In the shoes of the shoeshine

Nov 28, 2016 | 0 comments

first person journalism at its best — the author as a shoeshine boy

It was a bright hot May morning in New Delhi when a lanky, curly-haired fellow of 20 years reached the grassy patch near the office of the British Overseas Airways Corporation in Connaught Place. On his hip he balanced a rather large and unwieldy shoeshine box, clearly more weight than his body was made to carry. He set down his clumsy box and sat on the grass to wait. He seriously doubted that he was going to survive his first attempt at first person journalism.

The arcades of Connaught Place were still deserted except for some municipal sweepers with brooms. An angry looking beggar with a little girl by his side and a cantina for alms watched the newcomer with narrowed eyes. 

The young man waited; he knew that this was where one of the city’s gangs of itinerant shoeshine boys convened every morning. With a little luck, they would accept him into their group as a shoeshine boy.

The only problem was that even without his glasses, he looked very much like a young man who might have just graduated from college. 

Which is exactly what I was.

The first day of the first person

It was 1972, and I had just finished my final graduation exams at Delhi University and had a few days to kill. Why not, suggested a journalist friend of mine who worked in The Statesman, dress up as a shoeshine boy and live on the streets with them? See life from someone else’s point of view? It sound interesting enough and vaguely dangerous. And thus started my first foray into the world of first person journalism — stepping into the lives of others, to experience their lives as they did.

Not bathing or combing my hair for three days had given me a naturally grimy and unwashed look. My cheeks were smudged with boot polish from several sessions the night before to acquaint myself with my kit. I wore my father’s oversize pinstripe shirt, four buttons missing. My feet were unwashed and caked with street dust. But I could do nothing to hide by fair untanned skin, or my pink, clean and manicured nails. I had discarded my studious spectacles, but this in turn exposed white marks on the bridge of my nose where they had perched. Nothing to be done about that.

Shortly after eight, they arrived: a gang of about 12 shoeshiners, ranging in age from children of 12 to young men in their late twenties. All eyes were on me. Through my research, I knew they would illegal shoeshines who operated without municipal license, staying on the move to avoid being apprehended. Within seconds I had been accosted by an impatient young man from the hills with many questions but no interest in my answers. After listening in a cursory way to my prepared story, he raised his hand and delivered a stinging slap to my face. “Get the fuck out of here, sister fucker!” he snarled.

The slap and the snarl brought the rest of the group around me, eyes narrowed, full of suspicions. Who was I? Where was I from? What did I want? The questions came from two of the older shoeshines. While I fumbled through their inquisition, my shoeshine box was being taken apart and thoroughly inventoried by two of the boys, under the pretext of cleaning it up for me. 

I had already made a serious first mistake: my box was too large, definitely not designed to be carried on the hips. All these shoeshines had comparatively lighter boxes, easier to heft.

I had a tale of woe ready. A debauched alcoholic father, a battered and aging mother, a broken home in Nagpur from where I had travelled ticketless to Delhi in search of a better life. Worked for a month as an apprentice mechanic in a garage but left when I realized they had no intention of paying me anything. Then one day my luck had turned when a benign babu had gifted me this shoeshine box. “Try your hand at shining shoes,” he’d said. “That’s how many millionaires started their lives.”

So here I was.

Whispered conversations

I waited tensely while there were whispered conversations. Finally a whiskered, pock-marked shoeshine, one of the two who had interviewed me, walked up. “I am Puran Bhai,” he said, his tone a little friendlier now. “That there is Kalia. You’re okay, you can join us.” I let out a breath of relief.

I was introduced to a child with mouse brown hair and large innocent eyes. He looked no older than eight, though he claimed to be 12. “He will explain about the rates,” said Puran Bhai.

And this was how I met Tek Chand, angel rolled up in devil wrapped in savant. He decided to take me under his wing, appointing himself my patron, guardian and mentor. Sipping cups of hot tea, we sat on the kerb, and he opened my eyes to the economics of shining shoes.

A shoeshine boy makes at least a four-fold profit on each shoe he shines. Cans of polish that sell for Rs.1.15 at retail shops are available to him for a mere 30 paise from special agents, and will last him for 8 to 10 shoes. It costs him only 8 paise to shine a pair of leather shoes and about 25 paise for suede shoes, but he will charge a minimum of 90 paise for suede and anything above 25 paise for leather shoes.

“You won’t earn much,” Tek Chand said me/ “Generally on your first day you will not attract many customers. But I promise you, as the days pass your earnings will go up steadily.”

A shoeshine gets to keep very little of what he earns. About three-quarters of it goes to a local tough called Omi, a licensed shoeshine who plies his trade outside India Coffee House a few blocks away. In return, he ‘protects’ the itinerant, unlicensed shoeshiners when they run afoul of the police or the ‘committeewalas’, as they call municipality inspectors. Two years earlier, his share had been almost 90%.

“But last year we little folk all got together and beat him up,” said Purshottam, flexing his skinny muscles. “Since then we get to keep a little more of what we earn.”

Shoeshine boys deposit their earnings with certain shopkeepers around Connaught Place, and many of them have a tidy sum saved up. Tek Chand offered me 30 rupees to discharge my debt to the babu — 20 rupees for the shoeshine kit and a 10 rupee tip on my first morning.

