Nov 29, 2023
Nov 29, 2023
by Charu Uppal
Following is an account of a regular day – when I lived in Fiji. It is not an opinion, or even a story. May be a flash of memories, within a flash fiction. Just a day which though ordinary touched me enough to document it.
Daily interactions, though considered trivial – are the material that weaves into a meaning that we make of our lives. Unfortunately, most of us do not pay it attention, a few us of think about it, and even fewer document it. I present this ‘a day in life’ with a hope that some might be drawn to the story – and look for the ‘light in the ordinary-a shine beneath the surface’.
It has been raining for the past week. No breaks – constant rain. Sometimes it thins down only to a drizzle, but it has not stopped for a week.
No exaggeration!! Some degree of water has been dropping from the skies. Now we know why the pacific is so green. And so wet. Somedays it deters us from leaving home or planning social activities. Wet feet are not a very comforting feeling. Just like when we live in places where it snows, we love snow and complain about snow, in places where it rains we complain about rain, even though it dampens the grueling heat waves. We can enjoy the rain and yet we cannot help but complain about it.
But the kind of rain we have had for the last two days is not all that bad. Deceptive yes, but not bad! You know it is the kind of drizzle that feels light on your body but give it a few seconds and you realize you are soaking wet. You open and close your umbrella umpteen times, wondering whether or not you need it. The number of people on the streets who use their umbrella equals those who do not. And you ask yourself, so should I or shouldn’t I?
It is the kind of rain that makes you feel that you are a character in a movie and everything is going in slow motion. Even though this rain makes no sound, it dulls all the other sounds around you, and you move through an all-encompassing spray of fresh water, from the skies.
Unless there is sun, there is no rainbow either. But still, this is not the kind of rain you complain about, neither the one that gives you a decent excuse to miss work or be late at meetings.
It is like life, it goes on, as must you, without explanation or excuses.
So, in that kind of rain, this morning I completed two errands. Dropped some paper work at the Doctor’s and bought my Diwali/Christmas lights. I now needed to get to work so I could start crossing things from my things to do list.
On my way to work, I saw the same young man I have seen several times before on Suva streets. He sits with a little kit, and an incline wooden footrest. His kit includes a couple of brushes and three kinds of shoe polish. He must be in his early twenties. On several occasions he has beckoned me but either I rush away, as usual being in a hurry, or sometimes he stops calling when he sees I am wearing those open toed sandals that we all must in the pacific. Especially if they do not match any of the shoe polishes he owns.
We, the Indians, especially the Hindus have a thing about our feet. We do not allow people to touch it. Feet are usually the dirtiest and the most tired part of our body. (forget those countries where we wrap them in two layers of socks underneath our thick snow shoes). And yet, there are rituals that expect you to touch the feet of those older than you, and of the deities and those who are on a spiritual path — the sages, the wise men and the likes. Simply because it is considered auspicious to bow to those who are ahead of us, whether in years, experience or spirituality. I do think we are enveloped by a sense of humility when we bow and touch someone else’s feet. Just like we bow and bring a serving tray to our guests. (I am sure many of you are thinking, that is rare too, for who has the time to entertain…and McDonalization would recommend “self service” anyway).
Coming back to present day Suva, I wanted to run away again from this young shoe-shine boy/man. And I did, but I could not go too far. I came back, closed my umbrella and said, “Ok, then.”
“Ok, then” he repeated and tapped the side of the footrest with a corner of a brush that he was holding.
I reluctantly yet decidedly placed my foot on the footrest. I have parted with a few coins on several occasions for the boys who are wandering on the streets. However, ignored this young man who works for a living. I wanted today to make sure he was rewarded for working and not resorting to begging or stealing.
It felt awkward someone touching my feet.
“Nervous?” he asked me.
“Nervous?” I was defensive, “No – just have to be at work soon.”
“Rest a while, rest a while” he looked up and smiled.
I gave a not-so-enthusiastic smile. I have been trained to keep strangers, especially men who smile too much, at an arm’s length.
He moved his brush this way and that, to remove the excess dirt. Then he used a base, some sort of white cream, which is really colorless when it goes on your shoes. And then he used a brush whose bristles were free of any color to rub it all over my shoes. The next he dug his index finger into the shoe polish container and pulled out a dab of black shoe polish. After smearing bits of it on my shoe, he used his black brush to spread it evenly on the leather.
And then he brought out his lint free cloth, you know that people always get to clean glasses. And this is what, I always associated shoeshine boys with. They really do make your shoes shine.
Holding the corners of the cloth tightly in his hands, he rubbed the cloth energetically over the top of the shoe, and then the sides. In between he would smile and/or grunt, as if commenting on the ‘shine’. I wondered if he truly did enjoy his work and needn’t be the object of my pity. Just because he is a shoeshine boy.
Did he really? Enjoy shinning shoes, touching other people’s dirty-old shoes and making them shine like they had just stepped out of a factory?
He was energetic in his movements, and in some way, seemed to move as if in a trance. And then he looked up, and tapped the side of the footrest with his brush and said “the other one” with a smile.
It reminded me of this shoeshine ‘man’ in at the Hyatt Hotel in Chicago, who worked in an alcove at some obscure floor. A huge chair was placed next to his fancy shoe-shine kit. Instead of standing you got to sit in the chair, and feel like royalty. He had engaged his customer with a lively monologue. And when he got done, even though there was no one waiting in the line, he gestured pretty confidently “next”.
His customer had chuckled, and as he handed him the money, he said, “I love it!!” The customer was commenting on the shoe shine man’s skill for imagination and keeping a smiling face while performing a service that has probably never been recommended to children as “a respectable future.”
Here, in Suva, the young man looked at me, “All done, see it didn’t take too long.”
“Anything you wish”
I was surprised. I gave him something that I thought would be more than he usually got but not that much more (they tell me that is what causes corruption and inflation…..I never understood that).
And then I though his service deserved a special attention, something to remember. I thought of interviewing him to write an article on him, thought of doing a photo essay – but instead, I dug into my shopping bag and pulled out a pack of incense. “Here, Happy Diwali” I said as I handed it to him.
He looked at it closely, and then turned it around. I could not tell if he could really read.
“You know how to use it?” I asked.
“hmm…..” he kept silent but nodded his head. I was not sure what that meant.
You use this to freshen your room. You can light it, and it can make your room smell nice.
He nodded again.
He didn’t seem interested in conversation. Or may be just fascinated by the strongly smelling, no matter how pleasant, incense packet.
I really had to be at work. As I walked away, I thought of getting a picture of him. I stopped three times on my way and then just walked away without one.
Simply because, I did not want to consider him an object for me to understand.
He does not care whether or not he is understood, he just wants work.
May be I could help him more by wearing old black leather shoes, and every once in a while resting my foot at that footrest and making him feel that he was doing me a great, invaluable service.
Even though I practically own all of the things that he used, to make my shoes shine, even though I really, really enjoy polishing my own old black shoes…..
More by : Charu Uppal