A prime minister’s tonsorial artist — Y. Sivaloganathan

JUNE 2 — This is a story about Kunjuraman an interesting and colourful tonsorial artist who shaped and crafted many a head (tonsorial — belonging to or relating to barbers or hairdressing).

Forty years ago, Malaysia was led by a man known as the “Father of Unity.” It was a sobriquet given to Tun Hussein Onn for his effort in bringing the nation together. Although very busy, he had time to come to the Royal Lake Club and enjoy the fellowship of his fellow men.

He was a very meticulous man. Apart from the prime ministerial responsibilities that he shouldered he also took good care of his appearance.

The Royal Lake Club has a barber shop. Once, there was a barber who came all the way from India, leaving his family behind to seek his fortune in this country. His name was Kunjuraman. He convinced “follicularly challenged” Hussein Onn that his hair needed weekly attention.

From then on, taking his barber’s advice, Hussein Onn was on the barber’s chair every single week for many years, without fail.

On the average, men visit the barber about once a month. Hussein Onn broke the record and visited the barber every week for as long as anyone can remember. Of course we would all love to believe that the only reason Hussein Onn went to the barber was to get countless haircuts.

Once I asked Kunjuraman, “What do the two of you talk about every week when after the haircut you both relax over tea?” and he answered: “What else can a man like me talk about with him, politics lah ” For all that mattered, Hussein Onn most probably enjoyed Kunjuraman’s companionship.

Barbers and masseurs, unknown to many, are receptacles of membership joys and woes. Among their manifold functions is to be repositories of information and secrets. Hence, when I was a committee member, my regular visits to Kunjuraman to hear what unhappiness if any members had and to correct them quickly in order to meet and satisfy membership comforts and needs.

Kunjuraman once told me that in order to become a barber, you have to have a passion for the profession a dedication; an ability to please each customer who comes enthusiastically to have himself groomed and to make him feel very special irrespective of rank. You have to appreciate what a person’s appearance means to him and what the individual’s desires are.

Though Kunjuraman knew what made the customer — “tick” — he was very clear in his mind what the barbering trade needed — “heads to keep their business ticking.”

He also said if you cannot meet and satisfy individual needs and taste you are doomed to take “a haircut” in your barbering income and eventually pull the shutters down.

Kunjuraman also explained to me that parting of the hair has great significance. “A married man carries a middle parting in his hair, a bachelor a left parting of his hair and a widower a right parting of his hair.”

Today he said parting is just one of convenience like wearing rings for style without understanding the significance.

Hussein was a very active member of the Royal Lake Club and for a period of time he was our President. He was a regular at club meetings and kept the most careful club minutes. Important matters he underlined in red and not so important ones in blue.

When I was a rookie committee member he taught me that the General Committee is “an extension of the membership will.” He also instilled upon me that as committee men “we are custodians and trustees of membership funds and assets” and must act accordingly. Members’ funds he said “must be carefully conserved and sparingly spent.”

He was of the opinion that election to office is a privilege and that one must be “humbled” by the confidence reposed by the membership in placing one in office and not be carried away. His favourite mantra “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”.

Long after he retired as president, Hussein kept returning to the Royal Lake Club to meet his friends and for Kunjuraman to attend to his tonsorial needs.

One day, he came with a sole purpose of visiting the barber. He gently knocked on the glass door several times. He did not hear anyone inside. He took a peek through the blinds. He did not see Kunjuraman or anyone at all inside. The barber shop was locked, and it was dark inside.

Upon making enquiries Hakimi, our then general manager told Hussein that Kunjuraman had been hospitalised with a mild heart attack. Kunjuraman was also quite an imbiber of the good cheer. A habit that led to other health problems.

As a loyal patron of Kunjuraman, I thought I should pay him a visit. Accompanied by Hakimi and our then F&B manager Kamaralzaman, we went to the General Hospital to visit Kunjuraman. We went there with a basket of fruits. Kunjuraman seemed to be in a better condition than we had feared, and he had also managed to make plenty of friends in the ward.

He was relieved to see us and inquired if Hussein had been informed of his setback? We assured him that the needful had been done. Whilst at the ward, we heard police sirens blaring.

His most loyal customer Hussein had arrived to see him. Who would have thought, a barber would receive a memorable visit from the prime minister. Hussein was very humble, he didn’t care who you were or where you came from, everyone was equal before his eyes — hence his visit to cheer his humble barber.

Many other VIPs including judges, corporate chieftans and high ranking civil servants and members who were his regulars also went to visit our barber upon hearing of his illness. Hussein stayed at the ward for quite a while — long enough for him to see that the ward was small and uncomfortable and overcrowded. Tun’s presence was enough to cause GHKL’s Director of Medical Services to cause Kunjuraman to be transferred to the first-class ward.

