An afternoon at the Malaysian Tamil barbershop


Malaysiana is often found in some evident but overlooked places, unseen for having been so obvious. A most authentic bit of Malaysian heritage – and reality – can be discovered in the Tamil barbershop.

Schedule interviews with Malaysian MPs?
No, we obviously can't bother them on a Sunday.

Plan for the English camp we're organising for secondary school students?
It can wait.

Answer emails?
Yeah, right. My inbox is way too full – way too scary at this point.

OK, how about writing a piece on economic development in southern Malaysia?
Really? That's what we're gonna do right now?

“No, but we really should get started on one of these th–” I start saying, before procrastinator Jon cuts me off.

“Listen, I have a great idea. Let's put this stuff aside and go get haircuts right now,” he says.

I pause for a second before realising that I feel no more inclined than Jon to accomplish anything on the agenda today. “Alright,” I agree. “Let's go.”

We hop into Jon's grey, dilapidated Proton and make our way to our usual haircut spot, Kedai Gunting Pertama, in the Bukit Perdana neighbourhood. It's a small, tidy Tamil barbershop located in a strip mall filled with delicious bakeries and Chinese restaurants. This is one of several thousand Indian-owned hair enterprises in Malaysia – some of which have been around since the 1930s.

As we walk in, I offer a knowing nod and smile to Ganesan, my barber, while Jon greets Jeeva, who's finishing up a taper for another customer.

Vannakam! Eppedi irikenga? Hello! How are you?” I ask them.

“Doing well!” both Ganesan and Jeeva respond in Tamil with wide, welcoming grins.

The barbershop is a great place to while away an afternoon, with politics, local news and family problems being the staples of conversation.

I take a seat in one of the plastic waiting chairs; there's quite a line in front of me. The shop is loud and alive today. The latest Anirudh and Yuvan hits from Tamil Nadu, as well as local Malaysian Indian hip-hop, are playing in the background. Little kids are running around and squealing in a corner while their fathers read the Malaysia Nanban paper and chat. Indeed, some deliberately spend hours here. Much like in the US, my home country, the barbershop is a great place to while away an afternoon; it’s a centre of contemplation, discussion, bonding and community. Politics, local news and family problems are all staples of conversation at any local Tamil barbershop in Malaysia. I have found that coming here affords me an opportunity for grassroots learning and cultural exchange (though I do lament the fact that the barbershop is limited to only male perspectives).

Looking over at me and Jon, one of the customers asks: “Neenga endha ooru? Where are you from?”

Before I can open my mouth, Ganesan, wielding scissors and snipping away at a client's hair, responds on our behalf: “They're from America.” Pointing to me, he bursts out excitedly, “He speaks fluent Tamil!”

“Is that right?”

I laugh sheepishly. “I've actually lost a lot of my Tamil language skills, but being in Malaysia this year has helped. I try to practice as much I can.”

“So, have you been to India before?” the customer, Muthukumaran, asks me after introducing himself. I explain that I have made about a dozen short visits to India over the course of my life; I still have grandparents, cousins and other relatives who live in Chennai, Sirkazhi and elsewhere.

“How about you? You’re from Malaysia, yeah?” I ask Muthukumaran.

“Yes, I was born and brought up in Malaysia, and so were my parents. My grandparents moved here from Tamil Nadu to work in the Johor rubber plantations.” He then adds, laughing: “But I have never been to India before!”

I nod. I have heard this from many Malaysian Tamils before. It used to surprise me that they had never travelled to India despite the close proximity, but the cost of the trip is prohibitively expensive for many.

Regardless, Malaysian Tamils have found other ways of preserving their Indian heritage and affirming their rich cultural identity. Most of them seem to know the language far better than I – or most second-generation or third-generation Indian-Americans – do. Malaysian Indian youth often attend Tamil-medium primary schools, which are viewed as critical tools for community empowerment. Twenty-four-hour radio and satellite TV programmes broadcast productions straight from Tamil Nadu. Kollywood (the Tamil cinema industry) is extremely popular, and Surya is everybody’s favourite actor. And when I ask kids if they listen to Tamil music, I always get a funny, disbelieving response: “Of course! What else would we listen to?”

Faith also plays a large role in the community. Prayer gatherings and devotional Carnatic performances take place frequently. There are Tamil Christian churches. Malaysian Hindu gopurams dedicated to Murugan, Shiva and Vishnu are precisely constructed according to ancient scriptures, and they mirror the temples found in India. The renowned Thaipusam festival that is celebrated every January is a far more popular and significant event in Malaysia than in native Tamil Nadu itself.

There is also a sizeable Tamil Muslim community in Malaysia. Tamil Muslims, too, convene at the barbershop, the masjid, and the local mamak food stalls. (Mamak is a Malay extension of the word mama, the Tamil term for “uncle”).

