When Nikhil was barely 10, his father would take him to his hair-cutting saloon in Narsingdi. He used to stand on a stool to compensate for his height, and lather the face of customers his father would shave. In the tradition of the Hindu Shil caste, Nikhil's father taught him the skills of haircutting and shaving from his early years. As he grew older, Nikhil became a skilled barber in his home village. Then in the eighties, he moved to Sylhet to find better fortune in haircutting.
"I got a good job at a saloon located below a big hotel in Sylhet city," Nikhil tells me. "I was happy with the job because I was seeing big money there. People coming from London stayed there and they paid handsomely for my services."
Nikhil was sharing his life-story at a city saloon the other day while slowly cutting my hair, "but it was not before I came across film hero Jashim that my entire perspective of the future changed."
Late action hero Jashim, according to Nikhil, came to Sylhet for a film shoot along with other Bangla film stars in the mid-nineties. He was staying at the hotel above the saloon and came for a haircut with Nikhil.
"I gave him a bouncy haircut. He liked it so much that he gave me 100 takas instead of my fee of 10. And then he came regularly for a shave and hair trimming during his stay. At the end, he asked me why I was wasting my time in Sylhet— and why not move to Dhaka?" Nikhil says.
I thought I was making big money in Sylhet. But Jashim insisted that there was better money in Dhaka for a skilled barber like me.
So I came to Dhaka and found a job in a saloon in Banani. And I was pleasantly surprised by the tips I got! My both pockets would be full by every evening.
"Eight months into my job in Dhaka—I suddenly saw the news on TV that hero Jashim had passed away due to heart failure. I was so sad that I stopped working and went home for that day."
Life went on for Nikhil. His family lived in a village and he stayed in Dhaka's outskirts. "During the 1998 floods, my room was under water. I had no place to sleep. So I climbed up a shade of a building along with a colleague. One time, deep in the night, I fell into the flood water when I turned over in my sleep. My night was destroyed."
Nikhil moved from job to job — from Gulshan to Uttara. He worked at elite saloons and made good money, compared to most barbers.
But then came Covid in 2020. His saloon in Uttara closed and he went to his Narsingdi home.
"I have a small house and a small piece of land. I have two sons and my wife recently developed hypertension and diabetes. I have to buy her medicines and they are not cheap for me," he said. He lived off of his savings and then turned to selling vegetables to make some money.
As Nikhil ran out of money, he returned to Dhaka as soon as the government relaxed the lockdown last year. The saloons were still closed—but Nikhil had a pool of old clients. He would call them up to see if anyone needed his service. For instance, I told him he could come over to my place and give me a haircut. He came to my rooftop and gave me haircuts a few times last year.
Then gradually the saloons reopened and Nikhil resumed working there. "My income is no longer like what it used to be," he said.
"But lo and behold, this time, my youngest son did well in a job test and interview with a Narsingdi college. I was home, so I talked to senior people at that college. One of the persons whom I could trust asked me for 10 lakh taka. I bargained and we struck a deal for six lakh."
But that does not really bug Nikhil—as he is hopeful, someday things will get better. What eats at Nikhil more is how life is so cruel to poor people like him.
Though a Shil by caste, Nikhil never wanted his sons to become barbers. So he educated both his sons. Both have graduated from Narsingdi and both have been trying to secure a job—one in math and the other in commerce. His elder son made his living by tutoring college kids. However due to Covid-19, tutoring remains suspended. The youngest son just tried out for jobs.
"They were good students. They have appeared in several job tests. They did well but they never got the job," Nikhil says.
Sighing, he says,"they all ask for bribes. Big bribes. I am a poor man. All I have is a small house and a few decimals of land in my village. I don't have much savings, plus I need several thousand taka worth of drugs for my wife's diabetes and cholesterol problems. Where do I get such amounts of money? And if I do, what's the guarantee that my sons will actually get a job?"
Then he smiled, "but lo and behold, this time, my youngest son did well in a job test and interview with a Narsingdi college. I was home, so I talked to senior people at that college. One of the persons whom I could trust asked me for 10 lakh taka. I bargained and we struck a deal for six lakh."
Then Nikhil sold six decimal of land adjacent to his house and took a loan of Tk 1.5 lakh. With that, he paid the interview board of the college. "The good news is, finally, my son has a job. It's not paying much—just Tk 19,000," Nikhil says.
"But isn't that too meagre?" I asked, "I mean, how long will it take for your son to cover the cost of the bribe?"
"I don't know," Nikhil said, "but he is on track. It's a government job. I don't want him to have my style of uncertain life. I can die peacefully knowing that he is better off."