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Billu was a sad man.

He couldn’t remember the last time when he had felt any feeling that remotely resembled happiness.

This was not the case when he was young and had an indomitable spirit. As a child, he used to spend his days at his school in Brijaharipur, enveloped in the warm cocoon of his dreams to be a movie star, or TV news anchor or a cricket commentator. He used to close his eyes, and dream of his bronzed face on every idiot box in the country, posters carrying his adonis-like profile on every wall of every chawl… he used to sit there, oblivious of his surroundings with a smile on his face, until the duster flew like Arjuna’s weapon through the air, having left the expert hands of his teacher Mishraji, and hit his arm like a hot knife, jolting him out of his reverie.

“Dreaming again Billu? You want to be a hero? A rockstar?” Mishraji crooned cruely. Bouts of evil laughter ensued from around the class – and there was poor Billu, embarassed and hurting as each laugh hit a blow harder than Mishraji’s duster ever could. But Mishraji was not done yet. He glided to Billu like Count Dracula with chalk fingers and oiled hair and said, “Billu… wake up. Your grandfather was a barber, your father was a barber and that’s what you will be. A barber. Nothing else. A class of people as lowly and useless as the hair which lies on the ground. Accept your fate!”

Something snapped within Billu that day. His eyes, which were normally lowered in shame, were shining with a conviction only seen in the eyes of soldiers heading out to certain death on the battlefield. As far as Billu was concerned – this was WAR.

That night, Billu packed his meagre belongings, left his mother a small note – promising he will be back to bring her to Mumbai once he was rich and famous – and ran away to the big city. He was happier than he had ever been. His chest was filled with intent, his walk was one of purpose. He knew in the deepest corner of his heart that he would make it…as he saw the distant skyline in the Mumbai haze, from his general compartment window.

(25 years later)

Billu wearily woke up from a sleep disturbed by dreams of being buried alive under tonnes of celebrity hair. He looked around his seedy musty confines. Was this the manifestation of his fate? Why had his dreams changed? He went to the wash basin and looked at the face of Adonis in ruins. Eyes were sunken and there were more lines criss-crossing his forehead than Dadar Junction. Why had this happened? He buried his head in his hands and his body shook with uncontrollable grief… Why? As he grabbed the basin for support – his hands touched the cold metallic hardness that was his fate. He took the pair of scissors, and flung it across the room in anger. The irony of his life was made abundantly clear when the blades  impaled an old tattered poster of his idol, Amitabh Bachchan, right between the eyes.

He gathered himself and put on his clothes, to begin yet another day as Billu the Hajaam. A title he despised. But not as much as he abhorred the english word describing his kin. Barber. For him that was as bad as Nigger or Harijan.

During those lonely nights in his younger days as a struggling spot boy in Mumbai, he used to read about greats such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela and how they opposed the suppression of minorities and fought against “the compartmentalization effect of popular terms used to describe social and vocational minorities”. He firmly believed that his kin would only be able to dig themselves out of the metaphorical hair-pit, if people would stop calling them things like Nai, Hajam or Barber.

As he was making his way to his little barber shop next to the dhobi ghat, trying to drown out the derogatory keratin-drenched remarks of the kirana-storewallahs and little children calling out “Barber barber, how much hair have you cut today” before hiding behind the sacks of wheat and rice – he saw glamorous posters of big stars and expensive movies. He looked at Shah Rukh Khan and smirked to himself, “with that face he could become so big… where is the fairness?” Then he saw what was written above Shah Rukh’s face…and his heart stopped.

Billu Barber.

This was like Mishraji destroying his dreams all over again – this time hidden behind the plasticky nicotine-stained face of Shah Rukh Khan. As had happened 25 years ago – something snapped within Billu once again. He dropped his jhola to the ground and he ran faster than he ever had, to the headquarters of the “Barbers Against Regenerating Follicles” (BARF) – a foundation formed to protect the interests of all Hair Care Professionals – as the Barbers preferred to be called.

He stormed into the offices, gathered all the BARF members and appealed to them, to put a stop to this explicit usage of the derogatory term “Barber” which would forever relegate his community to a hairy future. They decided to lodge an official complaint against SRK – who was producing the movie – on the grounds that Barber was a derogatory reference to the decent, honest, hardworking people in the field of hair trimming and shaping. It was like calling Anjali Sharma a “Fat-Worker” or Manish Sharma a “Tailor”.

This hit SRK like a piano falling from the 19th floor. This was the last thing he expected…and realized that this could actually result in all barbers and their loyal customers boycotting his movie. He looked at the options presented by BARF – “Billu Hair Care Professional”, “Billu Kerato-practor”, “Billu Follicle Services”… and his heart sank.This would certainly spell doom for his movie.

Billu on the other hand, finally felt as if God had given him a chance of retribution. After all those crushed dreams, decimated desires – finally the word of Billu would prevail – and he would make the greedy dishonest folks in Bollywood (sorry…Indian Film Industry) bow to him. He could finally return to Brijaharipur with his head held high… Billu felt a long forgotten feeling again. Happiness.

Sure enough, the producers deliberated on the film’s title for hours and days – and finally decided to drop any reference to Billu’s lot… and decided to call the movie just Billu.

Billu was an instant hero. He was hoisted up by a cheering crowd of hair care professionals. He had risen from a position of weakness and decided to split hairs with the rich and powerful…and he had won. This was a great day not only for all Barbers around the world – but all those minorities who hated every moment of their existence. Billu’s hair-raising tale will be told by mothers to their future-barber-sons for many generations.

TOI Article which inspired Billu’s tale.

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