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I have the fire...

Sayantan Ghosh | Updated on January 12, 2018

Illustration by: Partha Pratim Sharma

...and a hairdresser who knows to play with it. End result? A hair-raising experience

The first thing I notice as I enter Geeta Colony, this pocket in East Delhi, are the rows of brick-and-mortar houses without a single coat of paint. Is that why people add colour to their lives in other ways here? I refrain from asking the question — I need to keep my sanity intact for the assignment in hand. The lane next to Happy English School, where the taxi drops me, has a men’s salon every hundred yards. This is where all Bollywood aspirants who end up standing next to Farhan Akhtar with a cocktail glass in hand in a party scene must live, I tell myself. But I’m looking for a specific address, which, according to Google, is the famous ‘Enrich Unisex Salon’ of Geeta Colony. When I call the number, owner Wasim asks me to look for ‘N-rich’. “Oh, the E is silent, like Django,” I reply, but he had hung up by then.

N-rich Unisex Salon, ladies and gents, is the infamous house of the ‘fire haircut’ in Delhi. This is where hundreds of young men (and men only) flock every week for the hairdo of their dreams. Where Wasim, probably in his 30s, and his team of men rinse, chop and slice hair like every other salon, but then proceed to give it the desired shape by using — wait for it — a candle. Wasim has been in the business from the age of 12 or 13. The place is neatly structured with more modern equipment than I have seen in many salons in south Delhi, where I live. The ample space between each chair — five on either side of the room — is probably a way to ensure minimum damage from a fire. But such a thing hasn’t happened at N-rich, Wasim assures. “There’s a first time for everything,” I mutter.

My mane is placed in the hands of Parvez, the oldest, most trusted lieutenant in Wasim’s fire army. I instantly recall Parvez’s face from the videos I had watched before coming here. He was a bona fide superstar in all of them, setting someone’s hair on fire and then putting it out using nothing but a plastic comb with nonchalance. I smile at him as our eyes meet in the mirror but he remains stoic, and gets down to business. “ Barah saal ka tha main tab se kar raha hoon (I have been doing this work from the age of 12),” he tells me. Has it been more than 25 years, I enquire. Longer, he replies. There’s a hint of smile when I tell him that he doesn’t look his age.

It was his father, who ran a smaller salon in Mumbai, who taught Parvez to fashion hair with fire — to help young men fulfil the wish of looking like their favourite cine star or cricketer. “How did he come up with this idea?” I ask. “It’s to add volume,” Parvez explains. “When people asked him to hide their bald spots, he realised that he had to make the remaining hair look more voluminous.” Saying this Parvez lights a candle and runs it across my hair. For the first time in my life, I see smoke coming out of my hair. It isn’t the sight that hits me as much as the stench. Stench that took me back to Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, where I’d watched a stranger burn on the pyre. Here’s a pro tip: if you find yourself in a situation where you feel like a corpse, run. You may be dead inside, thanks to credit card bills, failed relationships or a receding hairline, but there’s no pizza once you’re really dead. I stay put at N-rich because of what my four years in Delhi have taught me — unbearable heat and foul odour are the least of our problems.

Depending on the nature of the beast, Parvez also applies a chemical to the hair before he singes it. Experience has taught Parvez to be able to tell a daredevil from someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown — and so he goes easy on me. My hair hisses in surprise, while the guy next to me, his face covered with a jelly-like substance, stares in awe. Parvez assures me that the fire doesn’t damage the hair, but I’m not betting on that, having seen the burnt ends later. Practice makes Parvez perfect but what about the risk in dealing with an element? Why do these men still take a chance? I ask him. “ Sabko achha dikhne ka hain (Everyone wants to look good),” says Parvez.

The limits to which people can go to look desirable according to social standards — social media standards, actually — is unfathomable. For the rich and famous, there’s botox and silicon. In Geeta Colony, Wasim and his band of merry men have a temporary but easy and inexpensive solution.

As I leave, Wasim, who is walking on a crutch after a bike accident, is preparing for a video shoot. He refuses to take money from me because he wants to get written about, but I insist on leaving at least ₹100. He knows the competition is stiff and staying in the news is key, but he looks calm and undeterred. He has learnt to play with fire.

Sayantan Ghosh is a Delhi-based writer

Published on June 02, 2017

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