Avadh Kishore shares a fun chat with an Indian shoe shiner
You could never miss him.
If you walked down from the Chowringhee end of Park Street and crossed Flury’s he would be there, well settled in the corner. Throughout the day he would call all pedestrians with his cry “Lagao India Polish!” descending from highest to lowest notes his chords would allow. He would call twice at a well calibrated frequency in the middle of the shoe shine and that was his trade secret to maintain the flow of customers.
He had a unique location to operate from. He sat in front of two large Calcutta Telephone roadside distribution boxes, each of which was just the right size for a large cinema poster. It was customary to have one poster of an English movie and one of a Hindi movie. His customers, while getting their shoes polished, could look at those appealing posters, names of the stars, music director, halls where the movie is released – information especially important for the college students.
For three years, every day while going to the college early in the morning, I saw this man all set to start a new day’s living. He was frail, dark, with unkempt hair but a well shaven beard – wore a clean spotless vest with sleeves and the usual lungi with checks. He had a slight hunch, maybe his day long posture contributed to that.
I seldom like to get my shoes polished on the roadside. But there was something in this middle aged man that after I had left college and happened to be on Park Street one morning, nostalgia made me wait my turn. I put my shoe on the top.
“Joota to sapha hai” (the shoe is clean), he said.
“Maloom hai per chamak nahin raha” (I know, but it is not shining), I replied.
His wrists moved back and forth, as he had when he first cleaned the shoe. Then he applied the cream. He wouldn’t talk. You were expected to put your other foot forward with the small nudge he gave to the shoe. Then he took out the black polish and showed it for a second. “India polish” he said, assuring that he is using a product he would advertise. And then, with his fingers he started applying the India polish.
The poster of Dus Numbri stared at me. He saw me carefully looking at the crafty look of Manoj Kumar.
“Yeh saneema dekhen hain kya?” (Have you seen this movie?), he asked me. “Kyon koi khas baat?” (Why, anything special in this movie?), I replied. “Nahin, aajkal dus numbri logan ka jamaana hai.” (Nothing, it is just that these are days of the crooks).
I moved my eyes from the Dus Numbri to the English poster.
My concentration was broken by the sudden eruption of his cry, “Lagao India Polish!”
The polish had dried and it was time for him to give that ultimate shine. He topped it up with a thin muslin cloth and made sure that the final rub emitted a screeching sound. That was the litmus test.
“How much?” I asked him.
“Two rupees,” he said.
My visits to Park Street reduced once I was employed outside Calcutta. I would go to Park Street for specific jobs and wouldn’t get the leisurely time of walking down at ease. However, on one of those visits from Bombay, I thought I would meet up with an office contact at Flury’s. I had adequate time before the meeting to go down memory lane. I was not surprised. “Lagao India Polish” was very much there in the corner. He was happily carrying on his trade and the posters of the movies continued to attract all pedestrians. I did not miss the chance. I put my shoe on the top and left him to do the rest. I thought it would be good to strike a conversation.
“Main bahut dinon baad aaya. Kaisa chal raha hai?” (I have come after a long time. How’s it going?).
He looked up to figure out whether he could place me.
“Aaajkal tarah tarah ka joota nikal aaya hai, polish kum ho gaya hai, phir bhi guzara ho jaata hai.” (These days different types of shoes have emerged, people get their shoes polished less, but I am able to make both ends meet.).
“Are bhago……..” (let’s run).
He did not bother to finish the act. He ran with his shoe shine box, admirably swift, as he saw the cops approaching the pavement vendors with their lathis and asking them to clear the place. The cops left in no time and he also reappeared in no time assuring me that nothing more is going to happen. He gave a good shine to the shoes.
“Lagao India Polish!”
The poster of Raja Hindustani looked at me in a mysterious manner. Aamir Khan was dominating the movie world, the age of Dev Anand, Dharmendra and Manoj was all but over. Not only had the leather and shoe industry taken a turn, the Hindi cinema had taken a turn too.
The decision to become a non-resident takes away from you many treasures including the sounds and smells of your city. Very little time is on hand when you come for a holiday as there are so many loose ends to be tied. Shops known to you close down, new buildings crop up, new flyovers disturb the geographic images you had always carried. Park Street is now known as Mother Teresa Street, though very few people know about and use this name.
Fortunately I had time on hand one afternoon, so I took my usual college route and started walking down. Somewhere in my heart my purpose was to see if Lagao India Polish! still existed. I could not hear that familiar cry as I approached Flury’s nor see anyone in the corner. The movie poster of Dabang 2 prominently looked at the pedestrians. I asked the pavement book seller if any polishwala was there. He said that I should cross the road and check as all such pavement dwellers have been removed to the opposite side.
I crossed the road and to my great relief that man was still there. He was very old now but managed to do his job. He had stopped calling out for customers. He would just hit the shoe brush twice on the box to make his presence known.
I put my foot ahead.
“Kaisa chal raha hai?” (How is it going?), I asked authoritatively.
This time when he looked up he thought I was an old customer.
“Are bahut mushkil hai sahib. Dus dus rupiya se kya mehengai khatam hogi.” (It is very difficult Sir. By taking ten rupees per shine can I kill the price rise.).
“Beta nahin kamata kiya?”(Doesn’t your son earn?).
“Woh apna liye kamayega apna bibi bachcha ke liye ya mere liye?” (Will he earn for himself his wife and children or for me?).
“Is tarah ki mahangai mein mulk ka kab tak chalega?” (How long will the country continue with this high cost of living?).
There was a silence. I thought there was nothing for him to answer.
Surprisingly he kept the brush down, looked into my eyes and said,
“Jaante hain sahib, jab tak hindustan ka garib roj subah apne ghar se imandari ka roti kamane nikalta rahega tab tak hindustan chalta rahega,”(Do you know, Sir- till the day the poor man of India comes out of his dwelling every morning to earn an honest day’s meal, India will survive).
(Avadh Kishore is from Muscat, Oman. He is the Director Finance of the OTE group of companies, one of Oman’s leading business groups. He was the Chairman of the Muscat chapter of the institute of chartered accountants of India (2010-11) and lectures frequently on topics of professional interest.)