Inspired by these, this:

You haven’t done it, have you? I knew you wouldn’t do it. It’s always the same with you. You just say you’ll do it, and then forget all about it. This is the fourth time I’ve come. Each time you say, come in one hour, come tomorrow, come in the evening. As if I have no other work. You think?”

Madhukar’s long, thin face remained impassive as hers puckered up more and more with her scowl. It was as if he heard her from a great distance, and from a great distance he replied, “Come back in an hour, my son will keep it ready.”

The sharp quiver of his mustache could easily be mistaken for a smile, only an embarrassed one, but nevertheless a smile that only enraged the already infuriated woman. Bala glared at Madhukar and took one slipper in his hand, reluctantly. But before he could even turn the slipper in his hand, the angry woman bent down and snatched it. She didn’t even see the faint tremor of fear on Bala’s childish face. Bala picked up the other slipper beside him tentatively, and she grabbed that too from his hand. While she thrust the slippers into a humungous plastic bag, Bala stopped breathing, defying the tears to stay put in his eyes.

After she had stomped off, Madhukar shrugged slightly and looked at the three people standing before him. His mustache quivered more definitely in a mute plea for support from them. But none of them wanted to encourage him with the faintest of smiles. They were on the side of the shouting woman; each of them had made one round or two to get their footwear back from Madhukar.

Madhukar continued with his work silently. Bala rubbed a brown shoe vigorously with black polish. When the last of the three customers had gone, Bala exploded, “I am going to run away, Baba.”

Madhukar said distractedly, “No, you are not, Balu child.”

Bala said, “Yes, I am.”

Bala was ready to jump up this very instant and leave. Though Madhukar didn’t know it, Bala was quite sure of how to get back home to Aai.

He suddenly remembered the smell that clung to Aai, the smell of her sweat mingled with the smoky smell of the wood in the clay stove, and one tear fell defiantly on his cheek.

But then he remembered Aai kissing him over and over again, even after Baba had already reached the gate of their house. She had whispered against Bala’s cheek, “You will stay with Baba, won’t you, Balu? Don’t leave him alone, you know what he is like.”

He couldn’t go back home without Baba. Aai would only cry and worry about Baba, and not be happy that Bala was back. He was stuck here forever and forever in this tiny tin box in which he could barely stand, and Baba could only sit, on the corner of a busy road.

So he pleaded now, “Why can’t we just go back home?”

Madhukar said, “We can’t, Balu. We have a shop here now.”

Bala said, “This is not a shop. It’s only a tin box.”

And that it was. They could lock up the broken slippers and shoes in it at night. But Madhukar would not leave his tools there, or the polish box. Those, they carried to the room in the slum everyday, the hot, smelly, cramped room they shared with 13 other men. Madhukar slept with his tool bag under his head, and Bala with the polish box near his feet.

But Madhukar said, “It is a shop. I pay 500 rupees rent for it every month.”

Bala said, “Our shop in the village market is so big.”

Madhukar’s mustache went up a millimeter, and his nose swooped down to touch it, as he said sullenly, “You know very well, Balu, that is not my shop, but belongs to your Ajoba. And after Ajoba, it will be yours. I have no shop in the village. This is my shop here.”

Bala knew that the shop in the village market would be Baba’s after Ajoba. But who could argue with Baba’s mustache or Baba’s nose? Only Ajoba, who had a sharper mustache and a sharper nose.

Bala decided that he would never grow a mustache, and he would rub his nose for 10 minutes every day to flatten it a little. He looked around him morosely, rubbing his nose. The city was so crowded. The noise of the incessant traffic and people made his head throb. How different from the market at home.

That was crowded too, and got very dirty by the end of the day, garbage left by the stream of tourists walking through – cans, bottles, plastic bags, tetra-packs. Yet just beyond the market lane, there were the brown and blue hills, and tall trees, and a cold nipping air, and the lake down below. And Bala did not have to sit in the shop all day. He could run between home and market, shop and fields, school and hills, as fancy took him.

But Baba and Ajoba fought all the time. Each time, Ajoba’s nose would quiver with rage and he would say, “This is still my shop, and you had better do as I say.”

One day he said it once too often, and Baba took out a small suitcase from the loft, dusty and rusty with disuse, and put a few pairs of clothes in it. Aai cried and cried until he agreed to take Bala with him. And then she whispered on Bala’s cheek, “You will stay with him, won’t you, child? You know what he is like.”

Bala seemed to feel again the wetness of her cheek against his and remembering her puffy eyes he was determined to hurt Baba today. He said, ” We don’t even make shoes here. Just repair them.”

Madhukar remained silent. What could he say? He would not mind going back home himself; he missed his wife, and even his grumpy father, and the two little ones, Bala’s brother and sister. But perhaps more than them he missed the hills and the sharp colors of the many flowers that grew in every nook and cranny of the winding streets of their village.

He had always loved those colors, they seemed to seep through his eyes and stream through his blood and wanted to burst through his fingertips into the shoes he made. Pink, green, blue, purple. But his father’s eyes and blood and hands wanted to stick to the colors that their family had used for generations in their shoes, the colors of the earth in their village, brown, rust, red.

Each time Madhukar went to the city to buy materials, he would return to the village with stains of different hues. His father would fret and scold, “Why waste so much money on colors? If people want pink, or blue shoes they can buy them in the city.” And Madhukar would say, “You are an old man now. You know nothing about how the world has changed. No one wants your dull brown shoes any more.” And his father would say, “This is my shop. You better do as I say.”

Well, this here, this tin box on the corner of a busy road in the city, was his shop now, and even if he did not make shoes here, only repaired them for a few rupees, it was his shop, and maybe one day, he would have enough money to buy some leather and some more tools and some color stains and start making his own shoes.

His mind started brimming with colors again, pink, blue, orange, purple. He came to because Bala was nudging him, his face flushed with excitement. A pair of pink slippers with brown flowers was right before his long nose. He took the slippers into his hands. He looked up at the woman who was looking at his dazed face with concern.

In a voice that would barely come out of his throat, he asked, “Where did you buy these?”

The woman said, “In the market at Mahableshwar.”

Bala squealed loudly, “Was it a big shop? In the village market?”

The woman frowned and said, “Yes, I think so, a big shop.”

Bala said, “Next to the shop where you get strawberry cream? Was there an old man there?”

The woman scrunching her nose in an effort to remember, said, “Strawberry cream? Yes, I think so, an old man.”

Madhukar meanwhile turned the pink slippers round and round in his hand, looking at the seams, the brown flowers, the soles. He recognized his father’s hand in the stitches. On each sole there was a small etching of an M and a T.

Madhukar Tambe. That was his name.

He smiled and handed the slippers back to the woman, “There is nothing wrong with these; they are perfect.”

The woman said, “But the stitches have come out there, just there, you see?”

Madhukar shook his head, his face stretched in a beatific smile. The woman bemused walked away.

Madhukar smiled and said, “We’ll go home then, shall we, Bala? You must be missing Aai, no?” Bala grinned and nodded his head. The brown shoe in his hand was now completely black.

© Batul Mukhtiar, December 7, 2009

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