In this country, people don’t take their shoes off before they enter someone’s home. Or even a place of worship, like church. They keep their shoes on all the time. Sometimes I think they keep them on even when they sleep. But every now and then, this strange lot does the unthinkable. They remove their shoes. Maybe to feel the grass beneath their feet at a park or before getting into a swimming pool. The best place for nicking them, of course, is shoe shops, where I have the option of brand new shoes as well as an older pair that an unsuspecting customer may have taken off to try on a new one.
I have to work very hard. Be very quick. Through the day, through the night. I have to keep going if I want to meet my goal of collecting more shoes than I did the previous time. Then I empty the load at the same spot that is quickly becoming famous. People come from all over to gawk at the place that they thought shoes were being dumped. I enjoy the bewildered looks on their faces. Kind of like my own private joke.
Two years ago, my beautiful wife died. I had always prayed that I go first so that I wouldn’t have to live without her. But she left me and suddenly I found myself splashing around in the deep end without a paddle. Pavi and I had lived together in the same village that we were originally from, for forty-three years. We had children but our world was too stifling, too limiting for them. Our son left to study in Delhi and his sister followed soon after. They are bright kids who soon got jobs and moved to the United States.
When Pavi died, our daughter Suri, had been visiting. She had sat by her mother’s bedside and later arranged the funeral. When the last rites were finished, it was dark outside. We had sat down to dinner without appetites. Her husband and children had gone to bed several hours before that. ‘Would you like some dal dad,’ she said. I nodded, barely. She spooned some of the yellow liquid into my plate and then gave me two chapattis to go with it. She served herself as well and we sat picking at our foods for a long time, in complete silence.
‘Dad, I want you to come live with me. In America. I can’t leave you here by yourself.’ We had had this conversation before. My English had never been very good and I hadn’t spent much time outside my rural home. I hadn’t spent much time outside a life with Pavi. The kids had always spoken to us in English hoping that we would learn some. A few years ago, Suri bought her mother and I a laptop and taught us how to use the Internet.
‘Suri … you have your family … and…,’ I said in my native language.
‘Yes, I do. But you are also my family and I want you to come live with me.’
A few months later, Suri visited again, this time on her own. She helped me pack and move. With her. To her. Away from Pavi.
Every year, just before the monsoons, there used to be padh yatra, a pilgrimage on foot, which ended at a temple not far from where we lived. Devotees from all across the country would abandon their shoes along the sides of the national highway to walk barefoot toward the deity. They came from within the state and Kolkata and places as far away as Mumbai and Gujarat. They walked for miles and miles hoping that the deity that was their destination, would be pleased with them and bless them.
Pavi and I had loved this time of year. We loved the sight of piles of shoes and the throngs of people that would pass by our home. We looked forward to the event every year. There was something familiar and comforting about it but it still felt new and exotic each time. It was Pavi’s idea to set up a stall outside our home that travellers could stop at for water and snacks. We also offered first aid for cracked heels, calluses and minor injuries. When she died, so did our annual ritual, and much of the life that we had created together. Collecting the shoes and creating the pile was my way of holding on to my Pavi. Of clinging to her memory in this foreign land where people did not remove their shoes before entering someone’s house or before they went in to a place of worship.