The Shoeshine by Sasthi Brata

Following text is from "Confessions of an Indian Woman Eater" by Sasthi Brata

I was standing outside the Tea House in Connaught Circus, idly watching the traffic. I wondered if I could afford a cup of coffee and a plate of potato chips, when a shoeshine walked up and put down his box in front of me. “Cream and polish sir?” he asked.

“Your shoes do need a polish, sir”, the boy persisted.

“Yes I know,” I said, smiling, “but I can’t afford it.”

“Can’t afford it?” the shoeshine replied joining me with a smile. ‘Only four annas, sir.”

“I haven’t got four annas for a shoe polish”, I said walking away. But there was a puzzled and hurt expression on his face, as if I was making fun of him, “You see, I am looking for a job.”

The boy picked up his box and started walking with me. “Can’t get a job with dirty shoes like that, sir. The boss sahibs won’t like it.”

“The boss sahibs don’t seem to like me in any case”, I answered beginning to get irritated. “Polished shoes won’t make things any better.” I wanted to get rid of the boy, but he persisted in walking with me.

“You don’t live in Delhi”, he said after a while.

“No”, I replied firmly. “I come from Calcutta and I don’t want my shoes polished.”

“I have an uncle who works in Calcutta”, he went on. “Earns a lot of money in the house of a Bengali Babu.”

Instantly the thought seized me. “And how much money do you earn?” I questioned.

“Oh, it all depends. On a bad day about three rupees, on a good day when there are lots of tourists, about five. Sometimes more.”

I did a spot of quick calculation in my mind. The answer sent a shiver through me. The shoeshine earned more than Ram Singh, a clerk in a Government office. Here at last was a solution.

“Do you think I could…?” I asked hesitantly.

“What sir?”

“Polish shoes? Like you, I mean?”

“Polish shoes? The boy asked stopping dead. “On the pavement, like me?” I didn’t expect the loud laugh that followed.

It took me a lot of persuading. Shovan Lal, for that was his name, refused to believe that I wasn’t making fun of him. He had to leave school two years before his matriculation, why should I want to do his job when I had been to university? If he could speak English he certainly wouldn’t be polishing other people’s shoes. He would sit in an office and be a sahib himself, earning a regular monthly salary. But he hadn’t been born under a lucky star; his father had died of small pox about three years ago. No, shoe shinning was no job for an educated man like myself. What would my friends say?

I explained that I had no friends in Delhi, that I had left home without sitting through my exams. And most important, that even if I did apply for a clerk’s job, I would be earning less than him.

“But think of the status of working in an office with an electric fan over your head” Shovan Lal argued.

‘There is that, I suppose, I replied smiling, “but I have to get a job straightaway.”

“Well” my friend said, reluctantly giving in, “if you really want to….. I mean I don’t know how the others will take it. There is a Shoeshines’ Union, you know. And Connaught Circus is a profitable place. If there’s an extra shoeshine, it means that everyone else earns a little bit less.”

I hadn’t thought of it like that and Shovan Lal has opened up a whole new world for me. For the moment I lost the feeling of hopelessness and despair which had possessed me ever since I arrived in Delhi. To work as a shoeshine became the most important goal in my life.

“But if I can persuade the others”, Shovan Lal said, breaking into my thoughts, “You will need to get all the stuff. A box like this one, brushes, cream and polish and some rags”.

“Yes, of course,” I replied, drawn back to reality once again, “and how much will all that cost?”

“About ten or twelve rupees, Shovan Lal answered shouldn't be much more than that.”

“Really”, I said and started laughing.

“Why, what’s the matter? Don’t you believe me?”

“Of course I believe you. But the simple fact is that I only have five rupees and some loose change.”

This time Shovan Lal was really shocked. His mouth fell open and his eyes shot up in surprise. “You mean, you really mean…..?”

“I’ m afraid I do,” I replied. “You see, I could never have an electric fan over my head.”

He closed his eyes and his face became thoughtful while he put his hand inside the pockets of his half-pants several times.

“Well,” he said, “we shall have to find a way.” It was nearly six o’clock and we walked a few yards in silence towards the Rivoli Cinema where a show had just ended. Shovan Lal quickened his steps. I must work now. But you come to see me at eleven o’clock after the last show. Then, I shall talk with my friends, and see what they say.”

“All right”, I nodded, as I watched him walk away.

“And don’t worry,” he shouted just before he turned the corner, “if they let you work there, we’ll find the money somehow,”

I walked along the streets of Delhi. I wondered what the history of my country meant to me. Here was a land where man had achieved greatness on every plane - astronomy, algebra, architecture, even poetry, music and art. Yet in this very city, where seven empires had come and gone, where Akbar and Ashoka ruled, I could not get a job, and a boy like Shovan Lal had not been able to finish his schooling.

By eleven o’clock I had walked eight miles. When I met Shovan Lal, Connaught Circus was nearly deserted.

“Hullo”, Shovan Lal said, greeting me in Hindi.

“Hullo”, I replied as a few men around him moved aside to let me come to him.

“These are my friends”, Shovan Lal added waving his hand over the group.

“What do they have to say about my working with them here in Connaught Circus?”

“Well”, Shovan Lal replied, pulling a face.

Just then one of the younger men started speaking very fast in a strange dialect I could not easily follow. This was taken up by an older man and in a few minutes four others joined in. When they stopped talking, Shovan Lal, who had been quiet all this time, translated for me.

The Union was having trouble with the authorities. They had refused to grant a license to the Shoeshines, although hawkers could apply for one. So in effect, polishing shoes on the pavement was illegal, like begging, and one had to depend on the goodwill of the policeman. The head of the Shoeshines’ Union knew some English but obviously someone with better knowledge of the language would be of great help. So, though most of group was against letting me in, they had reluctantly agreed to give me a chance provided I helped out with the correspondence.

I literally jumped for joy and gave Shovan Lal a close hug.

“They also say,” he added, “that we take a collection for you to buy the box and the rest of the materials. So you can keep the five rupees to buy food and other things till you begin to earn a little. And after a few weeks you can pay back the money for the box.”

A toffee tin was passed around and a little over seven rupees was collected that evening.

“We will get more tomorrow, “Shovan Lal said, “when the rest are here. You know there are thirty of us who work in Connaught circus.”

The group dispersed and I went home with Shovan Lal that night.

Summary

The writer of the story, Sasthi Brata, a graduate from Calcutta, was looking for a job. He had very little money which was not sufficient even to buy food or a cup of tea and snacks. In front of a coffee house in Connaught Place, he happened to meet a shoeshine boy named Shovan. Since he needed a job badly, he decided to take up a shoeshine’s job.

Shovan Lal tried to dissuade him, as only an office job was a suitable job for an educated man like him. But the young man (Sasthi) was determined. Shovan Lal understood his compulsions. He convened a meeting of his fellow Shoeshine boys and allowed the newcomer to join the band of Shoeshine on the condition that he would help their union to correspond in English with the Licensing authorities. They even contributed some money to raise funds to buy the kit for Sasthi and thus paved the way for a needy person to get an employment.