Guyana Stories: On Visiting Gunga Din’s Barbershop in Late 1940’s – By Maurice St. Pierre

Guyana Stories: On Visiting Gunga Din’s Barbershop in Late 1940’s

– By Maurice St. Pierre

Because his hair grew quickly, Mitch went to Gunga Din’s barber shop almost bi-weekly, where as a l’il boy he was treated as a nonexistent entity by the adult males present, some of whom never appeared to be gainfully employed, and who never got haircuts. There was, for example, Bill the “philosopher” who always kept his hat on and who spent a great deal of time pontificating on the nature of colonialism and about life in England although he had never visited the Mother Country.         

Then there was Lenny, who stammered so badly that sometimes Mitch had difficulty understanding what he was saying. Lenny, who, seemingly, was good friends with the Governor’s chauffeur provided much pertinent information about life at Government House. Thus, Mitch learned that the Governor had a fondness for rum, and that his Colonial Secretary, who also liked the substance, on one occasion had rested the hat of a visiting dignitary on the floor during a function, instead of holding it in his hand, much to the dismay of the Governor. Mitch also learned that on another occasion, the Governor had peed (urinated) in a jardinière, an act for which his Orderly was forced to take responsibility.

As an “unofficial” selector of the colony’s cricket team, Lenny also explained which players should be picked or not picked, and why the captain was always a “local white” or almost “white man”. Who was the best batsman, the mixed-race mercurial Robert Christiani, or the local “white boy”, Leslie Wight? Why the colony’s best swing bowler was a Black man, Berkeley Gaskin. Why cricket clubs were racially segregated and inter-colonial matches always took place at the “white people” club, the Georgetown Cricket Club, informed the conversation led by Lenny. Mitch’s knowledge of cricket and politics would also benefit from listening to the mostly male members of the “street corner” society, known as “limers”.

However, invariably, when Mitch thought that it was his turn to have his hair cut, and he got up from a bench or approached Gunga Din for that purpose, Gunga Din would say “sit down you’s a small boy this man got to go to work”, pointing to some male who had arrived sometime after Mitch. Then after what seemed like an eternity and all the men had departed, presumably to go work, Gunga Din would summon Mitch to the barber’s chair with the words “come here boy,” for the purpose of cutting his hair.

This would almost always be about half an hour or one hour after his shop was lawfully supposed to be closed. Gunga Din would then take a razor and a comb and give Mitch what was called a “round the world” haircut, put a part in what hair was left with the razor, and send Mitch on his way. The whole exercise would last for about 5 minutes, but the razor bumps that attended this “surgical” procedure, would be for a much longer period.

However, disenchanted with Gunga Din’s clear violation of the “customer is always right” norm, Mitch resolved to give Gunga Din clear instructions regarding his haircut, on one occasion. Initially, Gunga Din said nothing. Instead, he looked at Mitch like a man about to commit a long-premeditated act of violence, in response to this apparent violation of the unspoken cultural norm that treated the “small boy” as “other”. Quietly, almost inaudibly, he said, “You have to bring a note from your mother”, to which Mitch responded, “But it is my head, therefore I should determine how I want my hair to be cut”, moreover “please be careful not to cut the wart on my head”.

Gunga Din did not respond, verbally. Instead, he went to the thick leather strap he kept for the purpose of sharpening his razor. “Swish”, “swish”, as the razor moved up and down the strap, seemed to be only the sound that interrupted the deafening silence that engulfed the barber shop. Had he overplayed his hand; Mitch pondered silently. Indeed, he had read in the newspapers, that one did not aggravate a man with a long-handled razor. There was blood, not much blood. But for Mitch, it really didn’t matter. The die was irrevocably cast. He would have to stop going to Gunga Din for his haircut, a decision that he never regretted.

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