For you it may sound like a silly story. But it means a lot to me. It is the story of a lost slipper (chappal). When I see lost foot wears on the roads I think about its other pair. Generally we do not see one complete pair abandoned. What makes one slipper fall down? What happens to the other? Why these lost slippers give you a sense of pathos? I know, by looking at a pair of footwear one could weave a story around it. One can have several hypothesizes around a pair of shoes as done by Martin Heideggar, the German philosopher. Or like the cobbler in Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’, one could look at the footwear and identify the character of its owner. But abandoned shoes and slippers are a painful sight. It brings the history of holocaust in your mind. Those dead people who were once the owners of those footwear come back to your mind and haunt your peace. Yes, the abandoned footwear is an object of meditation.
I have strange memories about slippers. When I was a child, in our village people rarely wore footwear. Those people who went out for jobs wore rubber slippers made by two major companies called Bata and Corona. Those people who could not afford to buy branded slippers wore rubber chappals bought from the streets. They looked thin and poor like their wearers. Unlike these days people did not throw their slippers at the slightest provocation. If the belt was torn they went to the cobbler who either mended it or replaced it with a strap of the same color. Mostly chappals came in two colors; blue and faded yellowish brown. Cobblers stocked such straps as they knew often people broke their slipper straps thanks to over use. Some people wore slippers till their foot print gets imprinted like in a linocut sheet. Some people walked in a peculiar way so that the pressure of their toes and heels formed similar shaped imprints in a color hidden under the white upper layer. Looking at the slippers removed at the doorsteps one could see islands of blue and brown in them. Some people wore them for long years and they became wafer thin. Some developed holes at the sole. Still people wore them. Losing a slipper was a major crime and a cause of a lot of heart burn.
(Shoes by Vincent Van Gogh)
People were very careful about their slippers. We saw shoes in town shops and newspaper advertisements. During the rainy season, papers and magazines advertised plastic footwear. Duck Back was the major company that produced gum boot like shoes. Children like us used to imagine how we would look if we wore those royal duck back shoes. I had never seen a single child in my village or elsewhere wearing those boots. I used to wonder who would be wearing those magnificent boots in Kerala Monsoon. Summers brought dust on these slippers and they got discolored in the process. Hence, visiting the grandparents’ home or some relatives’ houses during the summer vacations started off with this major ritual of washing the slippers clean near the well. We spent hours in cleaning slippers. During the monsoon days, which heralded the opening of the schools after summer vacation, slippers used to be a menace for the mothers. As children and grown up walked alike in mud and slush, the slippers gloriously flapped against the soles slinging mud dots behind the dhotis and shirts. A person who could walk in slippers without staining his or clothes used to be considered as a person who could ‘walk well’. We, children invariably created innumerable archipelagoes of mud behind our clothes.
If you ask me one footwear that could go with any kind of dress code, I would say it is rubber slipper. But today, slippers have become bathroom chappals. Dashing young men of our village in those days wore bellbottom pants with slippers. Respectable school teachers, government officials and politicians wore rubber slippers without any problem. Shopkeepers and fish sellers also wore the same chappals. Perhaps, the real equality was in the case of footwear in those days. Getting a pair of abandoned slippers was considered to be a boon for many of us during Sundays when most of us used to turn out to be treasure hunters. Those were not the days of Chinese toys. As necessity was the mother of all inventions we used to make our toys; a piece of rope could turn into a train or a bus or even a covetable Fiat car if both the ends of that rope is tied together. Depending on the length of the rope the type of vehicles changed. An old cycle tire could become another vehicle. A few coconut shells could create a Walmart superstore where we sold available grass, pebbles, sands and stones as consumable items. And the money was the broken pieces of pots.
When the fervor of invention went to further heights a pair of rubber slippers fished out from the attic or from some pits, transformed itself into a pair of tires fitted against a thin steel rod from an old umbrella. This was passed through a papaya leaf stem or a reed and the middle of it was tied to a long stick procured from some old furniture. Then a speedy two wheeler was ready. With mouth making engine sounds and the indispensible horn children ran along the plots of land, across the courtyards of various houses where elders rested by looking at newspapers or listening to radios. We kept our times in the watches made out of coconut leaves. Police chased us with their caps, cross belts and socks made out of knitted jack fruit tree leaves. A pair of slippers carved into a pair of tires could create a national highway out of the courtyards. We had to confront mean machines of other boys who were more inventive by adding more tires to their vehicles carved out of rubber slippers. They often acted as trucks that brought merchandise to the Walmart superstores under mango trees and tamarind trees.
