The Thinking Shoes

I spent the last twenty minutes mesmerized by the meticulous hands of Krishnadas, a cobbler, who was making sandals for a child by candlelight.  He glued and nailed two carved pieces of leather together and symmetrically created the holes for the upper support of rubber to go through.  Then, placing the sandals aside to dry, he chiseled his knife on the stone, then wood, and began carving the bottom support for my shoes.

I sat there perplexed by his focus and craftsmanship, awed that I had never seen something so integral to my everyday life being produced before my eyes.  As I became caught up in my thoughts of the joy in meeting a person doing something so simple, yet so essential, I began wondering how Krishnadas sustained himself.  We began a conversation through my yet-imperfect Hindi and his responses to the misinterpreted questions.

Krishnadas talked about learning the trade 40 years ago, and I tried imagining the urban landscape of South Delhi back then and its emergence over the decades.  A shoemaker’s occupation has never been looked highly upon in Indian society; the mochi (cobbler) community is considered to be a part of the shudra varna—the service caste, one of the outcast classes in the system[1].  Though the optimist in me would like to believe that caste-based stigma isn’t as prevalent today as it was 40 years ago, I’ve seen it in action and know that Krishnadas has likely experienced the results of prejudiced beliefs in recent times.

Thinking through the decades, I became perplexed by the change he had likely seen.  Though shoemakers may have been necessary forty years ago, the current metropolitan India seems consumed by globalization and urbanization. With the growing elite populations of urban India running to exported Nikes and Reeboks, or the less wealthy having the convenience of relatively cheap retail chains like Bata, how did Krishnadas still find his business financially viable?  To my surprise, he shared that the bigger stores hadn’t affected his customer membership; what has the lack of visibility at his small, open shop, which is located right next to a bus station at a round-about.  With stores shutting down nearby and buses becoming less popular by the days, he had fewer people coming by to get shoes made or fixed.  Regardless, as Krishnadas was almost done with my shoes, he earnestly asked me to pay him whatever my heart desired.

Grateful for his work and the wonder his experience had provided me, I knowingly overpaid.  But even that isn’t enough.  Calculating an average in my mind, I know Krishnadas likely earns no more than Rs. 350 (approximately $8) on a good day – better than many individuals in the basic services sector but still not enough for a comfortable lifestyle.  It’s an overwhelming thought, full of emotions riddled with the fairness of society and the harshness of life.

As I become consumed by thoughts of the seeming unjustness of this, of a person who is essential in society yet grossly undervalued, I have to remind myself that this is everyday life in India, and everything is relative.  Though Krishnadas’ lifestyle is certainly not as comfortable as mine or as the average Indian’s in South Delhi, his is likely much better than those in worse-regarded occupations.  I have to remind myself that life here is full of contradictions, where I can come to realize that something as simple as shoes are made with beautifully skilled hands, but my appreciation and the insight provided by an experience don’t account for the stark differences in how in how I understand India, or even our neighborhood, than how Krishnadas does.  I have to remind myself that though I can try to create a temporary relationship out of gratitude and wonder, my experiences of the day have been spent in luxury compared to others’.  Ultimately, though, this is part of the charm in living here—realizing that my perceptions of my surroundings are part of the 1.17 billion others being actualized in this very moment, and they are constantly ever-changing, evolving and devolving in the mix of gratitude, frustration, wonder, or the myriad of emotions that come with living in India.

[1] Pal, Tapas. “Geography of Urban Cobblers (Muchi or Shoemaker): An Over-view in Bolpur Town, West Bengal, India.” International Journal of Business and Social Science, 01 Jan 2011. Web. 8 Nov 2011. <[Special_Issue_-_January_2011]/29.pdf>.

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