By Shoaib Hashmi

Those were more leisurely times, and more civilized. When you needed him, this man from the neighborhood would come round lugging, in one hand, a small black 'dhaichee case' full of the tools of his trade, and in the other, a little brazier; which was not what you think because it's spelt differently, and it was a little stove, with a few live embers in the bottom, and a tin mug for heating water.
You'd take your chair in the garden, or backyard, or the roof, and prop a mirror in front and he'd open his case and give you a haircut, or shave, or whatever. While he trimmed your hair he'd yak away giving you all the neighborhood gossip for the month -- who had married, divorced, fathered, died or was carrying on. Only it wasn't intended to be gossip, only idle chat the purpose of which was to keep you 'uff-to-date', or perhaps some deep comment on world affairs, 'Roos tau toos udda day ga'!
If you wanted a shave, you got your face lathered with a brush of horse-tail hair a yard long, so you never knew how he worked up a foam but he did. Then you got shaved with an old fashioned 'ustra' a razor, stropped on a strip of leather and then applied to the cheek. I seem to remember that there was a special satisfaction in the sound of the razor slicing through your whiskers, which a safety razor cannot match. Ghalib waxed lyrical about the 'sareer-e-khama', so why should I be bashful about the 'sareer-e-ustra'!
Then the man rummaged around in his box and fished out a chunk of what looked like rock salt, but wasn't, it was clearer and without the pink tinge in salt, and it was alum, which is the sissy English word for 'phatkaree'. It was this magical substance which he rubbed over the shaven area, and it stung like mad, and it was astringent. If you were a kid watching a grown-up being shaved, it looked like the ultimate ha-man thing, and you sneaked it and rubbed it on your face, and nothing happened; so you licked it, and it was vaguely sour, and you licked some more - and got sick!
It was a common substance once, and I suppose outside the areas of the Brut brigade, it still is. The interesting thing about it was that sometimes, to put in a tooth powder, they put it on a hot plate, a 'tava', and it turned soft, then melted and bubbled a bit, then turned into flaky white foam - and this was called 'phatkaree-phull'!
That literally means 'the flower of the phatkaree', but if you roll the word over your tongue a few times, your senses will tell you that it is too delicious a sound to waste on anything so mundane - and so we put it to better use. If someone came a cropper and got it in the neck, and deservedly, we said his 'phatkaree had been phulled' - 'phatkaree phull ho gayee'!
There is something about someone getting a well-merited come-uppance which neatly suppresses all the magnanimity and niceness, and nudges the meanness to describe it in a telling phrase. The other thing for it in general use for the purpose was 'peen-poon bol jaana'! The word may have been taken from the two-tone siren of the French Gendarmerie, or ambulances in Hollywood movies, but the intention was in the sound of it.
Another phrase which came into use at least for a time was 'bakree baith jaana', as also its English equivalent, 'his goat has sat'! It has not much to do with the image of a sitting goat, though that would have done, but the effect probably comes merely from the use of the word 'goat'. Just as the older, and time honored phrase was 'daanay bik jaana'. That refers to having sold one's grain at the time of harvest, and so is really a description of success; but in Punjabi we turned it into 'chholay vik jaana' whose sound does it all. Of course there are more graphic and telling phrases for it, but I am sure you have already looked them up in the Urdu dictionary. Ha!


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.