It was quite early in the morning, but Krishna’s first thoughts were about Iqbal, his barber. Though his wife was nagging him, he left the house and walked to the salon like there was no time to lose.

The barber was standing on the pavement, smoking tobacco leaf.

“Welcome hazur, welcome,” he smiled. He stubbed out the beedi between his fingers and led Krishna through the curtain into the clean, brightly lit salon – Good-Day Haircut. Big mirrors lined the walls; next to each mirror was a poster of a Bollywood star.

Iqbal was from the southern plains of Nepal, a migrant in the city of Kathmandu. He kept a carefully trimmed pencil moustache, put a faint touch of kohl around his eyes, and combed back his sleek hair. The checkered cloth that he draped around his waist, with the crisp white shirt that hung on his dark skin, gave him the look of a bygone actor from a Hindi film. While he cut Krishna’s hair, he was mostly silent, as if he secretly cried for chopping off hair that wasn’t his, but when he spoke, he delivered words like musical notes – high-pitched for emphasis and long inflections when he was particularly lyrical. Krishna often complimented him for his poetic voice, and the answers never failed to impress. He would say things like, “What can I do, hazur? My heart is still in the rice fields of my village, long left behind. If my voice is lush, it is because my heart speaks in the colours of the green fields and the tall grass.”

Krishna sat on his favourite chair, the one with a soft red cushion seat. After the white cloth was draped around his shoulders and the string tied behind his back, he closed his eyes.

“You left your wife back in the village, no, Iqbal?” Krishna asked, as strands of hair fell on the white cloth.

“My begum has laid her nest in my heart,” Iqbal said. “All I have to do is listen to my heartbeat. Like they say, hazur, our love finds expression in small gestures with grand meanings.”

After the haircut, the barber gently pressed Krishna’s temples and forehead; then, without asking, one by one, he undid Krishna’s top three buttons and let his fingers slide under the shirt. He kneaded the skin, massaging, pressing, working his way slowly to the curve of the shoulders. Krishna’s skin quivered at the touch, and in a voice barely audible, he mumbled, “Enough, enough.”

“As you wish,” the barber said and expertly cracked Krishna’s neck bones and held up a mirror behind him.

Krishna gave him 120 rupees – the twenty, an unusually big amount for a tip. When he stepped out of the salon, he had a soft smile on his face, and he remembered to button his shirt as he passed by the sweet shop. The shopkeeper, wearing a dirty singlet, stirred a huge cauldron where the flower-pattern jeris swam in hot oil. The jeri’s sugary syrup trickled down your chin when you bit into it. “This time don’t forget to pick up sweets and vegetables on your way back. Please!” Krishna’s wife had said, but after the massage and tip, he could barely afford any.

“Jeris?” his daughter asked as soon as he got home. She lay in bed, listening to music on her headphones.

“Later, okay?” Krishna said.

Nani rolled her eyes and blew away a curl of hair that fell to her nose.

In the kitchen, Krishna separated water from the rice.

“That barber, Iqbal, I feel sad for him. Do you know he goes home only once a year to meet his family?” he said to his wife as the water drained in the sink.

“I’m making dal and spinach again. Nothing else.” Sabitri stirred the lentils and put a drop on her palm to taste the salt. “Go take your bath. I don’t want your hair messing up my kitchen.”

“Next time I won’t tip him so much,” Krishna said. “Don’t get angry.”

“Always one excuse or another,” Sabitri said and threw a bunch of spinach in the hot oil. At work the next day, Krishna talked to a colleague about the blissful effects of a haircut and a shoulder massage.

The colleague looked up from behind a heap of files.

“You only go for the shoulders?” he said. “I do the whole body and leg routine every month. Really, since I have been doing that, my life has changed, I tell you.”

“Is that so?”

“Call him at home. They come for a few extra rupees.”

A few days later, upon Krishna’s request, Iqbal came to his house, carrying a wooden box full of scissors, a small mirror and an assortment of oils and powders. He offered a salaam to Krishna at the door, puffing on the inevitable tendu leaf that was a part of his personality.

“Tell him he can’t smoke that thing here. Don’t know why you had to bring him home,” Sabitri muttered.

“Why don’t you make him a cup of tea now, please.” Krishna nudged her, then led the barber to the veranda where he had spread out a mattress. ‘I hope this is not inconvenient for you. We will skip the haircut today. But I want you to do a good massage on me. Let me also see what this ‘body massage’ is all about,” he said, trying a laugh.

Sabitri brought tea in a China cup for Krishna, and in a steel tumbler for Iqbal. She put the barber’s cup a few steps from him. After she left, Krishna offered his guest the China cup.

“Whatever you wish, hazur,” the barber replied, poured his tea in the saucer, blew on it and took a sip, making a long, slurpy sound.

“Take off your shirt, hazur,” he said after finishing his tea.

For some reason, Krishna felt shy. He unbuttoned his shirt and put it on the side. To make up for his receding hairline, his chest was generously endowed with hair, which made him all the more self-conscious. Iqbal sat on his haunches, combing his pencil moustache and stealing furtive glances at Krishna, his kohl glistening in the afternoon sun. After taking off the religious thread that hung on his shoulders, Krishna lay with his face down.

Little drops of oil fell on his back, and slowly, the barber massaged him. How good it felt: the afternoon sun, the chirping of birds on nearby trees, the warm oil. Iqbal turned into a skilful masseur. He bunched his fists and ran them up and down Krishna’s back, and along the way, quite playfully, squeezed the folds of his client’s skin.

“What are you doing?” Krishna asked, giggling, but Iqbal only responded with his long fingers, now supple, massaging the curves, feeling out the shapes and contours of Krishna’s body. Slowly the fingers reached down and pulled Krishna’s cotton trousers just an inch below his waist and poured teasing drops of oil on the tip of his buttocks.

“Enough,” Krishna said, suddenly sitting up. The oil dripped like a tiny stream under his trousers. Krishna looked around to see if his wife or daughter were watching.

“Hazur, is anything the problem?” Iqbal asked.

“No, no.”

“Should I be gentler?”

“No, that’s not it.”

“Your skin is so soft, hazur. My bare hands sink into it so gracefully.”

Krishna smiled. He lay down again, this time with his face up and eyes closed.

The drops of oil trickled on his stomach, and the fingers moved more slowly and gently. Krishna lay captive as Iqbal kneaded his skin as a snake charmer might play with a cobra: exciting it and taming it at the same time, and the long fingers stole away bits of shyness hiding in every pore of Krishna’s skin. Before he knew it, the middle-aged man was moaning. He opened his eyes, pushed Iqbal’s hands away, and sat up. His heart was knocking in his chest.

“Hazur?” Krishna picked up his shirt and took out a crumpled 100-rupee note. He nervously clutched the note in Iqbal’s palm.

“Will I have the honour of attending to your hair soon?”

“We’ll see. You can go now,” Krishna said and left the veranda.

That night, in bed, he turned this way and that. Sabitri was softly snoring, her back to him.

Excerpted with permission from “A Haircut and Massage” in Leech and Other Stories, Ranjan Adiga, Penguin India.