Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Cobbler

Raman sat on a small wooden bench in the small makeshift hovel while the cobbler was replacing the soles of his shoes. His shoes tended to chafe fast and this one had developed cracks, and the sides had given way to expose socks. He had used the pair for close to ten years, and it was full of stitches and leather patches. He decided it was time to give it a new sole, in which case it would last another five years. This man was his favorite cobbler, sitting by the intersection of the two main roads of Belapur, and he opened early and closed late. The other cobblers in the locality were all lazy and opened at 10 a.m. and closed at 6 p.m. for their nightly drink of bewda.

On previous occasions their exchanges had revealed that he was from Uttar Pradesh, and he was a farmer too. Twice every year he would go to his village to look after his crop.

“Bhai-saab Make it majbooth, so that it will last me a life time,” Raman said to the cobbler.

“Yes I will.”

The hovel was made of plastic sheets held by bamboo sticks, in which rested a trunk which contained the cobbler’s implements. There were assorted leather sheets, rubber tubing and other accessories lying around. A policeman came to the small hovel. He wanted his shoes polished. He was as dour, humorless man, and was breathing heavily, and cleared his throat often.

Policeman’s shoes were polished by the cobbler’s assistant, a thin individual with a high-pitched falsetto voice, more like a woman’s. He seemed an honest policeman for paid the cobbler before he walked to his beat position at the intersection. Raman could see him look at all the vehicles that passed, and occasionally gesture to a vehicle that was about to break some law.

The morning was hot and Raman could see people on the way to work. There were cute-looking girls wearing chappals, some of them so worn that he wondered why girls took no care of their feet. They may wear the best dresses but on their feet would be much-repaired sandals from a cheap road-side vendor. There were nicely filled out girls, whose bodies would give a “twooooingggggg” sound like a tuning fork if you even touched them. They vibrated all over as they walked their self-aware walk. But Raman knew they were all bitchy and very hard to please, something to do with their genes. His wife was bitchy, too.

“What should I charge for the bananas?” The cobbler’s assistant asked.

Then Raman noticed a basket of bananas that sat beside the hovel.

“It’s twenty rupees for a dozen, but you can give it away for eighteen, that would give us a profit of three rupees,” the cobbler said.

But there were also apples, and berries laid out on a wooden plank, covered by a cloth that looked like a woman’s.

“So, you are into the fruit business.”

“Yes. I am. It belonged to my wife.”

“Where is she now?”

“She left me.”

Raman’s breath caught, sweat had formed on his brow, and he wiped his face with a handkerchief. He somehow managed to hide his embarrassment.

“With whom?”

“With a havildar.”

“That one?” Raman asked pointing to the policeman who was standing in the middle of the road directing traffic. He was now wearing a cheap goggle to protect his eyes against the afternoon glare.

“No. Not that one. He is a friend.”

“You mean the one who ran away with your wife?” Raman asked.

The cobbler looked irritated.

“What saab? How can I call the man who ran away with my wife a friend? But it happened and I accept it.” He turned his face and spat, not bothering to get up.

He had torn off the old sole and was fitting a new sole to Raman’s shoe. Somehow he seemed willing to talk. Replacing the sole would fetch him Rs 150, a good amount. Raman was curious to know his story, how it all happened.

“She just walked in one day and sat here next to my shop to sell fruits, she was pretty and about half my age, and beautiful, aah, the sort of girl who would go “Tooiiinggggg” like a tuning fork if touched,” he giggled and spat at the spot where she presumably sat.

“Her name was Suman,” he added.

Oh God! This is a lucky bastard, this tyke of a man, Raman thought.

“Then our love started, in between cobbling shoes and selling fruits.”

So this man, this nondescript, rough-looking man who chewed tobacco had an affair with a girl half his age? His teeth were protruding. But about love’s caprices Raman knew plenty. Wasn’t he one of its victims?

“You had a love affair?”

“Yes, it happened, just happened. Not like they show in the movies, initially it was just talk, and then it went on to intimacies. Then I married her in front of a temple in the presence of a priest. Then she came to live in my zhopda.”

Raman knew that the richest and the poorest were often the most promiscuous. They marry and leave their partners, and go away when they find someone they like a little more. It was the middle class that remained stuck to their ideals of morality and monogamy. This man probably had a wife in his native Uttar Pradesh, and had made one here too. Enjoying life, Raman thought.

“Initially it was a good arrangement. Our business began doing well and we put that phone booth over there. We had three people working for us: two people at the phone booth and one to help with the fruits.”

That’s a typical Indian enterprise, the roadside vendor. There’s money to be made in a small hovel by the road, in the swelter, exposed to smoke, heat, dust, and the streets. They sold anything from fruits, telephone calls, and services like mending of shoes. This man is an entrepreneur; he must have made a lot of money.

“Then it all began to go wrong. When she first came here and I gave her this space, she said she didn’t have any family, just a wandering fruit seller. And there was this havildar, like that one there, who would stand at the intersection and come to buy fruits and have his shoes mended. I was suspicious of him from the start. She started flirting with him saying he was from her village in Ratnagiri and spoke her language – Marathi.”

The shop assistant called out in his effeminate voice. He wanted to know how much he would have to charge for one and a half dozen bananas, at Rs 18 a dozen.

“Twenty-seven, you lazy idiot, bewakoof,” he shouted to him.

“One fine day she said she wanted to go to the market to buy fruit and didn’t come back. The havidar also was not to be seen. So I went to the police station to write a complaint, and told them one of their havildars had done this to poor me.”

“Did they write the complaint?”

“No. They laughed at me and asked me for papers to show that I had married her and to show proof of her identity. I didn’t know a thing about my Suman. I had never bothered to ask. I have a wife in Uttar Pradesh and she hardly talks to me when I visit her twice a year.”

“You were at fault keeping two wives; do you know it is a crime?”

“What about us poor people, saab, we have no fixed life like you people. We go where we please, make any woman as our wife; we don’t know all the kanoon-binoon.”

“Oh, okay,” Raman grunted as he watched the cobbler give his shoes a firm hammering on the cobbler’s shoe last.

“And you made no further attempts to contact her?”

“No. But I know she will come back. She has to come back one day.”

Raman was surprised, “How do you know?”

“She was pregnant with my child when she left.”

“How do you know she will come back?”

“That harami Havildar will not bring up another’s child, would he? He would soon realize he had been cuckolded! Meanwhile, I will keep running this fruit shop for her.”

Raman’s wife, too, had run away with his only child. The man who seduced her was a clerk in the revenue service. On evening Raman returned from work and found a note on the kitchen table.

“I can’t stand your stingy ways anymore. I am leaving you,” it had said.

I still have hope, Raman thought.

He paid the cobbler, wore his freshly-soled shoes and walked out into the hot sun. The shoes felt odd on his feet.