L’Oréal vs Sohan Lal & Gopi: Champayee! Tel Maalish

Subhash Mathur


Subhash Mathur is a resident of Jaipur after superannuation from Indian Revenue Service in 2007. Presently, Subhash is engaged in social and charitable work in rural areas. Subhash is also Editor of http://www.inourdays.org/, an online portal for preserving work related memories.

My wife and I were visiting our son Gaurav and his family at Ahmedabad in 2012 for a few weeks. One fine Sunday morning, out of the blue, I announced that I needed a haircut.

Before anyone else could react, our DIL (daughter-in-law) Poonam took control of the situation. She immediately suggested "Papa, why don't you soak in some new experience?"

Reflexively I shot back: "Like what?"

"There's a new hair spa in town. L'Oréal. Why don't you give it a go? The ambience is amazing."

"Have you been there?" I asked

"Not personally but a few of my friends have spoken glowingly.

It's swanky. It's shiny. Fancy gizmos. New hair wash sys. Lovingly perfumed. The works!"

I went into a reverie.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, the family barber Sohan Lal would visit our home at B-87 Ganesh Marg once a month on a Sunday morning, generally in the middle of the month.

Before breakfast time.

We were eight male members to be tackled. Daddy, Chachaji, and six brothers. And the fiat of the household was that everyone had to submit to this discipline.

All hair cutting was in the backyard except for Chachaji. For him it was always the minor front yard on the left side. On his mudhaaA muddha.

Invariably one's schedule for that Sunday morning went for a toss. Literally.

Once, I had to miss an important cricket game. And our club lost.

Every hair cut was for a princely sum of one rupee and four annas. It didn't matter in which style one wanted one's hair cut because Sohan Lal knew only one way. The fastest way.

A snip here and a swish there. And you were good for one more month.

But mother mandated a full bath. You could not step out of the home without a full bath. This was the only occasion when any rule was ever applied to leaving or entering the home.

Otherwise, going in and out of the house was facilitated by the fact that our house had no doors front or back, to regulate the traffic. One could easily stroll in and out without fear of detection or interference.

Some thieves did take advantage of the situation but poor chaps could hardly could ever lay their hands on any significant booty. Books, which were lying all over the house were obviously shunned by the thief tribe.

Like most barbers of yesteryears, Sohan Lal was a smooth talker. Full of local politics.

Chief Minister Sukhadia's days were numbered. Mathura Das (Mathur) Ji has been shortlisted to become CM. (Sohan Lal knew that would resonate well with this large Kayasth parivar)

So to beat him at his own game I generally spoke about the unheard of exploits of Mao, Chou and Lin Piao. Sohan Lal didn't like the competition but poor chap had very little choice.

Hair massage was unknown to Sohan Lal. Probably he had never been to a theatre to watch Pyaasa with the Tel Maalish number. And music otherwise was hard to come by those days.

Sohan La was, in any case, a part-time barber. He was an employee at Rajasthan University and used Sundays for some extra income. But he was clever enough to strike pay dirt.

He milked NRI family members Kailash, Subodh and his son Abhijai fully with fees skyrocketing as high as a thousand bucks. They were the ‘Dollar-wale' babus after all. Sometimes, even Daddy gave him a bounty if Sohan Lal gave him some juicy titbits about local politics. I also paid higher ‘charges' if I happened to be visiting Jaipur on that particular Sunday. Sohan Lal continued his hair cutting for the family until Bhai Sahib passed away in 2015.

Once I moved out of my family home in 71 I always chose the nearest barber shop for a haircut. Simply because it was the most convenient. After all I was no Richard Burton wooing Elizabeth Taylor. And the cost to my exchequer was minimal. Followed the pattern all my life.

Surprisingly my hair style was generally much appreciated by my colleagues. They pestered me for the coordinates but I always dodged such enquiries. Successfully.

No way was I ever going to share this secret with any one. Except the wife, of course.

In Calcutta, the hairdresser I liked the most went by an impressive template A-One Hair Dresser. It was located close to our house on the edge of the Tollygunge nalaah (drain) linking Tollygunge with P Block, New Alipore.

A pedestrian-only crossover took us to the Chowringhee - Tollygunge tramline. Very handy. Very convenient.