It is noteworthy that the broader Indian community in Malaysia is overwhelmingly Tamilian: over three-quarters of the 2.5 million Malaysian Indians are of Tamil origin. As a result of this, I have even encountered non-Tamil Indians (folks whose families originally hailed from Andhra Pradesh or Kerala, for example) who speak Tamil fluently and identify themselves as “Malaysian Tamils”. After living in Malaysia for several generations and associating regularly with Tamils, some of these other Indian groups have chosen to assimilate.

As my barbershop conversation with Muthukumaran progresses, he starts introducing me to everyone else waiting in line. The Tamil community in Batu Pahat is relatively small (three per cent of the city’s total population) compared to those in other parts of Johor and Malaysia, so everyone here seems to know each other fairly well.

“What sort of struggles are Malaysian Tamils facing in this community?” I ask, addressing Muthukumaran, Logesvaran, Kannan, Velu and others around the room.

Velu: “After two or three generations, we are just now moving from the plantations to the cities. That transition is tough. We can’t afford most things. We come from working-class backgrounds – farmers, mechanics, taxi drivers – and most of us here have had very little access to education.”

Kannan jumps in: “This morning, I hit my seven-year-old son. He refused to sit down and study for even 30 minutes. I almost never strike him, but when it comes to matters of education, I’ll do it. He has to recognise that I have no inheritance to offer him, other than my taxicab. Education is his only inheritance, his only ticket to success. If he doesn’t work on getting a formal education, he’ll end up driving a cab like me – and I don’t want that for him.”

Kannan awaits my response, so I outline my opposition to corporal punishment of any kind while simultaneously attempting to acknowledge the genuine socioeconomic challenges faced by the local community. Reflecting on these challenges, I am humbled and moved. I am reminded of something I once read in a paper written by the South Asian scholar, Vinay Lal: “...the story of the Indian diaspora can scarcely be written in the singular idiom of resounding successes…” This is perhaps more true in Malaysia than anywhere else. Though many Indian-Americans have attained a status of great affluence, this is not the case with the majority of the Malaysian Indian community, given the altogether different circumstances that they have had to endure. A long and harsh history of indentured labour in colonial Malaya, coupled with more recent institutional discrimination, have marginalised the community.

There are, of course, a number of successful professionals, business leaders (e.g. Ananda Krishnan, the second richest person in South-East Asia) and politicians. But poverty is definitely rampant, and on the whole, Malaysian Indians share less than 1.5% of the country’s wealth despite constituting eight per cent of the population and having lived here for generations. In conjunction with this striking poverty, drugs, gang violence, crime and incarcerations have become all too common.

Nevertheless, in a country that deals with contentious, race-based economic and political issues all the time, the Tamil barbershop is not at all a bitter gathering place. Folks don’t complain; they simply recount their experiences. Discussions are grounded in realities, but they are matter-of-fact; debates are spirited but respectful; egos are checked at the door.

Stories of hope – like the estate labourer’s daughter who graduated at the top of her medical school class, or the sweeper’s son who became a lawyer in Singapore – are shared with great joy.

And perhaps most importantly, the Tamil barbershop is not restricted to the Indian minority of Malaysia. In fact, one could even say that it is a bastion of a united, multicultural Malaysia. Bumiputra Malays, Chinese and foreigners (like myself and Jon) frequent the shop for its impeccable haircuts and shaves – and all folks are always welcome.

Customers are curious to learn about each other, to discover new people and places. “What’s life like in the US?” they like to ask American visitors. “How does your education system function? How do I get a visa to work there? Can you find Hindu temples and Tamil makkal (people) there?”

After a 40-minute chat with the other customers, I sit down in the cushioned salon chair for my standard RM8 cut. Over the next 20 minutes, Ganesan and I talk. He asks me whether I miss home, and then tells me he’s saving up for a visit back to Tiruchi at the end of this year. Ganesan and Jeeva, the barbers, are actually recent transplants from India. Though they have found a sense of belonging and identity within the Batu Pahat Tamil community over the past couple of years, they do miss their families and look forward to eventually settling back in Tamil Nadu.

“I think we will miss the barbershop when we leave, though,” Jeeva jokes.

As I stand up, getting ready to head out of the shop, everyone looks over and hands me their phone numbers.

“Come over sometime. You can meet my family,” Logesvaran says.

“You can practice your Tamil and we can practice our English!”

“There’s a new Indian restaurant that has opened next to the bus station. We can get thosai or roti canai sometime,” another invites me.

Kandeepa – definitely. I’d love to,” I say, inputting the contacts into my phone. I am blown away by the sheer warmth of this community.

As we walk out, Jon turns to me. “Well, that was a pretty legit experience for RM8, huh? Now we gotta go back to that task list.”

“Hmm...I have something to add to that to-do list,” I muse.

“What?” Jon gives me a frozen, fearful look.

I smile. “I think I’m going to write about the Malaysian Tamil barbershop.

Names have been changed for confidentiality. An earlier version of this article appeared in the July 25, 2014 issue of India Abroad.

Madhu Narasimhan is an American Fulbright fellow based in Batu Pahat, Johor, Malaysia.

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