Saturday, August 20, 2005

sharing amongst the shoe-less

When I last mentioned the mists and mountains of Chakrata, I didn't tell the story I most wanted to tell.

Some fifty years ago, no one wore shoes, around here.

Partly, this could be because footwear of a certain kind has got cheaper (also less sturdy; besides, most people can only buy cheap plastic slippers, which are just NOT right for climbing hills or farming in).

The other reason is that now, everyone MUST have their own shoes. Even if they didn't want, or couldn't afford, shoes... they don't have an option.

Fifty years ago, they did have an option.

Fifty years ago, each village (let's say hamlet, as opposed to revenue village or panchayat) owned only one pair of shoes. It was, more or less, communal property. Just as land or cattle is sometimes shared by the whole tribe, one good leather pair of shoes was acquired.

Mind you, this was not necessarily a joint venture. Very likely, one person, who was slightly better off than the rest, would buy a pair of shoes. Nevertheless, the whole village would have access to it.

Nobody actually wore this pair. It used to be saved up for special occassions.

So, let's say you have this beautiful girl in the next hamlet and want to marry her. You'd borrow this pair of shoes and set out to meet her family.

Often, there would be only one good coat and one new umbrella, also shared by the hamlet.

On the way to the beloved's home, you would not wear these shoes. You would carry them in your hands - over misty cliffs, through streams and rain-dripping forests, you would be very careful with them.

Just outside the hamlet, you would put on the shoes and enter your beloved's home with due pomp and footwear-show. The would-be in-laws would be duly impressed. You'd be able to cut a dashing figure... a match would be possible.

On your way back, you'd take off the shoes, dust them, wipe them carefully and carry them back home. Ready, for the next person who needs to make an impression, or perhaps, for your own wedding.

Today, the system has vanished.
Every family might own a pair of cheap slippers. Few wear them. They'd need very sturdy, very expensive shoes, up here. And there's nobody to borrow from, on special occassions.

I don't know if this is significant, in any way. I don't know what it means for the economy. I don't even know if it's important to wear shoes in the hills. But I know that it makes me sad - this story. It makes me sad, that it is just a nostalgic story now.

And judging from the faces of the people who told me this story, I'd say it makes them sad too.


Tanuj said...

ah, the nostalgia..!

reminds me of this cool post from elsewhere. an excerpt:

"...this friend of mine – like you, Mr. Ebnet – selfishly wants other people to be museum pieces for her enjoyment. You and she dislike signs of material progress in Ireland because you live in the United States, with ready access to an abundance of material wealth that the Irish are just now beginning to enjoy themselves.

You blithely wish that the Irish had remained poor so that you would have continued, during your visits from America, to luxuriate in their quaint languages and enjoy gazing upon Ireland’s natural vistas unaffected by advanced commerce."

and here's the link:

R. said...

Awesome post.

Annie Zaidi said...

tanuj, this wasn't about nosalgia alone. this was also about socio-cultural systems breaking down under the guise of 'progress', and not necessarly leaving the local inhabitants any better.
Now, if every family out there had a pair of woodlands (wonder if the company would do that bit of social service, considering it gets cheap labour etc in this country) or some other shoes that were made for mountaineering, I'd be cheering and whooping with joy.

Annie Zaidi said...

And oh, I have no desire to see my countrymen stay museum-pieces. No more or no less than I would for wish for myself, at least.
But I do wish that this fish called 'progress' as defined by the mainstream, would not be swallowed whole by people who may not even be aware of the pros and cons of the change.
Witness, for instance, Denim and lycra in an Indian summer... ? So it is with plastic slippers in the mountains.

amit varma said...

Annie, progress is not about denim and lycra: it's about choices. The villagers you write of have the choice to own one pair of shoes between them, or to buy their own slippers. The people who wear denim and lycra can choose to do otherwise. To mock their choices is condescending; to suggest, even implicitly, that there should not be so many choices is totalitarian, and an impingement of their personal freedom.

Annie Zaidi said...

Amit, choice is a delicate business.
IF a man is hungry and you place a six course meal before him, you an say he had a choice. If you give him both rice and roti and he picks rice, you can still say he had a choice. If he eats the bark off a tree, and you say he does it out of choice, you're mistaken.
These villagers had a system whereby those who could afford to buy assets (shoes, for instance) did so - the rest borrowed.
Now, those who can, buy assets... good shoes. Strong leather.
But those who can't afford to, go without. But they no longer share with others... Thanks to the influx of 'aminstream' values, due to proximity to small towns and television, the whole cultural milieu, the idea of community assets, has vanished.
It has not been replaced by prosperity all around.
The poorest remain barefoot. What choice did they exert? It was the rich who exercised a choice. That is the difference. That is what is so sad.

amit varma said...

Annie, you're arguing besides the point. No straw man, however imaginatively built, could ever argue that someone can eat the bark of a tree out of choice. And obviously when we speak of choices, we mean more viable choices that a person can afford.

I'm just saying that the people who bought plastic slippers chose between buying them and sharing a shoe between the village. Their range of choices expanded from [a: share shoe] to [a: share shoes and b: buy slipper]. That is progress. Certainly there is lots more progress to be made, and ideally the choices they can afford should include shoes as well; but to yearn for the days they had one option to choose from instead of two is plain silly.

Ditto denim and lycra in summer. I wear jeans in summer, and you're insulting me, and condescending to me, by implying that my choice is foolish and your choices are superior. The expansion of choices [and when I say say that, I implicitly and obviously mean choices a person can afford, or they wouldn't be choices) is what progress is all about. If we ourselves yearn for a simply way of living, we are welcome to revert to it in our individual capacity. But to recommend policy that would reduce other people's choices or stop them from expanding is just plain wrong. (I'm not impying you dothis, but this line of thinking often leads to just that.)

And I agree with your sentiments in the post after this, btw, about the rotund lady and her style of dressing. There is as little reason to complain against plastic slippers or denim and lycra in summer as there is against the way that lady dressed. We should all be free to do what we want as long as we don't infringe on others' rights.

Ah, and i just read that last bit of your comment about the rich choosing not to share. So would you rather that the rich be forced to share?

Annie Zaidi said...

No Amit, the rich should not be 'forced to share'.. I never said so. Nobody should be forced to do anything.
I only said that this non-sharing made me sad. I have a right to say it, when something makes me sad... no?
And, btw, I wear denim too, through the year. I still think it's a change for the worse... No insults intended. But I retain the right to say what I think of the choices we make... no?

amit varma said...

Sure. And your descriptive reporting is wonderful.

Perhaps I found an implied "progress is bad" message in your post when none was intended. If so, my mistake, pointless argument.

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