“He is a crook,” said Tek. “We know these rich people.He is going to exploit you because you are new and simple minded. Come and live with me in my house in Regarpura. I can lend you my father’s shirt and we have a tap where you can bathe.” He was very disturbed about my not having bathed for three days.

My watch — or rather its absence — unexpectedly became the focus of the rest of the morning. The angry-looking beggar with the cantina had been watching me all morning, sure I was up to no good. Thinking I’d win him over, I walked and started playing with his daughter, chucking her under the chin. As I did this, my sleeve rolled back, briefly exposing the watch strap mark there. With a triumphant cry, he seized my hand and raised it aloft. 

“He’s a fake!” he cried. “He wears a watch!”

My heart was thudding violently. Suddenly everyone was around me again, with accusing eyes. Tek Chand looked disappointed.

Improvising on the spot, I admitted that I did own a watch; my brother in Nagpur had gifted it to me, I ad libbed, to sell in case of an emergency and return to Nagpur. 

“Who has it now?” they wanted to know. The benign babu who had bought me the shoeshine box took it, I replied. As collateral. 

That seemed to turn the tide of opinion in my favor. The babu was clearly a villain, who had relieved a poor boy of his expensive watch. They seemed all set to hunt him down and retrieve my watch from him. I claimed not to know his name or address, and they reluctantly dropped the matter. 

“Might as well get some tea,” said Tek Chand.

A hip problem

We ambled around the arcades of Connaught Place, running behind tourists and office goers or just parking ourselves strategically and trying to catch the attention of passers by.

“Is your hip okay?” asked Tek Chand, at one point. My pelvic bone and the skin around it was already red and sore from the few hours of abrasion with the heavy shoeshine box. Tek lifted his shirt and showed me a shocking sight on his waist — over years of carrying his wooden box on his hip, the bone had deformed and reshaped itself, flattening on top and sticking out like a natural shelf, upon which he rested his box. “Give it a month or three,” he said. “Once your hip becomes like this, you will feel no pain. I feel nothing there.”

Tek Chand has been a shoeshine for four years, ever since his mother, who he called “a bad woman who used to go around with any man she met” was driven out of the house by his father, a full fledged alcoholic.

“Look at you,” said Tek. “You ran away from home just because your father drinks. So does mine, and my mother was a prostitute, but I still live at home. He may be a drunkard but he’s still your family.”

For a stripling, Tek spouted some worldly-wise and mature words. He was especially candid about how he really earned money. “The only way to earn money at this job is by being quick and slick,” he said. “Let me show you.”

His first customers of the morning, an European couple, were walking by. Tek grabbed his box and tagged them until the man agreed to have his shoes shone.

“Oostralian?” Tek asked the woman chattily. She sniffed and looked away.

“Canadian?” he continued, unfazed.

“Yes, Canadian!” she snapped.

Unknown to them, his fingers were busy behind the box shredding the shoelaces he had just removed from the man’s shoes. The indignant foreigner finally had no choice but to buy a new pair from Tek — for a total of five rupees, three for the lace and two for the shine. As they left, Tek turned to me without remorse and grinned. “See, bade bhai, how crookedly I have to make a living?”

Just the other day, he said, Murari had made a cool 100 rupees from a single shine. As the foreigner was fumbling through the unfamiliar currency, Murari, thinking fast,  had pointed to the 100-rupee note — and, to his delight, received it.

I myself didn’t earn more than four rupees on that day, and almost half of it came from shoes that Murari and Tek Chand shone for me. They refused to keep the money, saying I would need it in the days to come.

My first (non-paying) customer was the little naked Sadhu, the four-year-old son of the paanwala (betel-leaves seller) who sat across the gallery from me. Placing his grimy little foot on the foot stand, he ordered a quick polish. I rubbed it back and forth with a brush, which tickled him, making him squeal. He shifted to his other foot, which I also shone. He trotted away a few feet but then, remembering he hadn’t paid me yet, turned around to throw a handful of nothing at me and toddled off.

My first paying customer was an office goer in a hurry, wearing black Oxfords. Alas, I turned out to be a terrible shoeshine, getting boot polish all over his socks while trying to work on his shoes. As soon as he realized the mess I’d made, he released a stream of ripe Punjabi invective at me and strode away without away. That was when Murari and Tek Chand realized they’d better step in.


Around noon, my flimsy story collapsed again. Our wanderings had brought us to the streetside arts and crafts markets of Janpath, where I became the focus of a new shoeshine’s attentions. Jamshyd, fair and with flamboyantly curled whiskers and an air of menace, apparently managed the Janpath territory so we trespassing on his ‘turf’. “And who have we here?” he said, walking circles around me and inspecting me as though I was an exhibit in a gallery.

His attention went to my oversize shoeshine box — and suddenly he let out a whoop.

“I recognize this box!” he cried. “It belongs to Ram Chand! Let’s see what that bugger is up to today without his box.”

