Monday, March 31, 2008


For my first shave, like that of practically every man who was born, I used my father’s razor. ‘Stealthily’, I must add, to set the records straight. Actually, were I not mortified by its looks, my grandfather’s razor would have been my tool. The business end of the thing looked menacing, but it was the most basic of implements: three inch-long gleaming steel with a dark grey-and-tan handle made of buffalo’s horn. He would sharpen it by rubbing it against a small grey slab of slate, a drop of water smoothening the movement.

My father, having been exposed to the city, used a safety razor. Unlike my grandfather’s lethal weapon which daunted me, this one inspired courage because its cutting edges were both nearly masked. The all-metal, double-edged blade needed to be changed once a week. But, in my father’s view, the blade was meant to last for e-v-e-r. When it lost its edge, he would sharpen it by rubbing it along the inner face of a glass tumbler, lubricated by a drop of water.

One of my first purchases from my salary was a safety razor made of gleaming metal and a clean sharp blade. It had doors on the top and the handle had a knob that needed to be rotated gently to open the doors on the top. It was one of the most advanced contraptions that I had handled till then. The replacement cost of the blade was nominal, probably much less than a rupee.

Then Wiltech ushered in a revolution of sorts: it came forth with a model with just one cutting edge. The apparatus was light and you had to buy a cassette containing five blades. When the handle was slid into the cassette, a blade would get engaged to it – and, hey presto, it was at your service. The cassette cost a fiver, I guess.

Gillette entered my life with its spring-loaded blades that claimed to retract if the blade came into contact with the facial skin rather than the hair. This was a quantum jump in comfort as well as price. I think the blades cost Rs 10 each. I used to feel so guilty at this extravagance.A few years passed and, sure enough, Gillette introduced the Sensor Excel, which had two blades. More comfort, more money, more guilt. Possibly Rs 25 apiece. I bought this hi-tech product, was extremely satisfied with it, and thought that I had found my life partner. Once you used a Sensor Excel, there was no going back to cheaper stuff. You stayed wedded for life.

I had to eat my hat soon, as Gillette, the serpent, dangled the apple in the garden again. In the form of Mach 3 that exploded on the scene. It was the first 3-blade razor and was the ultimate in shaving comfort. It required fewer strokes as it gently caressed the face. I tried to resist the temptation to buy one, but succumbed to the marketing blitzkrieg of Gillette.

I found the trade-off, between a Rs 100 note and mornings of pure delight, to my advantage. I have squirmed in remorse everytime I bought them. But, not once in the last 4 years, have I been disloyal to Mach 3.

Famous last words they turned out to be. The new Gillette Fusion has – has hold your breath - 5 blades. Gillette says that “the combination of adding more blades and narrowing the inter-blade span creates a ‘Shaving Surface’ that distributes the shaving force across the blades, resulting in significantly less irritation and more comfort”. A friend tells me they even have a battery-powered model which has a vibrating head that will make the hair stand up and be slaughtered. And the price, a whopping Rs 300/- for a blade.I have been eyeing this beauty at Spencers’ for quite some time. I know that sooner or later I am going to buckle under the strain and buy one, I can see it standing there, staring at me, egging me to give it a try, daring me to move on … …

In a few years, I am afraid, Gillette will introduce the ultimate version of the shaving razor. A model with thousands of micromotion blades that will be guided by laser. Each micro-blade will seek out individual facial hair and destroy it without a trace. It will have a micro-chip loaded with a thousand mp3 files and can sense the mood of the face’s owner and play the appropriate music. It will sprinkle after-shave lotion on its reverse stroke.

And, all these features will come at a price of Rs 10,000 a blade. I will spend 10 minutes every day shaving my face with this masterpiece of a razor and the remaining 23 hours 50 minutes, slogging my butt out to earn the money to pay for the blades, in a deadly vicious spiral that will last for eternity … …

My management-educated son says there is something called the ‘razor and blade business model’ where the marketers sell an initial ‘master’ product or the hardware (the razor-handle in this case) at a subsidised price (even at a loss) and make their profit on the high margin consumables (blades in this case) without which the master is useless. Am I going to succumb to the strategy? I can’t tell.


The pre-Independence era. ‘British Malabar’ was part of Madras Presidency. A Legislative Council was formed by the government representing different segments of the ‘subjects’. My uncle K was elected by the landed gentry to represent them and protect their interests. He was on the right side of 40 then.

K’s life had an interesting twist. He was studying medicine at Madras Medical College. When he was his 2nd year, his uncle who was looking after the affairs of the affluent matriarchal family died of snakebite. This put an abrupt end to his education because there was no other male member to control the vast estate and huge assets. He was all of 21 when he ascended to the position of ‘Karanavar’.

Having been exposed to urban life unlike his predecessors who had lived all along in villages, K thought differently. He joined the Indian National Congress and involved himself in the independence movement. He constructed a small building close to the market to house a reading room and library. A dispensary was opened with a compounder in attendance who could handle minor indispositions; a doctor would attend the clinic twice a week.

He took pains to upgrade the primary school set up by his ancestors to upper primary and then high school levels. All this was achieved through efficient management of the estate and assets of the family and by deploying the surplus wisely. He toned up the collection of arrears of rent and other receivables and this alone was enough to meet these expenses.

