Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Footwear weaponry in the modern world

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......


  1. Wow.. oh wow. I loved this post. I loved how Audabai stood up for her daughter-in-law and for the treatment of women. You're right ~ President Bush tried to make light of a serious insult. *sigh* I was so sad to see what happened to him and embarassed as well.

    Maybe one day we will have a female President and may she have Audabai's strong spirit and courage!

  2. This was an amazing post - truly one of your best. I love the way you weave the story.

    I think Bush is souless so it didnt offend him.He laughed in fact.

    I love hearing about your life growing up and about the special people you meet.

    I think all of us for a bit of Audabai's strong spirit and courage.

  3. Oh, you are such a marvellous storyteller! You start with one thing and you make it into something totally different but that explains the meaning of things, the first line in your story; a lesson in life, in behaviour, in history – And then the last line – I just love it.

  4. I love how your mind works, so many threads to weave the cloth of your story.

    Audabai is my kind of woman.


  5. Thank you Audabai for being the woman I would like to be.


  6. i love the way audabai's story very effortlessly made its way in here...

    and growing up we could never, never walk into the house wearing the outside footwear...the tradition stil continues...:)

  7. Aleta,Lilly,Fida,Kay,Pearl,Priya, Suma

    Ladies, Thank you for the kind words. Next time I see Audabai (when I go to buy my vegetables), I will tell her that she now has a bunch of international admirers....

  8. I have seen that in South maharshtra and bengal, still people remove the footwear before entering the house...its only in north that this tradition doesnt prevail except that we dont wear chappals in and around Pooja room.
    Would love to see all woment turn into Audabai,very interesting post!

  9. Dear Madam,

    I believe our Indians (especially men) over a period of time have lost all the teachings, values and morals passed on by elders. They do not have any concept of karma at all. If they did they would not be behaving in this fashion. Men forget that what evil acts they do will come back to them one day or the other during their lifetime to haunt them.

    Until then they have to learn their lessons the hard way. I firmly believe that India should have more tougher laws for people who molest children and ladies.

    Good story, do seriously consider coming out with a book. I will be the first in the line for your autograph. I do not know if you have read Sudha Murthy's books. Your stories are as good or in cases better. ( Please note I have the highest respect for Sudha Murthy's literary capacities after having read all her books).

  10. Salaam Audabai !!

    May be our ministers need to take a leaf out of her book.

    The guilty must be punished....

  11. I'm pleased it wasn't mandatory for the journalists to remove their footwear that day Suranga. It would have spoiled the fun!
    I know President Bush laughed - but so did akmost the entire world - and we were doing it WITH the journalist. I hope he is not punished.
    June in Oz

  12. Renu Maybe things get really cold in the north. But I think, all over India, in temples everywhere, devotees always remove their footwear, and special arrangements are made for that.....

    Ganesh Thank you. And I still click on your name each time to see if you have started your blog.....:-)

    Hitch Writer Audabai had real guts. I wonder how many of us would have been so gutsy.

    R.Ramesh Was surprised to note that such things happen in Dubai too. I was under the impression that such things were dealt with harshly in Islamic countries, and hence it was a deterrent. ....

    June I guess if you take over a country you have to also go along with its customs; such as throwing shoes at someone to indicate your anger and disgust. .....though Audabai's method may have more immediate results.

  13. Good for Audabai!

    We need Audabai's sense of outrage and determination in other spheres of womanly life!

    In my days as a student in Mumbai, I have myself pulled off a chappal and hit someone with it, while boarding a double decker bus. The creep had groped me repeatedly in the crush to get onto the bus.

    I can still remember the sensation of hanging onto the bar on the side of the bus deck, one foot unshod, and flailing away with my chappal armed hand at the guy. I got in several good whacks and the bus passengers got to hear some very colorful language from a otherwise primlooking young girl!

    And yeah the crowd cheered and pushed him off the boarding deck before the bus picked up great speed!

    I have to tell you, it was very empowering.

    As for Bush, I have to say... great reflexes. I dont think a more portly Bill Clinton would have ducked quite as quickly! Though I have a faint suspicion that Bill would probably have been ducking womens underwear rather than footwear.

    I am not sure that at first, Bush quite understood the shoe throwing insult in that particular cultural context.

    Oh and just so that he does "get" it... perhaps he would like me to demo that again for him with a detailed cultural context explaination? hehehehe

  14. I think if a woman had thrown that shoe, she would not have missed. If it had been a high heeled shoe, he could have been hurt bad. I do not think he should have thrown it due to Bush being president and the Iraq leader being there also. I don't like Bush but I do have respect leaders of our countries. I think your friend did the right thing and I applaud her courage.

