NEW DELHI – Along with the usual hair lotions and creams, Ganga Ram, a barber who does business in the shade of banyan tree, also has the latest tools of his trade — a small pile of condoms and booklets on AIDS prevention.
When men settle into Ram's barber chair in New Delhi's Lajpat Nagar market they become captive to what Ram calls his "real mission" — to help them avoid the deadly virus that has infected 5.13 million people in this country of a billion people.
India may be the birthplace of Kama Sutra, the 6th century sex manual, but it is also a deeply conservative society, and discussing sexual matters is usually taboo. That makes India's chatty, itinerant barbers a valuable means of spreading the AIDS message.
A unique prevention program has trained Ram and more than 10,000 barbers in sterilizing their razors and scissors and has also tutored them to promote condom use, recognize the symptoms of AIDS and answer commonly asked questions about the illness.
"Sometimes men find it awkward to discuss their sexual habits. Then I wait till their faces are covered with shaving foam, or I've started cutting their hair, before broaching the topic," says Ram with a wry laugh. "They can't run away then."
Indian barbers have a history of offering more than just cutting hair. Traditionally they would travel from village to far-flung village, giving haircuts to regular customers. As they became familiar figures, they often would serve as matchmakers for their customers' families, and spread news of births, deaths or gossip.
Today, all over India, the barbershop — often little more than a chair, a mirror and a pair of scissors — is where men gather each day, reading the newspaper and chatting as they await their turn.
It is where Swiss-based Association Francois-Xavier Bagnoud, a health-centered aid agency, saw an opportunity to get the men's attention.
Take the case of Sumeru Mahto. An itinerant construction worker, he moves around New Delhi a lot but always returns to the same barber for his twice-weekly shave, and stays to chat.
"This city is crowded with strangers who come in search of work. They have no families, few friends," said Mahto. "You could say the barber is the closest I have to family in this city."
The intervention program has put this traditional barber's role to use.
"Often it's not easy. Men are still shy about discussing their sexual encounters, but I find they tell me things they wouldn't even tell their wives," said Ram.
Experts say education is vital in India, where sexually transmitted diseases are attributed to bad hygiene awareness, widespread migration of labor, low literacy levels and gender disparities.
Manisha Pal, a coordinator of the barber program, said another reason for targeting men is that most women in male-dominated India often have no power to make sex-related decisions.
If a barber suspects a problem, he refers the customer to an AIDS clinic, she said.
The agency works closely with India's state-run National AIDS Control Organization which supplies it with the free condoms and information booklets.
Barbers are also able to reach out to the homosexual community in India. Homosexuality is a crime under an archaic Indian law that dates to British colonial rule.
But Pal notes: "Even homosexual men need haircuts, and have responded well to the program."