The Moustache Man

He had the largest collection of moustaches that I had ever seen.

India in the early forties had a lot of street hawkers and vendors roaming around selling their goods & services to locals in Delhi. They even had patrons in specific localities who would be regular clients. Those who were lucky to find a patron in a posh locality were looked upon with high respect amongst their counterparts. He was one such vendor. In a time when the word – portfolio was even unheard of he carried a fascinating display of moustaches for sale.

It was not the moustaches which were actually for sale; it was the style that he sold. He could shape moustaches into any style the client desired and there was a large range to choose from. My Grandfather – a rich land lord turned business man was his patron. In six years of my little life I had seen the moustache man come in every Sunday to shape Grandfather’s moustache. No one else was allowed to touch it. He was not merely a barber. He was a Moustache Specialist and everyone called him Moochwala[1].

I was always amused and curious about the moustaches that hung on his large white board. Some were stuck directly into the board and some were meticulously tied to flat vegetable graters used in kitchen. The moustaches on display were made of hair but different in colours. Some were black, some were brown and some even had a salt & peppery tinge to them. But each moustache was unique. So was Moochwala.

One Sunday while he was working on Grandfather’s moustache I found his display board carefully placed against the wall. With no one watching I couldn’t stop myself from prying into his stuff. I started by counting (which I had recently learnt) the number of moustaches stuck on the board. I had barely reached fifteen when I heard a gruffly voice behind me, “Little boys are not supposed to have moustaches.” I turned around to find the rugged moustache man standing behind me. My first glance fell on his large hand in which he held the ustura[2] . I ran for my life. He did not follow me, but I could hear a ferocious laugh echoing along the passage of my Grandfather’s haveli[3].

I did not move much around the house when he came next but soon my curiosity took over my fear and I landed up in front of his board. This time I had counted till eighteen when a huge hand dropped on my shoulder and held me. I froze.

“Do you want a moustache for yourself, Master?” asked Moochwala

Gathering all the little courage I had; I turned around and asked, “What do you have for me?”

“What will you prefer?” he asked. Even though his smile was hidden by a big moustache, his eyes lit up. He had the kindest eyes I had ever seen and my fear vanished. He squatted on the floor next to where I stood.

“Have you counted the number of moustaches I have?” he asked.

“Yes!” I exclaimed, vigorously nodding my head.

“And how many are they?” he asked in a very gentle tone.

“Hundred,” I announced the highest number I knew.

He laughed his ferocious laugh but this time I laughed along. “Did you like any from moustaches that you counted?”

I shrugged and denied. “Would you like to take a look at them and decide something for yourself, Master?” he asked.

“Yes!” I exclaimed and started looking up close at the moustaches. I was amazed at their variety. I stuck out my hand to touch but held back in case he might scold me. And to my utter surprise he said, “Go ahead, touch them, each one is made from different kind of hair.”

“That one,” I pointed an orange brown bushy moustache. “That my dear is made from fox hair.”

I was delighted and pointed to another rough brown one. “That is made from bear’s hair.”

“Was it a big bear?” I asked.

“Yes a very big one.” he replied.

I was awed. He smiled and ruffled my hair. “Do you like the bear moustache?” he asked. .

“No, I need to look at some more before I decide.” I replied.

“Alright then why don’t you see the rest next week when I come? I have to go to another patron’s house.” I nodded in agreement and ran inside the house. I could still hear his laughter down the passage till the end of the hall. I was no more afraid. I liked its loudness; it was infectious.

The next time I heard his call, I ran to the gate. “Moustaches … the best kind of moustaches; get the perfect moustache for your face.” he called out loud.  He knew his customers would be waiting for him yet he never walked into any house without being called. Even Grandfather used to send a manservant to bring him. Such was his demeanor that no one was offended by this attitude. Even the rich respected his skill. That day I reached the gate before the manservant and called him in.

“But your Grandfather has not called me in, Master.” he hesitated as I invited him inside.

“I am inviting you to serve me.” I replied, imitating my Grandfather. Even before he could reply, my grandfather’s manservant came running to the gate. “Moochwala, please come in. Lala[4]ji wants you to serve him.” With great pride and like a true professional, Moochwala entered. I followed him to the open compound where Grandfather was seated on his arm chair. Moochwala greeted him with folded hands

“Lalaji, if you don’t mind, can I first serve my new patron today?” he asked politely.

Grandfather was not used to being served second anywhere. But keeping his ego intact he asked, “Who would that be, Moochwala?”

Moochwala looked at me and smiled as he replied, “Little Master is my new patron, Lalaji. He gives to me the promise of a budding business in future.”

