I remember my grandmother’s words whenever I seem to misplace my shoes, at home or outside of it. She used to say this often, mostly when we kids hopped, skipped and jumped barefooted all over the courtyard at home, that a shoe is not just a shoe. She must have meant it of course to connote the guard against unwanted nicks and thorns or bits of glass on the soles of one’s feet that shoes guarantee for children barely out of swaddling clothes. The constant remonstrance and strict reminder by Grandmother and by others in the house to use one’s footwear is an important part of my memories of childhood, simply because I cannot dissociate many things seemingly more important than mere footwear from this grandmotherly enjoinment of the shoes. And more so because in those days, I was told that people without footwear are people without status, chhotolok. I might add that it was not my grandmother who said so. This chhotolok-bhoddolok differentiation was something that I acquired by association in a huge family with too many unimportant and hanging on members. And I am not proud of it. Or am I proud of it? I wonder.
But a shoe definitely is not just a shoe, even if the safety issue is overlooked for an instance. A shoe is more than that. It is a very political object, or at least one that evokes an acute sense of the political in right earnest. The association of feet devoid of footwear with the chhotolok word and the association of well-polished shoes laced up in a perfect pattern will definitely suggest that, and seemingly demonstrate the possibility of the politics inherent in a pair of shoes. Those utterly ‘left’ of the idea that shoes are political will be cussed at, and mocked, and derided by some well meaning oh-so-rightists for saying that a shoe is political, or can be political at all. Those who would cuss thus would likely merit a ‘shoe beating’ or two about the ears (the pun very much intended, I am sorry) as a counter insult or a sort of sense-knocking. A shoe beating is definitely meant to be an insult, just as the specific North Indian habit, now ubiquitously Indian practice, of garlanding thieves caught red handed or culprits in some crime apprehended in flagrante delicto with an improvised garland of old shoes (jooton ki maala, or jootiyon ka haar) would make us believe. Even ‘modern day’ Bengalis who are not baboos in the strictest sense of the term use the phrase ‘shoe beating’ or ‘jooto peta’ as an indignant expletive of sorts to express utter discontent or exasperation. It is meant to insult, definitely. That phrase is almost always followed by words like ‘khawa’ or ‘khabi’ which are Bengali words for ‘eat’. Thus, in Bengal, and in spaces which are Bengali all over the world, you generally are threatened to be actually fed a ‘shoe beating’, that is, if you have done something that merits a drastic insult. There is another word in Bengali, the word ‘choti’ which signifies a lesser variety of footwear, not nearly as elegant as formal, laced up shoes. The astonishing thing is that this word is also used to connote lesser publications and paper productions like ‘choti boi’ (a thin volume of apparently frivolous interest) or ‘choti khata’ (a thin notebook made out of a minimum number of sheaves of writing paper). When college going young men turned lazy eve teasers are set upon by harried harridans or incensed women protesting those young men’s wayward teasing or harassment (this happens mostly on bus stops and taxi stands or even on buses in India), the first violent act that the women execute is to beat up that poor young’un with a shoe, a chappal precisely. Nothing can be more insulting to the young male’s ego than being beaten with a shoe, and a lady’s shoe at that. And how sexist a cultural paradigm is that? I do not know. But I can only wonder.
Now, when President Bush was assaulted midway into a speech with one member of a pair of sneakers by Muntazer al-Zaidi, an Iraqi journalist who also called Bush a ‘dog’ by the way after or during the shoe hurling, some thought that the world had literally come to an end. The most powerful man in the world, so to say, the President of the US of A himself, was rendered powerless in the face of such an insult. I, for one, think that it was more of the fact that the journalist’s voice of dissent found expression in a shoe being hurled that made the event so momentous and turned it into ‘breaking news’. Supposing it had been a writing pad, or even a pen, or a microphone that had been hurled at the President, would it have evoked the same furore all over the place? I sincerely doubt that. No sir, it was the shoe that did the trick. Why did Zaidi shout at Bush that the shoe-throwing was a “goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog”? The idea is very simple, absurd even, if you read it all with a lenient eye. But it is not that simple, however.
And soon that ‘shoe hurling’ became a fad of sorts in India, where all things American, irrespective of it being North or South, become ‘hip’ or even ‘cool’ very soon. A few days later, in April 2009, the then home minister P. Chidambaram, the suave one with owlish glasses was ‘shoe beaten’ by a senior journalist from the Dainik Jagran. And the newspapers went haywire, merrily denouncing the act or raking it up, as the taste went for them. A blog post from back then reads: “This is really shocking for the nation that the hono(u)rable Home Minister Mr. P. Chidambaram got hit by a shoe in a press conference.” The assault, one would do well to note, is probably not the matter of concern. It is the errant flying shoe which hit the minister that is all the more interesting, or so it would seem. Unluckily, Chidambaram’s shoe-kiss did not make it to world television. A few days later, a crazed student in some suburb near Silchar hurled a shoe at the headmaster of his school after he came to know that he had not passed the school leaving HSLC examinations. The innocent headmaster was merely bearing the brunt of a fad that had made its way into the popular unconscious, and the world electronic media should definitely be thanked for that, what with around a hundred re-runs of the shoe hitting Chidambaram’s shoulder flashing across NDTV and AajTak all the while. The frustrated schoolboy was beaten up by some bystanders and a general argument ensued of course. But this shoe beating did not make it to the newspapers at all. The fad proved to be nearly ineffectual in this remote suburb of a mofussil town in India, proving somehow, even though it may amount to stretching the argument a bit too far, that all things American are not effectual everywhere, whatever the reason maybe.
We all wear shoes, nearly all of us have a pair or two to spare or at hand when we wear one pair; that is, if one is not a rustic lad or lass a tad bit to uncaring for proper footwear, or if one does not have the means to pay for a decent pair, nor the energy to salvage some from the throwaway bin. And those of us who wear shoes are generally very particular about the appearance of the shoes that we wear. Well, that is if the person concerned is not a general slob by nature. When at school in a stringently structured Roman Catholic missionaries run institution, we were required to present ourselves to a daily cursory examination of our uniform by the principal or the vice principal (who was a lady full of vices herself and never wore nice shoes, if I may digressively add). The examination would begin with the amount of slick in one’s hair and end with the shoes. Sloppy shoes merited a caning, while nicely presented shoes merited a ‘yanna rascalla, get lost!’ (Deccan born missionaries like our vice-principal seemed to use this expletive more than often, “yanna rascalla”, which is definitely not Latin). (To be continued.)