Butterflies began fluttering in my stomach. Ram Chand was indeed the shoeshine from whom I had rented the box for the day. My journalist friends, Saeed Naqvi, had paid him 50 rupees for the rental. When I asked him what he planned to do without his box, he replied that he would take the day off and enjoy himself for a change. Little did I know that Ram Chand had a spare kit at home and planned to do a full day’s work. When our little troupe, led by Jamshyd, reached the spot outside the music shop Rhythm Corner, where Ram Chand had his usual place — lo and behold, he was still there. Seeing me, he jumped to his feet and saluted me, with, “Salaam, sahib!”

I looked around with dismay. Surely I was busted now; he had called me sahib; they would know I was no out-of-towner on the run from his family.

Ram Chand confirmed everyone’s worst fears. Yes, I had rented the box from him the previous day; yes, some well-dressed gentleman had paid for it; and yes, he knew exactly where that gentleman worked. I had indeed taken him to The Statesman office to meet Saeed Naqvi and collect his 50 rupees.

Just when I thought this mob was going to turn on me next and butcher me right there, Tek Chand piped up: “He’s the man who took his costly watch away! Let’s go and get it back!”

Once again, in the fickle way their affections towards me shifted from suspicion to outrage, the little gang was now ready to fight to get my watch back from Saeed. The eight of us resolutely marched the couple of blocks to the newspaper’s red-brick building.

The power of the press

All indignation evaporated at the iron gates of The Statesman where a burly guard gruffly dismissed the shoeshines. “People like you can’t just walk in here,” he said. “Important people are at work here. You can’t come in without an appointment.”

Tek Chand nudged me: “Tell him you have an appointment.”

And that was how, finally, they had to call the journalist down to the gate to verify my credentials. The ragtag band of grimy shoeshines trooped into the newspaper’s parking, surrounded Saeed, and demanded my watch back. In an instant, the dynamics of the conversation evolved, acquiring politics and subtleties. My revolutionary, bloodthirsty protectors, confronted with a suave journalist, metamorphosed from tigers into pussycats.

“Sahib,” Ram Chand began deferentially, “I know you have paid me 50 rupees for my box yesterday, but I had no idea that this poor village boy had to surrender his watch to you. It’s a costly watch, sahib. I would never have let you have the shoeshine box if I’d known this was the price the boy would have to —“

“Enough!” said Saeed, raising his hands, instantly quieting the pussycats. “Are you fools? This boy is under my protection. I took his watch because I didn’t want one of you fellows stealing it from him. I know you people well, you’d steal a mangal sutra from your own mothers. Now go on back, you lot, to your work, and stop being silly. His watch is safe, no one’s stolen anything from anyone, and he can have it back whenever he wants.” Said mussed my hair, throwing a wink at me. “Back to your shoes now.”

On the way back, Ram Chand scolded me. “Whatever got into your head, accusing that nice gentleman of robbing you of your watch? You’re lucky he’s looking out for you. He only has your well being at heart. Show some gratitude.”

For the rest of the day, Ram Chand decided that I was his protégé. I parked my heavy box near his, and he coached me on the intricacies of attracting passing shoes, how to polish difficult shoes, how to bargain, and most important, how to spot the ‘committeewallas’.

A taste of street food

Around 3 pm, Tek Chand swung by to check on me, and we went off for a bite to eat. He refused to let me pay, saying, “You’re not going to be earning all that much for the next few days, so try and hang on to what you have.” We walked along the arcade till we reached the posh restaurant called Nirula’s, where I’ve often enjoyed lovely Chinese and Indian meals. 

However, this time, we crossed the road to one of the small hole-in-the-wall tandoor shops. Tek Chand bought six rotis and two earthen chatters (containers) of dal. Crossing back to the shade of the Nirula’s collonade, we sat in a corner formed by two pillars, spread out the lunch on newspapers, and ate it with fingers smudged with shoe polish. A mangy street dog loped a few feet away, waiting for us to finish. 

We ate sparsely, and a good deal left over. Tek Chand carefully covered up the katoris with the rotis, and kept it in the corner. “Some poor beggar will find it,” he said.

As we left, the street dog leaped for the food.

By the end of the day, I was getting delegations of shoeshines coming to enquire after my progress and offer me unsolicited advice. 

“You’re not cut out for this,” said Murari. “Your fingers don’t have the touch.”

“Why don’t you ask that nice man in the office to find you a better job?” said Kalia.

It was easy for me to agree to their advice and surrender my shoeshine dreams. Every muscle in my body ached. My hips were raw and sore. But what I could not tell them was how much this day had moved me, the kindness and generosity of people living on the edge of poverty, the amazing loyalty of these urban nomads, and the cheerfulness with which they accosted the hills and mountains life placed before them.

Ram Chand agreed that I had made the right decision. “You are cut out for bigger things,” he said sagely. “You have greatness in you. You should try your hand at something more challenging — like selling salted cucumbers.”


AUTHOR’S NOTE: When I do First Person stories like this, I conceal the fact that I am a journalist. However, in the interests of transparency, I always go back and disclose my identity and purpose to everyone I interacted with, and seek their permission to write about my experiences. The shoeshines of Connaught Place were genuinely pleased to see me again, and proud of my “progress” in life. 

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