By Kulbhushan Kain
I vividly remember the conversation I had with my Dad over dinner at our Clement Town House. I was about 10 years old. His good looking face which adorned a Clark Gable mustache and penetrative eyes looked at me and asked, “Kulbhushan, what do you want to do for a living when you grow up?”
He was probably trying to feel my inclinations towards what I like.
I thought for a while and replied, “Dad, I want to either be a painter or a writer.”
He straightened up and said, “You will starve. Your paintings will gather dust in the attic. Not everyone is Piccaso. No one may read your books. Not everyone is Enid Blyton. It’s better if you become a cobbler. Everyone buys shoes or gets them repaired. You will never be out of money for your daily meal.”
He was wrong! Fifty-five years later, the cobblers he was referring to are struggling for their existence. Their art is either dead or dying. I may not have been able to earn my daily meal!
A few days ago, I made my way to Kwality Boot House near Saharanpur Chowk – a small shop bursting at the seams with shoes and robust scents of dye, polish, and glue.
In it sat Deep Chand Gangoli, who appeared comfortable in a room full of old, worn-out, smelly shoes. There are shelves on which are displayed new shiny shoes as well.
I struck up a conversation with him. He informed me that his shop is 100 years old. On one of its dilapidated walls hangs a framed photo of his grandfather, Ram Prasad Gangoli. On another is a coloured photo of one of his nephews measuring Sachin Tendulkar’s feet.
Deep Chand also shows me sepia-colored receipts from the heyday of the shop – receipts of an order from Sialkot (now part of Pakistan).
“Our shoes used to go all over India. We used to have a Singer Sewing Machine which was used to stitch only the upper portion of the shoe. But the leather was stitched to the sole by hand – each stitch crafted expertly.” He proudly informed me that the Singer machine which his grandfather used and is 100 years old is still a prized possession-though no longer in use.
“People who are interested in antiques come and ask me whether I want to sell it. I tell them that as long as I am alive -it will remain a symbol of our past and continuity. One doesn’t sell one’s past – does one?”
He told me that his forefathers had left village Gangoli in Morena district of Madhya Pradesh in 1877 when a famine struck large parts of India.
“A part of our family came to Dehradun,” he recalled.
Deep Chand is a fourth-generation cobbler. He loves making new, and what’s old, new again or at least “like new”.
“I had to learn the trade. It was mandatory, it wasn’t a choice. It was something my dad made us do, to keep us off the street.”
He can’t think of any other way to spend his day. As a kid he worked with his dad and so grew up around it.
I asked him how many shoes did the shop make in its heyday. Who were their clients?
“My grandad, Ram Prasad, used to make shoes for the cadets and officers of the IMA. We used to make about 100 to 150 shoes a year.” He showed me an old photograph taken in 1930 of his grandad taking measurements of two Britishers. He laughed and said, “Now you can make 3000 in a day. Machines have taken over. This is killing our livelihood and our craft. They use a lot of synthetics to make shoes nowadays,” he said. “You can buy cheap shoes that are all synthetic and they’re not even worth repairing because of the material they use.”
I agreed – it is indeed cheaper to buy a machine-made shoe rather than a handmade one which could cost twice as much.
“They don’t realise that shoes can be repaired. A lot of people never think about fixing a pair of shoes. They just buy a new pair,” Deep Chand lamented.
I could understand – we are a society that uses and throws away. Some people haven’t even seen a cobbler repairing a tear or the sole of a shoe-very assiduously, laboriously and studiously!
I ask him about the photograph of Sachin Tendulkar.
“That’s my nephew who is in the same business in Mussoorie. He made a shoe for Sachin. Do you know that Sachin has a house in Mussoorie?”
Yes, I said, I knew!
But the descendants of the family of Deep Chand are not interested in taking over the family business. His son did a course in Leather and Footwear Designing and works on computers rather than shoes.
I asked him whether he wished he was born at the time his son was. Would he want to be Rohit (his son), or Deep Chand?
“I love what I do, this is who I am,” he said. “I speak with many different people from many different backgrounds, that’s what keeps the job interesting. You’re never doing the same thing, you’re always doing something different. That’s what makes it fun. I won’t retire until my hands won’t allow me to work anymore.” He looked at his fingers and smiles reverently -as if thanking them.
Before leaving, I asked him whether he will make me a handmade shoe of calf leather.
“Of course, I will.” He reached for a piece of paper and a pencil and says, “Put your foot on it while I make its outline. But you will have to come for a trial.”
Ah! Outlines on paper, trials, calf leather, hand-stitched —I was going back into the 1960s!
Time froze as I looked at Deep Chand!
(Kulbhushan Kain is an award winning educationist with more than 4 decades of working in schools in India and abroad. He is a prolific writer who loves cricket, travelling and cooking. He can be reached at kulbhushan.kain @gmail.com)