Grandfather was amused. He held out his hands to put me on his lap. He gave my face a thorough look and roared, “You are right Moochwala. Our young prince is coming of age. Soon we will have to look for a bride for him. Ensure that he has the best moustache in town.” Everyone started laughing, but I was not amused. I did not like girls. They played with dolls and cried if you broke one. I jumped off my Grandfather’s lap, turned to Moochwala and commanded, “Moochwala I am going to see other moustaches, come out when your work with Grandfather is done.” I ran out of the court yard to the verandah where his display board was placed carefully against the pillar. It seemed a little lower in height. The long staff to which the display board was attached had been cut shorter. I smiled; I could look at more moustaches now. I counted the moustaches once again, “19, 20, 21 …. 20, 21…,” I was stuck again. Leaving the count I started closely looking at the moustaches when Moochwala arrived.

“Have you decided which moustache you want?” he asked.

“No,” I replied, “First you tell me about this one.” I pointed to a nice curvy moustache, shiny black in colour.

“Oh! You have a good taste, my Master. This black one is made from the hair of a beautiful lady in Delhi. She was kind enough to donate me some of her hair.” he replied.

“So the fox & the bear also donated their hair?” I enquired.

He laughed his echoing laugh and replied, “Of course not my Master! For every other moustache I had to struggle. The fox was hiding in the bushes outside my cousin’s house when I caught her. I held her by the neck and pulled out the hair off its tail. And the bear, I had a long wrestle with it when it came across my way as I was walking in the woods. I finally managed to free myself from his grip but not before pulling a few hair of his back.”

I looked towards him in awe then I towards his collection. On the top of the board there was a shiny golden moustache that stood out from the rest. “Is that from a deer?” I asked.

“No little Master, Deer are too gentle animals. And not very hairy ones for that matter.” he replied.

I pondered for a minute and guessed, “Then it must be from the Golden Langur.”

“Where did you get that idea from?” he smirked.

“I have seen the Golden Langurs[5] when I went to Assam with Grandfather. They used come and eat fruits at the orchards near our guest house.”

“I am a poor man my master, I have not been that far, but I have been to the forests outside the city with a lot of animals. Did you know there are leopards on the prowl also? I plan to make one moustache from leopard’s hair.”

“Don’t Moochwala, leopards are dangerous.” I remarked anxiously. He was my friend and I did not want him in any danger. He smiled.

“So tell me whose hair is this?” I asked trying to keep the leopard out of our conversation.

“This one is special. I made from the hair of an English man who challenged me for a duel. He could not walk straight after our wrestling match ever again.” replied Moochwala with pride in his eyes.

“Grandfather says, all those openly fighting the English are getting arrested.” I remarked anxious about the safety of my friend. .

“Well it was an open fight but in this case the Englishman had challenged me so nothing really happened.” said Moochwala, “But yes, he may someday try to get even with me. If he challenges me for another duel, I am sure he will keep his hair covered.” he said and we laughed out loud.

Moochwala came every Sunday but now he did not enter at the behest of the man servant; he entered at my command. I believe I was his favourite patron.

Few months later, a British Officer along with some soldiers was on round. There had been some unrest in the area against the British Government. My Grandfather being one of the rich and powerful was always looked up for help by the administration. The local people listened to him.

The officer came to visit Grandfather as well as take his advice on the situation.

“Lalaji, I will have to arrest someone. Who am I to deny that the time has come for us to return to England? But till we are here; we can’t let the British administration look like a mute spectator to this fool hardiness.” said the officer I was sitting on my Grandfather’s lap, playing with his fingers.

“They are just a couple of teenage boys, Sir. Your arrest may actually cause a furore.” said Grandfather calmly.

To my utter dismay Moochwala turned up at that very moment. Grandfather invited the British Officer to try out Moochwala’s services and he agreed.

The British Officer too was intrigued by Moochwala’s collection of moustaches. Moochwala worked on the English man’s moustache it turned out perfect. The officer was please. But before Moochwala could start working on Grandfather’s moustache, the officer squeezed his eyes as if trying to recall something and asked, “Aren’t you the man who fought the duel?”

Moochwala nodded.

“Why did he do that? He should have denied. Now the officer will arrest him.” I thought. I looked towards Grandfather; he also seemed to be worried about the course of the conversation. But before Grandfather could say anything, the officer asked, “Where did you get this golden moustache which you have so decoratively placed?” It seemed he knew the answer already.

There was a moment of silence. And before anybody spoke up, I exclaimed, “Moochwala made it from Leopard’s hair!”

The officer looked at me. I stared back as if to challenge him; but his stern face broke out a smile.

“You have a great man in making here, Lalaji” said the officer as he rose to leave. Grandfather smiled, Moochwala looked grateful and I was relieved.


I am eighteen years now. India is Independent and so is Moochwala. His display board has changed and so have the moustache styles, but one moustache still remains at its special place – the Shiny Golden English Moustache.

Footnotes

[1] Mooch means Moustache in Hindi and Moochwala means Moustache Man

[2] Razor blade used by barbers to shape moustaches and beards

[3] Big Bungalow or palatial house

[4] title for a Rich Business Man or Landlord

[5] An Old World monkey found in a small region of Assam, India and in the neighboring foothills of Bhutan. It is one of the most endangered primate species of India.

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