Monday, March 5, 2012

The perfect shine

My grandfather never owned a pair of shoes in the last eighty years. He still does not wear one.  Slippers or Chappals - as we used to say, are his kind. Even as he moved in his life from  rural village to the urban city that he lives in today, his best foot forward has always been in a pair of chappals... mostly worn out, never had a backup, carefully maintained and cautiously guarded - values typical of his generation.

He has always been a hands on man, not unusual for his times. During my school days, he kept himself thoroughly busy all the time, though he had retired from formal work. Fixing bicycles, binding our new school books with covers, and using the toolbox on a daily basis was his way of life. While growing up, I can vividly  recall the attention he used to pay towards the shoes in the family. That was one other thing that must have kept him busy.

My brother and I were going to a school that mandated black shoes on weekdays and white canvas shoes for the half-day school on Saturday. My dad was working for a private company and was already part of the professional generation that had stepped into the corporate office in  black shoes. 

My grandfather used to shine our shoes - at least, twice a week. When they were done, all of our shoes used to be lined up right next to each other - clean, shiny and ready. This happened for several years. He never ever said why we hadn't polished our shoes. He simply just picked them up and did it himself. As we grew older, we realized that we needed to take care of our own shoes and picked up the skills from him.  

Once I started polishing my own shoes, I realized it was not an easy job. So, I made up three different varieties - short, medium and long. 

The shorter version was used almost on a daily basis.  This is the kind you do when you are fully dressed, put your shoes on, get to your destination and then look at your shoes to realize it needed some cleaning ! Too late.. So, you stand on one leg, lift your other leg and take it behind the standing leg and start wiping the shoe off the pants.

The medium version is used when you realize your shoe needs a shine, while you are still at home tying the shoe lace. This is the version that just uses the  brush without the polish. Shine the shoe a couple of times with the brush and off you go..

The longer version is the hardest and the most thorough. Hence, this was limited to once a week over the weekends. It used to feel boring and monotonous doing this  version. Dust the shoes; Take off the laces; Scoop a little polish off the cake inside a round Bata tin with one side of the brush and rub it all over the shoes - right first, left next, leaving the shoes a little dry with no shine on. And then, pick up the other side of the brush to shine the shoes. Especially, this step was the hardest since it would seem like it lasted for ever to get the perfect shine. And finally, put the laces back on - right first and left next as though changing the order would upset the shoes. Many a time, I would feel the urge to change the order. But felt it was unjust in making the first shoe that got stripped off the lace wait longer.

To make the activity a little bit more interesting, there had  to be a challenge. My brother and I used to have a competition to see who can shine the fastest and get the perfect shine sooner. Sometimes, we were able to go for say 30 or 40 back and forth shines before we took a long pause to breathe and then go for another round. At the end of the activity, we put them right next to each other and implicitly hope for a comment out of our grandfather. The next time we pass those shoes, we would notice that our shoes looked shinier. He would not have asked us to try harder. But he would have shined it a little more to his standards and satisfaction. We took that as a cue and tried harder the next time.

Twenty years later, the three of us now live in three different cities. Gone are the days of having to  cautiously take care of a single pair of black shoes for years together . The values seem to have been diluted a bit too. At times, I feel guilty to admit that I have a pair of shoe for every day of the week. The shoes don't get dirty as much as they used to back then. Shoes today seem to never step on the harder life that their school day ancestors used to have been in. Mostly on carpets, never gathering dust and rarely spoiled by water - shoes these days  spend the most of their lives in  temperature controlled environments. The number of  shoes that I have and the quality of the environment they are in - hardly justify the polish ritual on a daily or even on a weekly basis.

However, I do miss the ritual every now and then. Usually, it seems like I can go on for about a month without craving for that perfect shine night. I don't know what it is about the activity. 
-  May be, it is one of the few  hands on things that I can do any time of the day from start to finish all on my own without other's help.  
- May be, it is one of those many Indian movies in which the hero goes from rags to riches - always starting off as someone who polished other's shoes - to denote a hard working kind with noble values. 
- May be, it is Lincoln's quote that my wife reminisces of her father. Some one who walked into Lincoln's office seems astonished at the sight of Lincoln polishing his shoes and asks "Sir, surely, you do not polish your own shoes?" to which the humble president responds "Whose do you polish?"
- Or May be, it is the trance like feeling of getting lost while doing a repetitious activity with no thinking at all
- Or May be, it is one of those activities, which the spouse recognizes as hard work and leaves you at it. I have noticed that there are hardly any interruptions during this activity, unlike while reading a book or in front of the laptop.
- Or May be, it is the way my grand father always seemed happy just being busy doing things around the house
- Or it simply was that my shoes were dirty and needed a polish

It typically happens once a month on a Sunday evening - when the little one goes to bed early after a long day on a busy weekend; when the wife is busy with her chores surrounded by soft instrumental music playing in the background; when I just return home,  take off my shoes and realize that my world is at peace.

Tonight was one of those Sunday evenings. 6 pairs using the longer version - 4 black and 2 brown, kept me busy for about an hour. Just like my grandfather did, I completed them all and  lined them up by the door. I washed my hands and admired the result - just like an artist admires his painting after finishing the work. When the wife asked why I left them there by the door instead of putting them in the shoe rack, I said the shoes needed some fresh air after getting work done. However, my wife very well knows that I am waiting for my daughter in the morning to pick up the shoe with the perfect shine for work on Monday.


  1. Good writing. Equivalent to R.K.Narayan's style.
    Keep it up.

  2. Pure, unadulterated joy is what I felt after reading this. Seems to have come straight from your heart and it shines through. Recollections of your grand dad, the times and how far we have changed are telling. I was never the shiny shoe boy at school and was often picked on by my missionary teachers. As far as manual Labor goes the sight of a freshly cut lawn after an afternoon's sweat gives me an unmatched sense of accomplishment.

  3. Loved the long blog musings at many levels...nostalgia for one. Reminded me of my lawyer gramps. His dressing style was unique. A heavy-heavy black coat with white Dhoti and black shoes. A typical lawyer wear. Obsolete. From another era.
    Growing up, I remember washing and then "polishing" our white P.T. canvass shoes. Applying the white liquid, drying and ritual competition bet. siblings-whose is whiter and stays white the longest
    Another side note: For women, it is not the outer shine that matters. I apply baby powder (deoderant) inside all the shoes in the closet on weekend and completely freak out when kiddos wear sports shoes without socks.