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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

Growing up meant growing out of shoes

An illustration of the children’s rhyme There was an old woman who lived in a shoe

t wasn't until we took our eighteen-month old nephew to a shoe store that I really began thinking of the relation between shoes and children. So long we'd bought him footwear to meet our visual delight. With a newfound adventure in walking, his feet had acquired a personality of its own. He was impatient with adults, us and the sales assistant included, and eventually decided on a pair of sandals that was two sizes too large for him. The shoe store, after the brand, was called Liberty. And so we accepted his choice though we would have been happier had he, like the khoka, the little boy in Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore's child rhymes, chosen a pair of red shoes.

On the way back home, as I watched my nephew woo and resist his new pair of shoes in equal measure, I was reminded of Rabindranath Tagore's poem for children called Juta Aabishkar (The Invention of Shoes in Sukanta Chaudhuri's translation). This is how the poem begins:

Said good king Hobu
To Minister Gobu,
'I've pondered all night: is it just
That whenever my feet
Should land on the street
They come to be sullied by dust?'

This is the good king Hobu's problem: he doesn't like dust on his feet, and he wants his minister to find him a cure. 'Millions of brooms' are bought to rid the earth of dust, but "the dust from the street/Was driven right into his rooms". Then, "to dowse down the earth/And settle the dirt/Some two million watermen" drain all the lakes, and so on. The trial and error continues: the land is covered with mats, the king is shut in his room, and yet that is not cure enough. Not until a 'smart leatherman' comes along and suggests,

My lord, please permit
That I may submit
A measure to bring you relief.
The whole earth you needn't ensheathe:
Just cover your own two feet.'
.... And that is how shoes were invented,
The earth saved, and Gobu contented.

Was that the only reason my nephew wanted shoes — to protect his feet from dust and dirt? I don't know. What I do know is that every time I pass by village schools on my way to work, I notice bare feet schoolchildren and wonder why the government doesn't distribute shoes and sandals instead of free bicycles. One film which left an indelible impact on the way I saw the world and its feet is the Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven. I remember crying for most of the film — watching a poor little boy lose his shoes, then pair up with his sister to share her sneakers to escape punishment in school, and in the end participating in a race where he plans to come third, the prize for which is a pair of sports shoes, but where he ends up coming second. The film ends with a shot of a pair of white and a pair of pink shoes among the father's purchases, and the little boy Ali's blistered feet. Would Ali have obsessed over shoes had we lived in a bare feet world?

I once heard Amitabh Bachchan say on a television talk show that his father had advised him to start treating his son, Abhishek, as an adult the moment both of them started wearing the same size of shoes.

There must be something about shoes that interests children. We grew up with fantasies of inter-space travel and running away from home, sending imaginary pleas to the writer and filmmaker Satyajit Ray to loan us Goopi and Bagha's shoes, those that could take us anywhere with the clap of a pair. A seven year old cousin once left a slipper, one half of a pair, outside a temple, hoping for a Prince to come her way like someone had come Cinderella's.

And yet, children somehow do not quite get shoes.

osalyn Saltz, writing about children's interpretation of proverbs in 1979, reported that seven-year olds had trouble getting the meaning of 'Now the shoe is on the other foot'. She wrote, "While they could comprehend either statement separately, they did not yet possess the cognitive flexibility and logical thinking strategies necessary to translate the images of 'shoes and feet' to represent the abstraction". I discovered a short essay on the experience of teaching children called 'Shoes My Size' by Mary E. Bowers in Elementary English (1949). This is how the essay begins: "'I think I can get some new shoes my size,' wrote Betty, who often found it necessary to wear hand-me-down clothes. Creative writing, like 'shoes my size,' can meet the individual needs of many children". I thought it pertinent that the young schoolgirl Betty used the metaphor of the shoe to talk about her lacks and wants in the world outside her classroom.

Does the child see the world like it sees the shoe — as a part of itself and yet causing alienation, as in this Charles Simic poem? "I belong to no one./Then, I remember my shoes,/How I have put them on/How bending over to tie them up/I will look into the earth" (Dismantling The Silence). I once heard Amitabh Bachchan say on a television talk show that his father had advised him to start treating his son, Abhishek, as an adult the moment both of them started wearing the same size of shoes. Is adulthood, then, only a change from Children's Size 13 to Adult Size 1? Is that part of the reason why Salim and Jamal, the young boys in the film Slumdog Millionaire, steal people's shoes at the Taj Mahal?

 
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