I always learn something new, whenever my sandals break.
This morning, when I visited the cobbler's corner (the corner-cobbler's...?), I took along my laptop-bag.
(It's an old second-hand laptop, help together at the joints with cellotape. The bag is in worse condition. When the zips completely failed me, I took the bag to the bag-repairman and he refused to fix it. The local tailor also refused. I turned to the cobbler as a last resort.)
The cobbler is a greying man who had, probably, never encountered a laptop bag before this. At first, he refused to touch it. When I just stood there, looking helpless, he finally took it from me and began examining the damaged zip.
He used something like pliers. He used a tiny hammer. Then, he picked up something that looked like a hard glob of greenish-grey wax. He rubbed it all over the zip. And guess what? The bag's usable again!
For his services, I asked the cobbler how much he wanted. He shrugged. He laughed. For mending my sandals, he demanded three rupees. But this?
He didn't think it was anything worth being paid for - rubbing a little wax, tweaking a zip with a pair of pliers... when I offered him ten rupees, his eyes grew round with surprise. He took it very sheepishly, with a bowed head, as if he had no right to it.
And I was reminded of other services - of the fancy coffee shops where it is inconceivable to leave a tip of less than a hundred rupees. Of the durbans (is is okay to call them that?) in fancy hotels who expect to be paid, just for holding a door open, and saying 'Welcome to the Radisson'.
Of doctors who will not even look at you, without extracting five hundred rupees, even if it is only to tell you that you cannot be cured.
On the other hand, I look at the way the cobbler deals with his customers - if I bring black shoes, he uses black thread. Brown for red. He makes his stitches discreet, so that the patch-up job is not so obvious. And once he's done with it, the sandal is stronger than ever was - it lasts several months. He is polite. He works fast. His work is neat. And I pay him three rupees. If I pay more, he looks sheepishly guilty...
Then, I think of that precious thing - lihaaz.
I think of the years I spent in Bombay, especially at Mid-day. There was a pattern, and any city reporter will back me up on this - if I'm doing a story about the rich, I can pretty much forget about lihaaz...
In posh, or even upper-middle class colonies, no stranger is ever welcome (except, when one of them wants you to cover their 'charity' dos, their son's winning the first prize in a silly drawing competition, or help them fight their annual cooperative-society wars). You are never invited inside.
You are never offered a glass of water. You are never given any answers. Often, you are verbally abused. The only time I was almost beaten up during a story was by the relatives of some members of a family, who died under very suspicious circumstances (later, relatives were arrested for the murders).
If you do manage to coax/ threaten/ beg your way into a building, you are asked to stand outside, and speak through the outer security door.
Amongst the poor, even in desperate circumstances - a daughter is raped, a child commits suicide, a house has been demolished - you are invited to sit where they sit, eat what they eat, seen off when you say goodbye and spoken to politely. Nobody will let you leave without a cup of tea. Even when you cannot help them. Even if you are asking questions you have no right to ask.
I don't know why it is so. I don't know how it became this way. How did lihaaz become a prerogative of the less-than-privileged?