Have you heard of cutting foot into size according to the shoes? Yes, it is a cynical expression that qualifies the sized up truths. But in villages people used to size up the long rubber slippers as per their needs. Once I went to visit a relative with my mother. Children have the tendency to forget things though they are very possessive about the things that the grown up people generally consider as the most insignificant things. On that day, after visiting that house when we got back home, to my shock I realized that I had forgotten my rubber slippers there. It was night and the house that we visited was a few kilometers away. I spent a sleepless night thinking about my dear pair of slippers. Next morning my mother engaged one of my truant friends to accompany me to the next village to procure my slippers from that home. We walked all the way, both of us without slippers and reached that house. I demanded my slippers back. They were poor people. Initially they feigned that there were no slippers left behind by me on the previous day. I insisted that I needed to inspect that house. I was innocent enough to be rude in that way as the thing I lost was my beloved pair of slippers. Finally they brought forth the pair. I was at the verge of tears as I found them completely mutilated. Half of the heels were missing from them. Some sharp knife was used to cut those pair of slippers to make suitable for a small boy of my age in that house. With anger welling up in my mind I snatched the pairs and ran back home with my friend following me all the while holding his knickers going down from his waist. When I reached home my mother asked me why I had not left them there itself. I did not understand why she asked me to do so.
When you stand at a sea shore you always see abandoned pair of slippers coming back to the shore seated at the crest of the waves. In childhood we had two beliefs about seas. One, if you wrote anything on the shore the waves would come and erase it. Mostly we wrote , “Mother Sea is a Thief”. The next wave would wash it away. We thought that our mischief had angered the sea and she did it deliberately. The second belief was that whatever you threw at the sea would come back in a few minutes carried by the waves. One day we all went to Kanyakumari as a part of our family trip. Shibu Natesan, now the well known artist, was in the group. We were hardly ten years old. Shibu threw one of his slippers into the sea. And it came back in the next wave. He threw it again and it came back. Emboldened by the returning nature of the sea he threw it again and again. But alas, even after waiting for a long time it did not come back. He had this rebellious character then also. So he picked up the other slipper which was there in his foot all the while, and threw it to the sea. Take it, he called out. And secretly we believed that after sometime both the slippers would come back. But they did not. He received enough scolding by his parents and relatives. And rest of the journey he finished like a true pilgrim with naked feet.
I know I have written a lot of about slippers. But I wrote all these to tell you about a slipper that was lost recently. My daughter wears a pair of beautiful red slippers with some pictures on it. Like any child of her age who has this divine gift of misspelling words and making them sound much better than the actual sound, she also calls her slippers ‘Pacchal’. It comes from the word chappal. In Pondicherry we went for dinner to a hotel which was a kilometer from the hotel we stayed. After strolling enough at the beach, we took a short cut to reach this restaurant that we had fixed for dinner. After dinner my daughter was very tired and she slept on my shoulder while we walked back to the hotel. Just before the hotel, a man who was starting his scooter found something and called us out. Hey, the child’s slipper has fallen. I thanked him and picked up the cute little slipper. But to our shock we found that the other slipper was also missing. While sleeping she had loosened the grip of her toes and it had fallen somewhere. We were very sad. After sending the family into the hotel I decided to walk back to the restaurant.
I could have thought it differently. I could buy her many other pairs of slippers if she wanted in the next morning. But I knew it was very dear to her; it was her pacchal and she wore it with pride. Perhaps, it was one new addition of her possessions in this material world that she has started learning about recently. I walked along the same side of the road with my head bent down, looking for each and every object at the side walk thinking that it was her slipper. I saw a few cars parked along the way. I even bent my knees surreptitiously to check whether they had parked their cars over that cute little slipper. I walked till the restaurant. Walked back but in vain. Interestingly, I found many other single slippers lying in different postures, but not hers. Next morning she got up and asked for her pacchal. We told her about it. She cried for long time and then she forgot about it. Even on the next day, I found walking the same street, by the same side with my family in silence. When we covered that stretched, I looked at my wife and she exchanged the same look and asked, ‘did you find’? My son pitched in, even I could not. We all were still looking for that one cute little slipper. All these while my daughter was thinking about a cat she had seen sitting at a fence.