The Barbers of Tirupathi: Nov. 24th
This week, I have been having lots of experiences in what Ravi calls the "Barbers of Tirupathi". A little explanation is in order — Tirupathi is a very large temple in a city located about 6 to 8 hours drive northeast of Bangalore. It is a shrine dedicated to Sri-Venkateswaram, the main god in these parts. An excerpt from Geoffrey Moorehouse’s book "Om" eloquently describes it
"The largest building in sight, an unlovely concrete block several stories high, contributed substantially to the temple’s income. A long and trilingual banner hanging from one of its balconies proclaimed its function: Place of Surrendering Human Hair to Lord Venkateswari Swami. People were queuing to enter: shaggy men with unkempt growths on heads and jaws, beautiful women whose long black tresses glowed with health and an electric blue sheen, sinewy old crones with lifeless gray hanks that hung dully down their backs, children whose dark mops had only just reached maturity, young fellows whose virility had been self-consciously displayed for years in fashionable styles and cuts which imitated their cinema and other pop idols. Awaiting them on the balconies and in rooms within were the Barbers of Tirupathi who would remove every last follicle in the Lord’s name. It wasn’t at all clear to me what virtue the pilgrim gained by being scalped, but the hirsute pilgrims patiently shuffled forward to submit themselves to scissors and the cut-throat razor, and they happily emerged some time later with heads that glowed like mushrooms in their pallor and their nakedness. Some of the newly shaven had smothered their baldness in turmeric paste, which made them look as if they were being treated with pungent medication for a skin disorder. By no means all the pilgrims that day had surrendered themselves to sacramental depilation: but so many of them had that, striding on towards the temple, surrounded by hundreds of these zealots, was strangely like walking through a film set with a tremendous cast of extras playing cranial sci-fi aliens."
In India, it is more common to get something made to order, than it is to buy it off the shelf. Labor being as cheap as it is, and the distribution system being so slow, generally you get a thing made instead of buying from a catalog and having it sent. So say you want a desk for your computer. You find a carpenter who quite willingly agrees to do it for 150 percent of what he would charge a native. Then he gets ten percent of the desk done, and moves on to the next job to get its ten percent done. What are you going to do — you’re already committed. You wait. A Tirupathi barber, rather than lose 4 customers, while working on 1 customer, will take all 5 customers, line them up in 5 chairs, and proceed to work on each of them twenty percent at a time. The building trade, as I am quickly discovering, has developed this practice into an economic art form. In order to keep our sales and marketing facility construction moving along smoothly, I have asked our "general contractor/architect" to be here every week, instead of every other week. In return, he gets full airfare, hotel fare, and daily fare. Today I find out that he actually only stays on my job 2 hours a day, and uses the rest of the day to work on other customers. I’m learning. I just got scalped by a Barber of Tirupathi.