I moved to Bangalore (temporarily) a couple of weeks ago. Struggling to gel in with the new surroundings, my sandal strap broke. So, sandal in hand, I set off on the road, looking for a cobbler.
I had barely walked five minutes when I reached a cobbler. It was an emaciated old man seated on the pavement, in front of a makeshift shed. He took my sandals and started working on the broken strap.
I looked at the contents of his shed: some pairs of shoes and sandals (probably awaiting their owners or the cobbler’s attention); some tools, shoe polish and clothes; and the most conspicuous: a large photo of B R Ambedkar.
While I cannot claim to have visited many parts of India, or to have seen properly the places I have visited, I have never, ever seen someone voluntarily put up a photo or portrait of a minister or political leader, whether it be their homes, shops, autorickshaws or offices. Government offices, public buildings, yes. Gods, religious leaders, film actors and even cricketers, yes, but no political leaders. Some would argue that labeling Ambedkar as just a political leader or minister would be a great injustice, that he could also equally be called a lawyer, social reformer, economist, philosopher and spiritual leader, but that just serves to show more strongly how far he is from the political leaders of today, who struggle to do even one of these things properly.
In any case, poor people don’t put up framed photos: they’re supposed to have more basic things to worry about.
So, wondering whether this was a one-off occurrence, I took to looking for more Ambedkars in the city. In the one week that has passed since that incident, I’ve discovered that most cobblers in Bangalore (and there’s one on almost every other street) have a photo of Ambedkar in their shops (this painting gives a good idea about what most cobbler shops in Bangalore look like).
A man who barely earns enough to feed himself and his family, a man who is forced to mend others’ footwear in the afternoon heat on a pavement at the age of seventy, how much money must he have saved and how strong must be his desire to put up that photo? To be fair, it is possible he was provided that photo for free, but what made him put it up? If it were a living political leader, one might wish away the question with “paid to put it up, in money, or favours, or maybe just a meal”. But that man has been dead fifty years, which is when I realized the irony in my train of thought: no one does cobblers favours. No perks. No sops. No petrol subsidy. If it were not for that dead man, I might not even have thought of this whole matter at all, let alone write this post.
Most of us, at some time or the other, wonder about “what could have been”. How, if I had done this, I might have been somewhere else today; if I had got some more marks, I might have been doing some more lucrative job; if I had exercised a bit more, I might have made it to the army. What must it feel to look back at your life, at the age of seventy, and realize that no matter what choices you had taken, no matter where you had been or what you had done, you would be sitting at that same pavement (or another like it) doing the same job: a fate decided the moment you were born? What do you dream about? What do you hope for?
A hoarse voice speaking in Telugu derailed my train of thought: the cobbler was done. As he insisted on putting the sandal in my bag and not in my outstretched hand, I could not help feel a little jealous of that man: he could easily find one person who had stood up for him, who had fought for him at the highest level, and still fights for him. Can I?