heart asked him.

But Umesh quickly suppressed the thoughts to the back of his mind and firmly closed his eyes as he tried to sleep.

The End