A-One Hair Dresser was basically a wooden shack with one chair, one table and a single large mirror resting on the table. With a clutter of scissors, razors, assorted combs, Seven ‘O' Clock shaving blades, shaving cream in a cup, and black and white shaving brushes.

Run by Gopi.

Over the years, Gopi added Afghan Snow face cream and Himalaya Talc powder. And a few Bengali tels (oils) and strong perfumes. The ubiquitous fitkari crystal(alum) used as after shave was also prominently displayed. Just to reassure the customers that an inadvertent cut would not go septic. How reassuring!

There was a stool also for the next in line but I rarely saw that put to use.

But Gopi -Gopichand Narayan Chand Sahiwal, from Sikar, Rajasthan - was very proud of his skills. He had apparently apprenticed with the famous Habib's of Chaura Rasta in my home town Jaipur.

(In one weak moment, Gopi confided that actually he was turned down by Habib summarily as he was not trained under a big banner but only by Kallan bhayyia at Sikar. He then decided to park himself for a few days near Habib's shop just to soak in the atmosphere. And he keenly observed the kind of stylish cuts the Baba Log (well-off kids) came out with. And this short stint put many new ideas in his head to be experimented with at a later date.)

I used to be an early bird for my haircut. And soon I became a regular.

He treated me as a ‘special' rolling out the carpet with fresh white cloth and a fine rose spray. He was a football fanatic and bantered along about the latest on Mohan Bagan vs East Bengal khella (game) while attacking my hair furiously.

Three and fifty for a haircut plus a mandatory head message with strong hands was like Tatas picking up Jaguar in a steal deal.

And Gopi even hummed  Tel Maalish Champayee made immortal by Johnnie Walker painting the town Red.

मालिश! तेल मालिश!


सर जो तेरा चकराये या  दिल  डूबा जाये

आजा प्यारे पास हमारे काहे घबराये काहे  घबराये

मालिश तेल मालिश


In the 1970s, I called Gopi for Gaurav's private मुंडन (mundaan, first hair cut) ceremony. Charge:  all of eleven rupees. A pittance really. But the number of deep bites that Gaurav gave the poor chap, he certainly deserved 111.  Compensation for blood loss too.

Gopi sort of enjoyed the novel experience.

When I snapped out of my dream, Poonam was still persisting.

"Papa, this will be a whole new experience. It's a snazzy place with brand new gadgets. And they use lot of new herbals. And spices too."

It was a perfect sales pitch.

But I still demurred.

Poonam is not one to call it quits so easily. She took me on.

"Papa, I will make an appointment for 10.30 tomorrow morning. Drop and then pick up is on me. And you will go ‘prepaid '."

But things are never as simple as they appear to be.

Poonam called up L'Oréal and the negotiations went like this:

"Hello, I want to make an appointment for a haircut and head message for tomorrow morning."

L' Oréal Executive (LE): "Give me a minute ma'am. Ok I have the booking sheet in front of me. Now let's see. Did you say morning, ma'am?"

Poonam: "Yes, morning at 10. 30."

LE: "Ma'am, is this for male or a female?"

Poonam: "For male. Haircut and head massage."

LE: "Ma'am, I am sorry but that slot for males is already taken up. Mondays we get lot of early bookings from the elderly in particular."

Poonam: "Ok. Then any slot available on Tuesday morning? "

LE: "Ma'am, the first available slot on Tuesday is at 11.30 but that's for a full spa. The works. You know ma'am Tuesdays is our Good Hair Day just like Happy Hours at the pub. We offer many deals for Tuesdays."

Poonam: "Oh but Papa wants only haircut and head massage."

LE: "Ma'am, on Monday we have an opening at 12.45 pm for 25 minutes with mandatory 3 treatments. So Papa has to choose another ‘procedure' along with hair trim and head kneading. He can choose either a facial or manicure pedicure Ma'am.

But wait a minute. This slot is star marked. Just let me a second. Ok, Ma'am, this slot is reserved for our senior creative stylist Haribhai. And his charges are higher at 10 %."

Poonam (unfazed): "That's not fair but let me check it out with Papa. But give me the exact numbers."

LE: "Ma'am, I am now quoting the higher Haribhai charges. Full hair trim is 850. Head massage with extra virgin oil is 750. And P &amp\; M is 625. Plus, there's a ten percent service charge to cover the admin expenses."

