The time has come," as someone said, "to talk of many things: Of shoes and trips - and press meets. - of presidents and kings....
Here is a Press meet, of presumably the most powerful person in the world. There is a Secret Service, a not so secret checking of everyone going in, individual passes, a respectful audience, disciplined questions, and the man on the stage , on his last tour, is facing the world. A guy in the audience, simply pulls out his shoe and flings it on the dais, with anger in his eyes. The gentleman on the stage, powerfully ducks (a la Sachin Tendulkar facing a bad bouncer), and then announces the shoe size, while his bouncers wrestle down the shoe thrower.
It has occurred to me that this wouldn't have happened if social customs decreed that you removed your shoes before you went inside some one's place.
Growing up in India, one always had a shoe rack at the house entrance , where one removed and kept one's shoes and sandals, on entering. Given the hot temperatures around, most people wore sandals , or, what are called "chappals ", sort of slip-on footwear without any binding, per se, and lots of places for air to flow around. School uniforms demanded what were called "naughty boy shoes", and "keds", and these were duly worn at school, and never looked at again.
When ever we visited someones house, we removed our footwear outside, or at their entrance, just inside, and there were glances of disapproval at those uninhibited souls who traipsed in, in their footwear, and dragged it across the cool floor tiles. In the city of Pune, where I grew up as a child, winter was very cold, the tiled floors were extremely cold, but I do not remember anyone one in our house, including elderly folks wearing any slippers and stuff.
You always had a room in the house where your little corner-of-the-Gods was, and it was completely taboo to wear any footwear there. You came in from playing in the cold outside, washed your feet clean with water, and that was where you recited your prayer stuff every evening before meals. ( Its not clear why we did so, but along with prayers to God, we also recited various mathematical tables then, with the result, that even today, tables of , say 27, do not cause any palpitations, and one can give answers possibly , instantly.)
When you went out, you were comical vision, with the various scarves, mufflers, monkey caps, sweaters, coats and what have you. We had never heard of thermals; and when we did hear of them in school, we thought they were natural springs that gushed forth as hot geysers in some places. A 5:30 am school PT session, meant cycling there, teeth chattering, but it never occurred to anyone that gloves could be used.
Of course , there were families, who wore "chappals" in the house; these were invariably families, where the man had some connection to the armed forces, a twirling moustache, and a rigid bearing, while his better half, almost always wore lipstick, sleeveless blouses, and sometimes , short hair, which was suitably frowned upon by the hoi-polloi like us. They invariably cooked something non vegetarian on Sundays, and any mention of that was bad enough for my grandmother to put her fingers in her ears.
By and by, things changed. Global warming was in its nascent stage, Kyoto was still a small town in Japan, and Al Gore was probably in kindergaarten. Prosperity sort of trickled in here and there, and brought with it the diseases associated with it. Folks started getting diabetes. And house slippers made an appearance in an effort to take care of ones feet, so important in a diabetic person.
Footwear graduated from being a need , to a fashion accessory, sometime, when I was in my twenties. Of course, there were always people up there who had all the time in the world to match their sarees with the color of their chappals, but one didn't move in those circles, so to speak.
Sometime in the 80's things progressed very fast where footwear was concerned. Shoes started belonging to Brands, and became a status symbol. Magazines for fashion appeared and young girls braved pot holed roads, to run and catch buses, wearing high heels. Visits to temples required, that you remove your footwear outside, and when you came out, sometimes your own pair would have disappeared and a cheapy brand would be there in its place. The North Indian wedding custom, of the bride's side hiding the groom's shoes (he didn't wear them during the religious ceremonies), and returning them for a hefty monetary price, was avidly adopted by folks elsewhere.
But the basic attitude of footwear as something "beneath" you, so to speak, remained. Throughout the Middle East and parts of Asia, there cannot be anything more demeaning to a person, than to have someone else's footwear, hit him; whether thrown , or by direct personal contact, specifically, on the face.
My friend Audabai, (she would probably think the Audi was named after her, and she didn't know that cars could be called Audi), is in her 70's and runs a vegetable stall outside our Institute Gates. She did household help jobs while bringing up and educating a son, despite a drunkard husband. The son finished his college majoring in Economics, and decided to start his on vegetable business, providing fresh produce to the student dorms on a regular basis.
Audabai stopped working houses, and put up her own vegetable stall. Right opposite the police outpost on the main road. By and by, the son got married, and Audabai ensured that the daughter-in-law would be educated enough to do the business accounts. She would stand at her stall, sometimes in the burning mid-day sun, fanning herself with the end of her sari, rearranging vegetables, which customers had disturbed in their search for their stuff. She would occasionally accompany her daughter-in-law when the latter had to visit some unknown area as part of her course work. And she always took the bus.
Buses in Mumbai are always crowded. And regular travelers know, how to make their way from the entrance to the exit door, squeezing into small places, pushing a bit with elbows, umbrellas,purses, gauging the person ahead of them. Most men , are very considerate, and treat you with respect, even in that crush.
It so happened that while Audabai was returning with her daughter and moving to the front door to get off, some guy standing behind, who obviously got his kicks from touching folks, troubled her daughter-in-law. As such, it was difficult, even to turn around in that tight crowd, and the daughter in law gave a shove of her elbow, to whoever was behind her, and said something loudly. The people around her noticed , so did Audabai. They involuntarily moved forward with the surging crowd in the aisle, and the man continued troubling the daughter-in-law, who was now tearful and raging angry.
The bus stopped.
They reached the steps. A quietly enraged Audabai , tucked in the end of her saree at the waist, looked at the culprit, and urged her traumatised daughter-in-law to get off. Then she came face to face with the sick minded fellow, and advanced towards him.
She had one foot on the steps of the bus, and she removed her chappals. Caught hold off the surprised chap by his collar, picked up her chappals, and smacked him across the face with them.
"That will teach you. Looks like you don't have any mother and sisters. If you did, you wouldn't go around molesting women like this. " And she picked up the chappal once again to whack him on his face. Everyone in the bus started muttering how right Audabai was , and how the fellow deserved what he got. The conductor and driver of the bus, got up, and pushed the guy off the bus, with dire warnings.
Audabai was having none of it. She dragged him to the police outpost near her stall. Her fellow vendors, the coconut sellers, and fruit sellers,the flowers shop lady, gathered around, and made life miserable for the chap.
"Try troubling girls again, and you will get more". And she made, as if to take off her footwear.
She wiped her face, breathing heavily, adjusted the end of her saree across her shoulder, poured some water from a bottle across her face to let the angry sweat trickle off, and spat disdainfully in the fellows direction.
This happens in Mumbai, I think, somewhere, everyday. Sometimes it is fearless folks like Audabai, sometimes younger gutsy women , who have more dangerous footwear with heels, and sometimes, an enraged bus population.
It just makes me wonder, what would have been the case if the Iraqi person who flung the shoe was female......