I got into the Grand Trunk (GT) Express bogey from Alwaye (now Aluva) (that was the first time I got into a train) to go to Delhi in 1973. There was no direct train to Delhi from Kerala those days. One had to travel to Madras (now Chennai) and then catch another train to Delhi. One bogey of GT express, however, used to be attached to another train coming from Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) which took us to Madras. We reached Madras in the morning around 10. GT Express from Madras to Delhi was scheduled to leave in the evening at 4. So we had about six hours to ourselves.
When we got out, Narayanan ettan (my elder cousin with whom I was travelling) looked at my feet and asked, ‘Oh, you don’t have sandals?’
I said, ‘No’. I had never worn slippers or sandals till that time and I never felt the need for it. I didn’t understand why he was asking this. What is so peculiar in not wearing a pair of sandals? I was amazed. (Read another post related to this here.)
He said, ‘Delhi is not like your village back in Kerala. You cannot live in Delhi without sandals. Let us go and purchase a pair.’
So we went and purchased a pair of plastic sandals from the first available shop. I felt very uncomfortable walking using sandals. I thought I would fall. I walked very carefully. Boots used to be all right (which I had to wear as part of uniform while I was in the National Cadet Corps in college). They covered one’s feet completely and could also be tightened with laces. But sandals were different. You need to clutch it tightly with your toes and other fingers! Oh, God! What kind of customs has man made for himself? It was also unfamiliar because earlier with every step you touched different parts of the earth and the feeling used to be different and pleasant every time. This was slightly different when you walked on huge rocks on hot summer noons. We had to run. But take it as a new experience, and you will enjoy it, too. But now, it is only the sandals that you step on wherever you go! What a pity!
Since we had a lot of time, Narayanan ettan said, ‘Let us go to Moore market’.
Moore market, he said, was very famous. It was very near to the railway station. We could reach it on foot. And it would be a loss if we did not visit it. It was not to purchase anything in particular, but just to see and wander through the market. And then, we also needed to spend the time till evening somehow. So let it be Moore market. We were walking around looking at things and people and traders. Suddenly a man called us. He was a cobbler. He looked at my sandals and said he could make them stronger by fixing on to them some special kind of nails. He said if we did that the sandals would not need any repair for several years! Ettan contemplated after seeing his eagerness and readiness to ‘help’ us.
Ettan asked him, ‘How much would it cost?’
Cobbler said, ‘Thirty paise’.
It was a considerable amount 40 years ago. Ettan further asked, ‘For both the sandals?’
He confirmed, ‘Yes’.
Ettan then told me, ‘Let us do it’. And I gave him my sandals.
The cobbler stuck two nails on to one sandal. His eyes were all the time wandering around looking for more preys. Suddenly he got up and ran after another man pleading with him how he could reinforce his shoes. He did not want any such thing. The cobbler returned and started working on my sandal. After fixing another nail, he again ran after another person. This happened quite a number of times. We were getting frustrated. After a good 45 minutes he had ‘reinforced’ my sandals with nine nails on each of them. It should actually have taken two or three minutes. Ettan gave him 30 paise.
He looked at the coins and asked, ‘What is this?’
Ettan said, ‘Thirty paise, that was the agreed charge, wasn’t it?’ Ettan was already upset at the inordinate delay he caused in completing such a minor activity.
The cobbler said, ‘You have to give me 5 rupees and 40 paise’!
We were utterly shocked. The sandals had cost only less than five rupees. Now he wants even more than that for fixing some nails on it.
Ettan argued, ‘But you had said it would cost 30 paise.’
The cobbler then said, ‘Yes, thirty paise per nail. And I have put 18 nails. So it costs 5 rupees 40 paise.’
Ettan was very angry at this unreasonable demand and the misinterpretation of his own words.
He took out some more coins from his pocket, counted, and threw them at the cobbler yelling, ‘This is another rupee. If you want, take it, or else do what you want to do.’
Without waiting for the cobbler’s response, ettan clutched my hand and we walked away hurriedly.
I was scared. This was the first time I was travelling out of Kerala. These people were talking Tamil, a foreign language to me. And maybe this trader is a goonda, who knows? Maybe he has his gooda friends too somewhere hidden in the market. Maybe he would follow us with his goonda friends! I was really scared, but at the same time appreciated Ettan’s courage. I turned and looked back several times to make sure that he and his friends did not follow us. He did not. Maybe he had caught another client by that time. Or maybe he was happy that he had extracted a rupee more than he had actually expected.
Several years later, when I heard that the whole Moore market got destroyed in a devastating fire, I had mixed feelings. With the kind of trade they did, did God punish them?