  15. What a lovely post! I remember so well that wonderful custom of removing shoes at the door, and wish we still followed it in our home.
    Audabai is a courageous woman indeed- creeps like that are the bane of every woman's commute in Bombay, and it made me laugh with joy to read how she had dealt with him. Kudos to her!

  16. Another Kiran in NYC Thank you for your comments. I guess those of us who grew up and went to school/college using public transport in what were then big cities, have a story like this to tell. But everyone is not so gutsy as you and Audabai....

    Judy I agree. A woman would not have missed her aim. Like you, I am not happy that this thing happened, but it makes me think what would have been my reaction, if someone had overrun my country and then come around on a sort of victory-lap-cum-interacting-with the-natives trip, expecting to be applauded.....

    Vaishali Thank you for the comments.

  17. Dear Madam,

    Due to your encouragements and kind support I have started my blog and request you to visit it. The address is

    Your comments will be appreciated.

  18. one of the best posts ive read in a while..yes, we need to hit such men with chappals and sandals and all that we can get..but I liked the way, the post began and the little nuances you shared with us ..

  19. Audabai is absolutely marvelous.... I wish I could do the same to the macchi walis in the local who regularly punch me in the stomach and arms..... so much that if recession does hit us real bad i will taking up boxing professionally.

    Some days back when I alighted at Kurla station the same thing happened and some women dragged the man in question (eve teaser) by his collar...... total bollywood style (on the stairs..... like the ones gabbar used to tie behind his horses) and took him to the police station at kurla..... I was so happy that day.... truly means women power!!! They should do it more often next time i will get a pic of them doing it.

  20. Thank goodness Bush did not have to face Audabai's ire!!! Hell hath no fury...(just joking), but it is good to read about sleazy slimeballs getting their come-uppance at the hands/footwear of Auda(cious)bais.

    And as Ranu commented, we Bengalis also always open our shoes (and wash our feet) after returning home from work/play/outside.

  21. Wearing"sapaata" in the house was oh so fashionable which as you have written was enjoyed by very few (I guess those who didn't have grandparents living in the house with them)
    My grandparents house in the village (country side for all you international folks..hee hee)had faucet and an area to wash feet (Oati)before entering the house. I guess we all had to say the tables after the prayers was because if we couldn't solve math problems during exams we have to resort to praying and may be in the process remember those tables.. hee hee just a guess>

    I had no idea that feet and diabetes were closely related.


  22. loved the tale of audabai - and her own awareness of her rights.
    i remember reading once about a tribal custom that meant that when you met them, they introduced themselves in terms of their family tree going back 7 generations. And, for each generation they would recite the fame and glory of their ancestors. and, others were soupposed to reciprocate the same way
    The reason ? by the time they finished the introduction - they got to know the other party and would be less inclined to kill them :)
    sometimes, there are good things about customs :)

  23. And not to forget the garland of chappals.

    The issue of going barefeet stirs so many conflicting emotions in different people.

    Wonderful story.

  24. LakshmiThanks so much for your nice comments.

    Ranu Yes, I too have seen this happening at some train stations. And I am glad the women can teach these guys some tough lessons. Travel must be safe at all times.

    Sucharita Sometimes I wish more of us had the sort of guts that Audabai had....

    Vinita I too remember the "sapaataa", and how folks thought it was a sign of "sophistication"....and yes, if one is a diabetic, healing is slow and difficult, and so one needs to be specially carefully about ones sapaataas here are a good idea, and the question of sophistication doesnt really arise...

    Harini Calamur Yes. Audabai rocks. And I didnt know about this tribal custom that you describe. It makes so much sense. Not to mention oral preservation of the "kulavruttant"........

    Anil P. But how could I forget the garlands ?....maybe next time i blog about some ministers in the govt, I will remember the garland of chappals...

  25. Great story about Audabai and her courage and demand for what is right. I also have to admire the shoe thrower. Some act as though he was trying to assault the president but it was insult and you can tell by how he threw that it was no attempt to hurt. He struck out in the only way he could.

    In my daughter's home, shoes are removed at the door and we either bring slippers or go stocking or barefooted. In my home, we wear the shoes but I respect her traditions and it does definitely keep her floor better. Since our cats go outside, we can't totally protect ours anyway. We do try to take off boots though in the utility room to at least limited heavy mud from the house.