Rohit Brijnath, in The Straits Times this morning.
The grandest treasures of my childish universe lay in my father’s cupboard. It was unlocked and yet forbidden, full of manly secrets not to be shared with a boy. So, of course, when he went to work, I turned burglar. In a small tray, lay a huddle of riches. A half-eaten packet of peppermints. Two quickly swallowed. A one-rupee coin. Purloined. A hankie with “R”. Pocketed. A hotel comb from his travels. Tried. Cuff-links? Now what were these?
I ran my fingers over his shirts, I felt the weight of his faded, corduroy jacket. Touching my father’s world. Discovering him through the hint of cigarette smoke that infused his things. I opened a scarf and wore it across my face like a bandit. I envied his socks – why, I do not know, for my father remains among the planet’s most unfashionably dressed men. Except on Christmas Day when waistcoat, cravat and jacket appear. For an atheist he seems to make an effort on a holy day. But don’t tell him that.
Across from my father’s cupboard in his bedroom, as I moved like a soundless boyish thief across the carpet, was his walk-in closet. In the front rested an old spool tape recorder of more promise than performance, which was taken religiously to a repairman, an angular chap who clucked and squinted and probed with a screwdriver. It wasn’t a careless era where you simply discarded a hiccuping machine and bought another. Anyway, how could these men let it go: the technician because repair was his craft; my father because this machine had once delivered to him an unforgettable music.
In the closet, hanging above the recorder were my mother’s saris, a neat row of cascading colour, but it was below that lay the real prize.
My father is a middle-class man, who arrived from no money and built his life with sweat and intelligence. A man not covetous, not a cheapskate, just cautious. He will proudly claim he has had four shirts stitched for the price of a single, branded ready-made one. We will not discuss the fit and cut. When he visits me in Singapore, and inspects shoes in the shops, he is more calculator than connoisseur. He will convert dollars into rupees ($1 is Rs48) and then rapidly have a series of minor coronaries. He thinks those Use-By dates on sauces are a collective conspiracy by manufacturers to seduce us into throwing away perfectly fine products. I wouldn’t use his tomato sauce if I were you.
And so, for this prudent man, his shoes were few when I was a boy. One pair of sandals. An office pair or two. And two other pairs. The first was old, brown and suede; the second was black, leather with laces. Even boys have Cinderella complexes: I wanted to try them on. Of course, they were too big, in ways I didn’t yet understand.
I asked my father if I could wear them, but he, a man big yet gentle, did not want me to. Not yet. Those shoes were too precious to him, those shoes – the suede and the black leather – were his own father’s. When he looked at them, did he see his father, long gone, standing in them?
We tidy up after the dead but never fully, as if that would erase them completely. Maybe possessions are part of memory. My father cannot explain why he kept my grandfather’s shoes then and he cannot tell me why, at 79, he still has them.
But if I could not wear those shoes, my father offered me something else in return: I could learn how to polish them with him.
No one polishes shoes like men of that age. Love bestowed on leather. It is an affection for old things, it is respect for property, it is meditation with brush. It is craft: a newspaper is laid out, a hand inserted into the shoe, the shoe held at an angle. One brush to apply black Cherry Blossom paste, worked in like a dutiful painter, another brush to shine.
Hurry is banished here. Then, from an old box, a rag, whose smears are reminders of previous labours, appears. It is held taut in two hands and pulled across the shoe in a sawing motion. It is the search for sparkle. When the shoe glimmers, it is in fact being revived. Is more than leather being given life?
The years went by, I grew up into a gangly teenager and one day I must have stutteringly asked again to wear those shoes to a party and my father, lying on his bed, stroking his beard like Gandalf in glasses, agreed.
On came my grandfather’s shoes. Later, for fun, I’d even borrow my father’s shoes.
Something happens when you walk in them, as if you’re abruptly encased in adulthood, as if you’re part of some rite of polished passage. Only later you understand that these shoes cannot quite have the same meaning for you.
These shoes belonged to men born in tougher times, when the framework of a nation was being arranged, who built a life for you from nothing, who cared for their shoes because they couldn’t afford too many. The shoes of these men may have fitted you perfectly, but you, who can buy shoes now without a second thought, can never really fill them.
My father, till two years ago, polished his own shoes. I am not my father for my shoes are grimy and unpolished, but on rare days when I spread open a newspaper and prise open a polish tin and struggle to find that old shine, I smile. There are things fathers leave you which never fade.
This week I fly to India where he waits. To live far from your parents, as many do in this city, has one blessing: the journey home. It is like riding a song; it is as if no plane can fly fast enough; it is the anticipation of the moment when you swing open a bent, clanking metal gate and feel a familiar gravel beneath your shoes; it is the knowledge, not grim but real, that as your parents age you are running out of visits and that one day this journey will end.
I will find my father probably in front of his television. He loves this box of pictures and for 55 years he’s loved my mother: the first whom he yells unprintable stuff at when politicians appear, the second in whose direction he slyly mutters when she complains the volume is too high.
He has five grandchildren, one great-granddaughter, is irritatingly deaf but mostly has his health. He has almost everything and swears he needs nothing. No Christmas present, he bellows. But perhaps from a man I took so much from, and still do, I can at least take him shopping in his cold, noisy town.
You know what for: a pair of shoes, of course