Literary Shelf

Premchand's Torn Shoes

This is a translation of Harishankar Parsai's Hindi story 'Premchand Ke Fate Joote'

Premchand’s photograph is right in front of me. He is getting photographed along with his wife. He’s wearing a thick cloth cap, a kurta and a dhoti. The temples are flat, and the cheek bones are protruded, but the thick moustache makes the face look full.

He has canvas shoes on his feet, the laces of which are tied haphazardly. When used carelessly, the iron plates on the shoelaces fall off and it becomes difficult to put the laces in the holes. Then the laces are tied however possible.

The shoe on the right foot is fine, but there’s a big hole in the left shoe, from where a toe peeps out. 

My eyes are stuck on this shoe. I ponder – if this is the attire to be photographed in, then what would a normal one be? No, this man would not have different dresses for different occasions. He doesn’t have the quality to change dresses. He gets himself photographed as he is.

I look at his face. Do you know, my literary ancestor, that your shoe is torn, and a toe is visible through it? Do you have no realization of this? No shame, hesitation or embarrassment? Do you have no idea that by pulling the dhoti down a bit, you could have hidden the toe? But still… your face reflects a huge indifference, a strange confidence! When the photographer must have said, ‘ready please’, then as customary, you must have tried to bring a smile on your face, and you must have been trying to slowly pull out the smiles lying at the bottom of the deep well of pain, when suddenly in the midst of all this, the photographer must have ‘clicked’ and said, ‘thank you’. This incomplete half smile is rather unusual and strange! There’s an irony, a sarcasm in it!

What type of a man is he, who is not only himself wearing torn shoes, but is also laughing at someone?

If you had to get yourself photographed, then you should have worn fine shoes, or avoided the photograph. What would have been lost without the photograph? It could have been your wife’s request, and you might have obliged her with an ‘okay, fine’. But this is such a huge ‘tragedy’ that a man does not have a good shoe even for a photograph! As I look at your photograph, I feel like crying as I can feel your misery in the depths of my heart, but the sharp painful satire in your eyes stops me instantly.

You don’t realize the importance of a photograph! Had you understood, then you would have borrowed the shoes for the occasion. Grooms borrow even the coats for their wedding and use borrowed cars in the processions. Some people borrow even a wife for the photograph, and you couldn’t ask for the shoes! You don’t realize the importance of a photograph. People use perfumes when photographed. The photos of even the dirtiest men spread aroma around.

A cap can be bought in eight annas and the shoes…even in those days would have been nothing less than five rupees. The shoe has always been costlier than the cap. Nowadays the price of the shoe has gone up even higher and several caps can be sacrificed upon a shoe these days. This irony has never pierced my heart as much as it does today, as I look at your torn shoe. You were given the titles of ‘The great storywriter’, ‘The Emperor-Novelist’, ‘The harbinger of change’ and what not, but in the photograph your shoe is torn!

My shoe is also not good. Though it looks fine outwardly. The toe doesn’t show, but the sole under the big toe is torn. The big toe rubs on the ground and sometimes even bleeds as it rubs on the hard soil. The whole sole will fall off, the complete foot will peel off, but the toe will not come out. Your toe can be seen, but the foot is safe. My toe is covered, but the sole is wearing out. You don’t realize the importance of the veil; we are sacrificing everything on the veil.

You are wearing a torn shoe very elegantly! I can never wear it that way. Leave alone getting photographed this way, even if my biography gets published without a photograph.

This satirical, sarcastic smile of yours defeats my spirits. What exactly does it mean? What type of a smile is it? 

  • Was Hori’s godan accomplished?
  • Did the Neelgai graze off Halku’s farms in the chilling winter night?
  • Did Sujan Bhagat’s son die, because the doctor could not leave the party at the club?

No, I feel Madho drank away the money collected for his wife’s shroud. It looks exactly like that same smile.

I look at your shoe again. How did it get torn, my Writer of the Masses?

Have you been walking around a lot lately?

Did you take longer routes, walking miles and miles to avoid the money lender?

Walking doesn’t tear down the shoe, it wears it out. Kumbhandasa’s show also wore out in commuting to Fatehpur Sikri several times. He later regretted a lot. He said –

walking to and fro my shoes wore out
Even the Lord’s name I forgot!

And for such givers, he said –

Salute those from afar, whose sight invokes sorrow

The shoe wears out from walking, never gets torn. How did your shoe get torn then?

I feel, you have been incessantly hitting on some hard surface... something that has been accumulating layer-upon-layer over the centuries. Probably by kicking it continuously, you tore away your shoe. Some mound that stood in your way…you tried your shoe on that mound.

You could have avoided it and bypassed it. You could have compromised with the mound. Not all rivers break down the mountains; some change their course and flow down circling the mountains.

But you could not compromise. Was your weakness the same as that of Hori that ruined him, that ‘Nem Dharam’ – the religious-customary weakness? It was Hori’s manacle, too. But the way you are smiling reflects that probably ‘Nem Dharam’ wasn’t your weakness, it was your salvation.

This toe of yours seems to be indicating something to me. When you consider someone despicable, you do not like to signal towards him with your fingers, rather you do so with your toes.

Are you signaling towards that which you have been hitting hard and due to which you finally tore away your shoe?

I understand. I also understand the indication of your shoe and this sarcastic smile, too.

You are mocking at me and all of us who have been walking with the hidden toes and worn-out soles….at those who are walking past the mound, bypassing it. You are saying – I tore away my shoe by continuously hitting hard, even the toe came out, but the sole was intact, and I kept walking. But you – you are ruining the sole in the anxious effort of covering the toe. How will you walk? 

I understand. I understand your torn shoe’s indication. I understand your toe’s gesture. I understand your sarcastic smile, too.


More by :  Dr. Giti Tyagi

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