A descendant of the Maisuria clan who settled in Fiji from India in the 1800s, Mahesh Vithal’s reputation precedes him as he is known to be the best longest serving barber in Levuka on Ovalau.
Born in 1956, Vithal bhai, as he is called by many, is the owner of Vithal Bhai & Sons, a family business passed down to him from his father.
As much as he loves the company and hospitality Levuka has offered him and his family over the years, Mr Vithal owes it to his parents for bringing them all to Levuka to build their homes and settle.
Mr Vithal’s father was only thirteen when he came to Fiji, but under the name of his father’s uncle.
“My dad came to Fiji when he was thirteen. His uncle had brought him here under his name. Yeah, the rules weren’t that strict back in the day,” Mr Vithal laughed.
“My family is from the hairdressing clan in India called Maisuria.
“Back then, we had the hairdressing clan, the boot makers and laundry workers, so we were separated like that.
“My father’s uncle had a barber shop in Ba, so when he brought my father to Fiji, he taught him before my father ventured out on his own.”
The look of missing a certain someone is evident on Mr Vithal’s face as he talked about his father’s struggle of being in a foreign country and having to make use of his talent as a hairdresser to live.
“My father left his uncle’s house in Ba and moved to Suva,” Mr Vithal said.
“He opened up a barber shop in Nabua in 1938.
“The Second World War had just ended and the Lomaiviti soldiers who were of the third battalion had been dispatched to go back home to Levuka.
“So, by 1946, they became good friends with my father because he used to cut their hair.
“William the Barber is what they would call him. They couldn’t pronounce Vithal, so they called him William instead.”
According to Mr Vithal, those soldiers were the ones who persuaded Mr Vithal’s father to return to Levuka with them. Young and full of life, his father agreed and took off with them.
“When he came over, he absolutely loved the place,” Mr Vithal said.
“There were a lot of Europeans here and he enjoyed his stay.
“As soon as he got back to Suva, he packed his clothes and returned to Levuka and lived.”
Mr Vithal said his father used to live with an owner of a laundromat, which was located where the Levuka fire station is now.
“My father’s uncle was a good friend of the old man who owned that laundromat,” he said.
“My father lived with him until he started working and earned enough to open up his own barber shop.”
Mr Vithal’s father had set up shop further up town, next to the Vallabhs, a family-owned clothes store whose owners also came to Fiji from India, but under the Girmit system.
In the 1950s, he bought a corrugated iron store which he then established as Vithal Bhai & Sons.
To this day, the oldest barber chair in Fiji that was brought in by his father’s descendants in the 1800s still remains.
One can feel a sense of history emanating from the barber shop and feel Mr Vithal’s excitement as he continued to talk about his father.
“My father knew how to sew, take photos, cut hair and do carpentry work as well,” Mr Vithal boasted.
“So, what I know now, is what I learned from my dad. But for carpentry, I had to learn that in school.
“Back in the day, we had technical schools from primary up till Form five.”
A jack of all trades is how Mr Vithal describes his father. But while reminiscing of how he obtained life skills from him, Mr Vithal also expressed his concern about the amount of young people who
are not willing to learn different trades for survival.
“I feel sorry for the people now, especially the young ones,” he said.
“They should at least learn a trade or something because it will help them in their daily lives.
“I used to look for carpenters to fix some stuff in my shop, but I couldn’t find any.
“I know there are carpenters here in Levuka but I have to go out and look for them, and I just don’t have the time. Plus, they are not always available.”
With the knowledge he has from technical school, Mr Vithal took it upon himself to fix the shop.
He travelled to Suva to buy his carpentry tools, returned and hasn’t relied on anyone else since.
“You can achieve anything once you put your mind to it,” Mr Vithal philosophised.
“Everything in this world is available. It’s up to us to make use of it. It’s us who need to work.”