The amount was staggering!  I could have easily got the job done for less than 125 rupees at Maharaja Hair Saloon next door. And Jitubhai knew my requirements well. He even extended credit in case I did not carry enough cash.

But Poonam kept up a brave face. Simply kept up the chatter. No comebacks.

Poonam: "Okay, let me take this to Papa. Could you please hold the slot for five minutes?"

LE: "I am afraid ma'am our appointments policy does not permit such reservations. But just for you, I will keep a five minute ‘window' open. We will pass on the slot if I don't hear from you after 5 minutes."

Poonam: "I guess there's no choice. Just in case I don't get through I will confirm it on SMS."

LE: "Bye ma'am. I await your confirmation."

Poonam: "Papa, it's 12.45 slot tomorrow with full haircut, full head massage and a special pedicure manicure. It will be 2k plus but that's not your worry."

Me: But why don't I just walk down to Maharaja and get haircut and a head massage and facial for just 125 rupees. And why do I need this pedicure manicure thing? I have my own tub.

But Poonam was made of sterner stuff. Commitment कर दी तो कर दी (no going back!)

Poonam: "No, no. No Maharaja Waharaja just this once. You need to experience L'Oréal, first rate international standard service in India. L'Oréal it will be irrespective of cost. We have just another three minutes to grab that slot."

My wife Tilak and son Gaurav got a ring side view of the proceedings. They wore bemused looks but kept mum. They were obviously enjoying the matinee.

But 5 year old Grandson Saksham could hardly to let this golden opportunity pass without a smart aleck comment.

He looked up from his Lego pieces and piped in ever so whisperly:

आज  तो  बाबाजी  पहली बार फँस ही गए !  मेरी mummy अब बाबाजी   को भेज कर ही मानेंगी! देख लेना (Today, Babaji is trapped. My mother will make sure he goes.)

Poonam: "Papa. I need a loud and clear YES. Commando style."

I gave it one more shot.

Me: "But how can you fit this afternoon slot in your office schedule?"

Poonam: "I will arrange Uber both ways. Door to door. "

One can't win against persistent, pestering and determined daughters-in-law. They seem to have an answer for all the speed breakers.

I threw in the towel.

And, triumphantly, Poonam grabbed the 12.45 slot with senior stylist Haribhai in attendance. And Uber too.

Sure enough, I entered the hallowed portals of international spa giant L'Oréal exactly at 12.40. The spa was everything that Poonam had promised. Shining. Gleaming. Chrome and glass. Coolly curtained. Perfumed. And silently air conditioned. Not even a hum. And no one was talking.

Monica greeted me warmly, and had me seated me in a deep cushioned sofa. She also handed over the latest issue of Vogue and disappeared.

Kim Kardashian was beaming down on me. I was kind of impressed.

As the minute hand touched 45, senior stylist Haribhai silently materialized by my side. He smiled benignly and escorted me to the street side swivel chair which could even swallow a Sumo fighter. And I weighed only 165 (pounds, you dumbos).

Clickety clack scissor and comb went just like they were ordained to. All smooth and all silently. Their scissors made no noise. Made out of special ‘quiet' steel. From Germany.

And the hair cut took all of seven minutes. Nice, but no great deal.

Then the head massage. No hands. Again used a silent humming device much like an Iron Press. The massage left me bemused. No चंपी! (Champayee!) No kneading by hands.

And the manicure pedicure took the cake. They just cut the nails finely. Filed and cleaned. And used a fine spray to make the hands glisten. Anything different from what we do at home? None, except for the bucks.

And they dipped my feet in the warm frothy water in a tub. Just like at home. And cleaned them with a fine muslin cloth. Muslin? Never mind.

And of course cut the toe nails. I felt rejuvenated. Had to. After all we had coughed up 650 for this.

Haribhai didn't utter a single word throughout the ‘procedure' but kept humming ‘when the girl in your arms is the girl ...' ever so silently. He was obviously enjoying the ‘bakra' show.

And so exactly after 25 minutes to the dot Monica ushered me out of the swanky shiny jasmine perfumed portals of L'Oréal. Without having exchanged a single word with anyone. Wow!

Silently I decided while getting into Uber.

That near ones are really the dear ones. 

Ciao! Till we meet again.

© Subhash Mathur 2017

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