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COBBLING A LIFE TOGETHER

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By: Ganesh Saili  

‘Fully fed up!’ writes Sanjeev Chauhan, a storeowner in Gauchar. ‘Enough of this Mussoorie! Mussoorie! Is that all you write about?’

How does one explain that I am but a humble servitor to the place? It has given me everything I have. This is where I made friends; this is where life unfolded and this is where I made a life. The least one can do is be grateful.

Just like balding Badlu who always sat slightly raised in his shop above the road, next to the Tibetan building in Landour, surrounded by a gaggle of local college teachers including G.K. Aggarwal, D.K. Tyagi and Professor Rohitash Garg who were certainly not ordering shoes. They sought the maestro’s help in solving the Urdu magazine Shama’s Crossword puzzles after hearing rumours crediting him of hitting the jackpot soon after his arrival in the station from Nainital.

Or there was Kundan, a gifted craftsman, nay the King of Footwear, who would accost you saying: ‘Almost done!’ as he produced, with a flourish, a lonely shoe wrapped in a rag under his arm, promising: ‘Give a little more advance and I will make the other.’ Each time his ploy worked. They helped fund his visits to the booze shop in Camel Back’s Lavender Lane. Of course that was the last you saw of him as he went on to show the same shoe to whoever had ordered a pair.

‘My sister and I would take him pictures of the shoes from old magazines that we wanted copied,’ recalls Joyce Sun, who grew up in Mussoorie before moving to the UK. ‘Viola! He made them. Trouble was, soon after, similar copies would pop up all over town. His skill was legendary; he could turn blue shoes into brown or even red. My sister took to buying old shoes from the second-hand shops and take them to him for remodelling.’

‘Seated on a sack outside the gates of Allen School, he would tell you what-suited-who.’

While walking down the Mullingar Hill’s steep incline, you can still order custom-made shoes from any of the Galgotia’s shops: the long-thong Caligula sandals or the simpler Roman slippers. The sound of hammer on shoe last from one of the three shops belonging to Bhartu, Kishen or Sonu wafts through my window.

‘Our ancestors left Morena for Dehradun, some two hundred years ago,’ reminisces Kishan, adding: ‘All because those troopers needed riding boots, saddles, stirrups that only we could handcraft.’

Behind him are splattered images of the rich and famous. There’s Sachin Tendulkar, no doubt visiting his friend Sanjay Narang, as he gets  measured for Roman sandals. Another has M. S. Dhoni trying on motor-cycle riding boots.

‘Remember Salman Khan’s shoes in the film Tubelight?’ Kishan proudly tells me: ‘We made those too!’

Bata, located on Kulri’s slope, still has its zinc-lined ceiling that is  something to write home about, as is the wooden rocking horse that every child wants to ride. Humbler cobblers or shoe-repair folk  are perched along the road’s edge to give you that stitch-in-time or to hammer iron hobnails into the sole so that the shoes click when you walk.

And then there Yepson, the last Chinaman in the station, who never put hands to leather; neither to hammer nor awl;  neither needle or thread, and yet arrayed in his showcase were shining shoes, each traceable to humble origins in Landour and when he spoke Hindi, he stumbled on the word Hathi’ (elephant).

Post-1962’s border conflict to the north, going past his shop, we would tease him by yelling: ‘Oye Athi!

That proved to be the last straw as he bided his time, waiting for the day when his five daughters studying in the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Waverley would finish school. One morning he sold his shop and emigrated to Canada.

Elsewhere, near Dr Jawala Prasad’s clinic, Jhelum Shoe Company earned a reputation for producing chunky crepe-soled shoes for schoolchildren in the 1960s. Then it turned into the Madras Café, serving South Indian delicacies like dosas and idlis. Gone are the days when a cobbler could mend your soul too.

 

           Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.