He was benevolent and humane. He would walk distances rather than be carried in palanquins. He had to walk to the nearest railway station in Cannanore to catch the trains to places like Kozhikode, Payyannur and Palghat to meet leaders like K P Kesava Menon, K Madhavanar, Kunhikanna Poduval, et al and to attend meetings. The number of such trips increased when he became an MLC.

As he found the long walk of twelve miles in the hot sun or in the rainy season taxing, he bought a car. In those days, that was one of the few dozen cars in the whole of North Malabar. The bus operator who plied the only bus in Cannanore-Tellicherry route lost his driver Kannan when K poached him offering handsome incentives.

Though it was his private car, K would not hesitate offer lift to passers by. Only, they were not allowed inside the car: they were to stand on the footboard of the 1942 Chevy. Though exposed to the elements, they did not at least have to trudge the distance and saved considerable time.

It was the month of July. Monsoon had unleashed its fury and for two days, there had been no let-up in the rain. The car was on its way back from Cannanore after picking up K who had arrived from Madras after a session of the Legislative Council. The country road was slushy and it was pouring.

On the way, they saw a figure walking in the rain. A basket covered by banana leaves to protect the contents from the rain rested on his head. As they neared him, they identified him as Kumaran, soaked to the skin, obviously on his way back from the town.

Kannan, aware of the boss’ habit of offering lift to pedestrians, enquired, “That is Kumaran on his way home. Shall I offer him a lift?”

“Well, Kumaran? he hasn’t kept his promise of clearing the arrears before this monsoon,” observed K.

“In that case, shall I splash some mud on him?” was the instant response of Kannan. It won’t ever be said that he does not have presence of mind.

Oranges, Anyone?

As was the custom those days, my grandfather moved into his bride’s matriarchal household near Cannanore when they got married. He was used to hard work, physical labour and a tough life. By contrast, the men in her family, traditionally the landed gentry, were not used to physical work; they only supervised the farm-related activities.

For the young man newly inducted into the affluent joint family, this was traumatic. He had time on his hands, a lot of it, and nothing to do. Control of the farm labour was the portfolio of the men of the family, and the sons-in-law were not to be burdened with such responsibilities.

The forenoon’s schedule began with an early morning bath and a visit to the temple followed by a hearty breakfast. After that, there was precious little to be done. He had to be generally busy, doing nothing during the daytime. Couples were allowed each other’s company only after dinner.

Grandpa was not alone in this predicament. There were other such young men married into the family. They would engage themselves in pastimes like jokes, gossip, aksharashlokam (a precursor of the present day Antakshari), siesta and such other harmless activities.

But how long can you put an enterprising young man down, tying him down to an epicurean life? He was raring to go. And he did. He bought himself a second hand truck (A Buick, a Chevrolet or a Leyland, I do not recall) and learnt how to drive it.

Grandpa would buy coconuts from the village and sell them in Mysore, a couple of hundred kilometres east. Early mornings on Fridays, he would set off on his truck, with Kittan, his Jeeves, for company. After the sale, he would buy oranges from the wholesale market the next day, bring them to coastal Cannanore and sell them there. It made sound economic sense.

This went on for long. During one of those trips in an October, the orange-laden truck developed some trouble. He tried to move ahead. It went on for a couple of kilometres but the engine stalled.

It was nearing noon. There were no workshops nearby. Did I say this was in the early 1930’s? Someone told grandpa help would be available only at Virajpet in the west or Nanjangud in the east. The former, another informed, was ill-equipped and it may be better to engage the Nanjangud mechanic. As there were no telephones, the only way was to go and fetch him. So Kittan was assigned the task of fetching the repairman with his equipments.

Kittan hopped on to a truck going Mysore-wards. After six long hours, he returned in another, alone. When he reached Nanjangud, the only mechanic was winding up for the day. He was leaving for his village, and would return only on Monday when he had some pending work to attend to.

It was the Dussehra season. On Monday evening, the tools would be kept away for worship, for that was the Aayudha Pooja day and he would not touch the tools till Vijaya Dashami on Wednesday morning.

That was bad news. Kittan and he would have to keep watch over the oranges for three days. And exposed to the elements for three days, the ripe and succulent oranges in the hold of the truck would be useless.

Several trucks sped past the disabled and stationary counterpart. Drivers of some trucks were more compassionate: they would slow down and stop to enquire, say a few words of commiseration and move ahead. Grandpa toyed with the idea of persuading a driver to carry the oranges to Cannanore for sale, but that would mean abandoning the truck.

Sensing that grandpa had no choice except a distress sale of the oranges, some enterprising truck drivers offered to buy the oranges at prices about ten percent of the cost. Incurring a ninety percent loss was not grandpa’s idea of doing business.

Villagers were going back to their homes after work, with bags and baskets containing the purchase of rice and provisions made by them from the local market and shops. He had a bright idea. He announced to the passers by: they could pick up as many oranges as they wanted and carry them home for their kids.

Rather than incur a 90% loss, he would be a Santa Clause for the kids. Would you call that ‘making a virtue of a necessity?’