We know where our shoe bites, and so does our cobbler. He beats the life out of leather, and this is his livelihood. For the young and the old, the shoe takes its toll.
Ram Prasad with his hunchback would never fail his date with the tree. He would report to his workstation with clock precision. The banyan tree would shelter him from the scorching sun and heavy rains. And it became an important landmark in the village, ‘the shoe maker’s tree’.
Ram would spread his tools on a thick, dusty rug and hang his wooden shoe moulds on nails rammed to the trunk of the tree. Ram had an impressive customer list ranging from toddlers learning to walk to those who survived to live and walk the longest.
The frail, bespectacled Hari Bhai was the shoe maker’s oldest friend. They would sit and gossip under the tree. Hari would read out the news from newspapers that wrapped the shoes waiting repairs. Legs from all walks of life made way to cobbler point.
Ram Prasad could look at a pair and say when they were last beaten to care. I must have been a naughty boy, as my visits to the cobbler were frequent. On a rainy day I would boat my shoes in the flowing dirty waters. The wet leather shoe would open its mouth. A few cobbles with the claw-ball hammer, a few stitches here and there, and the shoes would be chiseled back to shape by Ram. The shoes would then take some polish and I would lace them back to my feet. New pair of shoes was only sanctioned after the shoe doctor had given his nod to my father. He was the final authority. It is no secret why my visits to the doctor increased as my shoes got older.
In 1994, I made my first visit to Dubai, with my one and only pair. The leather stood the test of time for a while. The shoe sole must have been slowly wearing and it was time to see a cobbler. I was amazed at the look of the flashy-funky shoe repair shop in the busy city corner. The shoe man looked at my vintage shoes with clinical eyes and spelled his fees for the operation. My eyes popped out in despair. Ram Prasad would repair my shoes on a shoe string budget and here I am today fighting for the survival of my only pair. I never repaired them; they stayed with me as my Indian pride.
My shoes have grown with me and I now like the smell of the new ones. My shopping list is not complete without a pair of shoes. I have never failed to pick up a pair as souvenir from cities that I travel. My shoe library today is impressive and the leather competes among India, US, Europe and the Middle East. These shoes have trekked the China wall and the Swiss snow Alps. They have touched a high with the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and the perished World Trade Centre towers of New York City. My footprints on CN tower of Toronto and the 90-second high speed elevator ride to the observation deck of the world’s tallest tower, Burj Khalifa, are some of the other exciting shoe marks.
Shoes are not gender biased. My wife picked up as many as 20 pairs of shoes from the factory outlet near Niagara Falls, some serious buying I thought.
Shoes are making their presence felt. My collection today has shoes for all occasions, from sports to casual and from formal to signature brands. Occasionally I would rub them with some shoe shine and keep them parked with pride. With time and use I would outgrow them and they would be dumped for the new ones.
In 2007, my shoes took me back to India. I wanted them to take a maintenance dressing with the tools of Ram Prasad the cobbler. Ram would twirl them, twist them and nod affirmatively as a quality check to my foreign stuff. I walked my way to the ‘shoe maker’s banyan tree with a bag full of my imported prize catch. The tree now had a small shack and a waiting bench. A young boy was nibbling with pliers and cutters to dress up a shoe. A black and white picture of Ram the cobbler was hung loosely to one of the nails on the bark of the tree. A garland on the picture said it all.
I looked at the heap of my shoes, only I could tell where they bite and maybe Ram Prasad. The legacy of repairing shoes from Ram lay buried in the backyards of my village. I would not get shoes repaired anymore; I would shoe them away when their shine would wear off.
First published in Khaleej Times, Dubai - UAE on 29 April, 2010