Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Gillette’s miracle razors, ‘nais’ and the Ottoman Sultan

Every so often, Gillette releases a new razor with a 'new, improved' blade. The Sensor and the Sensor Excel are passé – it's the Mach 3 and other 'supersonic' blades which are now in vogue.
These sophisticated razors can shave against the grain, sideways, up, down and any way which takes your fancy. Shave while doing handstands or one handed push ups, it's all good, the Mach range can handle it.
Like many, I enjoy a close shave. It makes me feel brand new!

Hence, I revel in the technological breakthroughs made by Gillette's hard working research scientists. Five blades make a nice change from the disposable blades used by screw-top razors – you know the type of razors sold today by shops with fancy English names and the quaint smell of aristocracy!
For me, the old fashioned razors coupled with shaving cream squeezed from toothpaste like tube made it impossible to shave without nicking myself almost daily.
My ability to grow a beard or moustache is just one more feature which makes me a 'fake' minority Singaporean. Chinese men can typically only grow one, maybe two, beards during a lifetime of not shaving. (By unusual coincidence, the majority of Chinese tend to have an aversion to facial hair.)
Me, I could become a contemporary version of Captain Caveman if I skip my daily shave for a few weeks. What's worse is that my facial hair is almost entirely white – not even salt and pepper but white!
White hair aside, all the advancements in shaving techniques and technology make me yearn for the good old fashioned Pakistani street side barber or nai! (Surely, there must be a Gillette sponsored university campus somewhere handing out degrees on the art and science of shaving for aspiring nais?!)
In the mid-1990s, I spent a couple of weeks with a friend in the central Pakistani city of Bahawalpur. Like many second tier Pakistani cities, Bahawalpur seemed frozen in a wonderful time warp.
The Darbar Mahal, a former palace of the Nawabs of Bahawalpur

For me, the best part of Bahawalpur was not visiting the former Nawab's White Palace or travelling to various shrines in the City of Saints (nearby Multan) but my vacation from shaving.
Shaving became the barber's job, not mine. Every day, the nai set up a chair on the porch and yours truly felt like a right Nawab himself while he ruthlessly dealt with my facial hair!
Ask me how traditional barbers get such a close shave without even a tiny cut and I plead ignorance. Maybe it has something to do with that Gillette University certification the Bahawalpuri nais are obligated to receiving before establishing their practice? Or just maybe it has to do with the distinction of being one of the few humans permitted to use a razor near a stranger's neck without any repercussions?
For good reason, the barber has a special place in the erstwhile Turkish Ottoman Sultan's entourage: the barber was the only person allowed to use a blade on the Ottoman rulers face without losing his own head in the process.

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