There was a flurry of activity. Medical specialists, hospital directors, chief medical officer all became “bumble bees” rendering Kunjuraman a VIP patient. Kunjuraman for his part was confused and was wondering what all this sudden fuss was all about.

The next evening I went to the hospital again with some fellow clubbers. Kunjuraman looked terribly sad. I asked him why he appeared so sad. He said, “It is a privilege. I have bigger television here, bigger waiting room, bigger bed, bigger refrigerator with plenty of food that I’ll never be able to finish, cold air-cond. But here I don’t have friends.”

In short he was a prisoner of his new first class environment. “My friends are all in the other ward. I want to go back there.” Hakimi then made the necessary calls to Tan Sri Dr RP Pillay the hospital’s head honcho, at the same time Agong’s physician and transferred him back to the third class ward.

Incidentally as of the prime minister’s visit, Kunjuraman was placed under the care of the country’s top physician Dr Pillay, who also cared for His Royal Highness — The Yang diPertuan Agong and Hussein.

A couple of days later, Kunjuraman was well enough to be discharged.

Years went by since the incident. With time, I became the president of our club. Hussein still came over, once a week, to get his haircut. Both he and Kunjuraman remained friends.

In my fifth year as president of our club, the barber came to see me. He told me that he no more had “a spring in his step” and that he wanted to retire and return to India, to be with his family members whom he had left behind for a long time and to enjoy a long and deserving retirement.

It was sad to let our barber go. He had been a part of our club family. Simply put he was an institution in our social club. To honour him our members decided to host a tea party to bid him farewell.

The tea party at the poolside was well attended. Among the 300 or so regulars who turned up were judges, ministers, corporate chiefs, civil servants and many ordinary members like me.

Hakimi our general manager was tasked with the pleasant job of garlanding our barber in keeping with popular Indian customs and traditions.

When told of the garlanding ceremony, Kunjuraman with an all knowing wink said “don’t trouble Hakimi as I have already made arrangements for Hussein to come and garland me.”

At the appointed time, punctual to a T, Hussein turned up in his traditional white bush jacket, mingled with our members, had tea and garlanded his “loyal and trusted barber.”

Many photos were taken of the occasion and the picture of our barber being garlanded was published in our newsletter.

Kunjuraman asked me for 200 copies of the newsletter to be brought back to India, Boy was I shocked! “Nobody reads newsletters in the Club — here the barber wanted 200 copies of it.” He later explained “I want to give the newsletters to my relatives and my neighbours and show them the picture and tell them that the prime minister himself came and garlanded me on my retirement.”

On the day of his departure we took him to Subang International Airport and bade him farewell.

His flight to Madras was also memorable. Capt. Azmi Radzi a handsome young dashing MAS pilot with an “Errol Flynn” moustache was a Kunjuraman regular and had heard of his barber’s retirement and departure to India.

On the date of departure Capt. Azmi positioned himself in command to aviate the MAS aircraft to Madras.

Kunjuraman became a VIP on board the flight. Capt. Azmi exercising his discretion upgraded his popular barber to first class (in those days the commandant of the flight had plenty of discretions). Barber having enjoyed the privileges and pleasures of the Club for 30 years had somehow acquired the taste for the good things in life.

For entertainment on board the flight, the barber indulged himself to “Dom Perignon” — the finest of French champagnes. Dom Perignon was standard fare on MAS flights in the early days of the airline.

Clad in neatly pressed and well laundered white tunic with a “Nehru like collar” and with a gaitly disposition, barber could have been easily passed of as the Captain’s doctor. Whatever it was barber was at home in his first class environment.

On landing at Madras and the aircraft being “put to chocks” (chocks are wedges of sturdy material placed closely against an aircraft’s wheels to prevent accidental movement) our over indulgent barber was seen to be somewhat unsteady.

With the captain’s steadying hands barber was helped down the aircraft’s gangway. He was the last to leave the aircraft. Kunjuraman then proceeded to the airport’s immigration centre in the crew’s transport vehicle.

Barber truly lived like a VIP and returned home a VIP.

Capt Azmi on his return to Kuala Lumpur reported that when he finally bade “sayonara” to his barber at the Madras immigration post — Kunjuraman with tearing eyes hugged him and said “terima kasih & selamat jalan.”

Our barber went back and never returned.

Kunjuraman was a colourful and loveable man.

He was a “legend in his own right.”

With that ended another chapter of our club’s history.

* Datuk Y. Sivaloganathan is a former president of Royal Lake Club (1985-1990).

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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