By: Ganesh Saili
‘Fully fed up!’ writes Sanjeev Chauhan, living in retirement in Sail village. ‘Enough of Mussoorie? Is that all you write about?’
What can I say? I am but a servitor to this place. It has given me all I have had. This is where I found a life; this is where I found friends; this is where I found love and this is where life unfolded. The least I can do is serve it in this way. Why wait for a special day to open the things has put aside? By the time you get to it, you will find only dead leaves, or dust or ashes.
Out of the this dust and ashes, genie-like emerges Kundan, our gifted leather craftsman. He was no plain cobbler. He was indeed the King of Footwear.
‘Almost done Sa’ab!’ he would murmur, producing with a flourish, a solitary shoe wrapped in a rag under his arm. ‘Just a little advance to make the other one? It’ll finish the pair.’ The ploy worked each time to fund visits to the hooch shop on Camel Back’s Lavendar Lane.
The shoes? You might as well have written them off!
‘My sister and I would take to him pictures of the shoes from old magazines that we wanted copied,’ recalls Joyce Sun, who grew up in Mussoorie. ‘Viola! He made them. Trouble was soon after similar copies would litter the town. His gifts were legendary, he had the ability to turn blue shoes into brown or even red. My sister would buy old shoes from the kabari and take them to him for remodelling.’
‘Sitting on a sack under the medlar tree, outside the gates of Allen School, to give you his opinion of what-suited-who!’
To this day, Landour is the only place to get yourself custom made shoes. As evidence are three shops where you get the long-thonged Caligula sandals or the short-laced Roman slippers.
As I write, the hillside resonates to the sound of hammer on shoelaft from three small shops: Bhartu’s, Kishen’s and nearby Sonu’s Leather Works.
‘Our ancestors left Morena for Dehradun two hundred years ago,’ reminisces Kishan, whose shop is a co-operative. ‘Those goras must have needed riding boots, saddles, stirrups that only we could handcraft.’
Lining these shop are images of the rich and famous. There’s Sachin Tendulkar (visiting his friend Sanjay Narang, no doubt) getting measured for a pair of Roman sandals or M. S. Dhoni trying on special motor-cycle riding boots.
‘Remember Salman Khan’s shoes in the film Tubelight?’ Kishan proudly tells me: ‘We made those!’
Along the Mall, at the top of Kulri’s slope is Bata with its zinc-lined ceilings beckoning you. It was truly something to write home about. That and it’s wooden rocking horse that no child could go past without a ride on two. Humbler cobblers or shoe-repair folk, were to be found perched along the road’s edge. You only turned to them for a stich-in-time or for hammering an iron hobnail or two on to the sole of your shoe to have them click on concrete.
Who can forget bald Yepson? The last Chinese in the hill station, who never put hands to leather; neither to hammer nor awl; neither needle or thread. However arrayed in his showcases were shining shoes, each traceable to humbler origins in Landour. Whilst he spoke fluent Hindi, he always stumbled on ‘Hathi’ (as in elephant) by saying: ‘Athi’.
Post-1962’s border conflict to the north, schoolboys would yell: ‘Oye Athi!’ strolling past his place.
That was the proverbial last straw. Not a word was said. Biding his time, he waited for his daughters, all five of them, studying in the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Waverley, to finish school. And one fine morning, he sold his shop lock-stock-and barrel, and emigrated to Canada.
Elsewhere, at the bottom of the Mall, Jhelum Shoe Company earned itself quite a name by making rugged crepe-soled shoes for generations of schoolchildren. That too folded up in the 1970s. It became the Madras Café and served the finest of south Indian delicacies.
Gone are all memories of cobbling your soles.
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.