A Road side Cobbler!

Dr A S Bhatia
For many days , I was watching an old man, must be in his mid eighties, fragile looking with bowed back sitting under the big peepal tree at the main road on the back side of Government AMT school, Bakshi Nagar. One day out of curiosity, I went up to him, he was looking down, busy in stitching an old chappal. Feeling the presence of some one, he raised his head slowly and looked towards me. The face was full of wrinkles, “Baba ji Boot polish karwana hai” to whch I said ” ( Dear old man, I have to get my shoes polished). He looked towards my shoes, which were already shinning and polished, raised his head and stared at me with a question mark in his eyes. As he was trying to say that there is no need to get it polished but may be the need to earn his bread for the day, did not allow him to speak those words and silently took my shoes and gave me an old footwear to wear. I got a chance to interact with him. I was curious to know about him, his life and his family. “Baba ji, What’s your name?” I asked in pure Dogri. He did not respond, I waited for few minutes, then I sat down on the road, just in front of him. He looked towards me and I could see many queries in his old, lusterless, muddy and dry eyes. “Motilal Ravidas, is my name.” He spoke in a very low and fragile voice. Then what transpired between the roadside cobbler and me in next half an hour was heart touching for me which showed the difficult times these traditional craftsmen were facing in this era of mechanization and mass industrial production. He started his story way back before partition, when his father and uncle were having a flourishing business of shoe making in Mirpur, Pakistan. After the division of the country was declared, they lost everything and he as a small child along with his family reached Jammu after surviving an onslaught by the raider enroute. In Jammu , they again started their family occupation. ” My father did the same work in Mirpur and I too joined him.”
He has been a cobbler for more than fifty years now in Jammu! ” I used to make shoes upto as early as 1990s, But I had to stop it as nobody buys them now because of mass production of machine made footwears and opening up of large show rooms of big brands! He said in sad note. “I wonder that people will buy a shoe by spending ten to fifteen thousand rupees for the sake of a name, but will hesitate to buy a sandal for only few hundred rupees from a roadside shop of shoemaker! People run after big brand names and don’t care for local poor crafts men! He was very quick to add, “I am not complaining, the world as a whole has changed and so are our own people!” he said with a nostalgic smile on his face. “Life is hard, and there is not enough money in this profession any more to feed a family. “I took over my family profession with a dream to build a house of my own , but being a road side cobbler , I could not do it in my life time.” I could see few drops of tears on the corners of his both eyes, whether these tears were of regret of choosing his family profession. The profession which about forty years back was good enough to run the family was now the regret of his life time.
“I will not encourage next generations to adopt this profession, as there is no good money in it now.” Many a time he had to sleep without food especially during last two years of pandemic and frequent lockdowns which were worst for him in his life time. “I had to stand in long queues to get food” I want to live with respect and dignity and not on the mercy of others!” added Motilal Ravidas Moreover, he said, “There is no respect left in this profession any more, every now and then he is threatened by the authorities to go away from this peepal tree.”
Originally shoes were made one at a time by the cobblers. A customer could come into a shop, give the measurement of his feet and will return in next few days to pick up their new pair of customized shoes! Motilal further added, “Traditionally our ancestors used more than fifteen different techniques for making shoes. Initially for most basic foot protection, they used to stitch the Sandals and Chappals, consisting only of a protective sole and held to the foot with cords or strings.” Going deep into his memory lanes he remembers the wooden foot wears, popularly known as ” Paduka” (a divine name to footwear in Sanskrit) or “Khadau” which he used to make in his young days. But now there are no takers of those wooden foot wear except for the artists of Ramlila who need them while portraying the different characters of Ramayana, the great Epic.” I was shocked to hear from one of my acquaintance that he got a pair of shoes specially made for his child who was suffering from flat foot for a sky rocketting price of fifteen thousands and the next year he got customized shoes manufactured from a traditional shoe maker which cost him only few hundred rupees! Make in India as being advocated by our prime minister cannot bring results without the active participation of the society as whole to protect the traditional crafts. Shoemaking was a traditional handicraft, but over a period of time the shoe making has been overtaken by industrial, mass mechanized production in big factories thereby superseding the original craftsmanship! Traditional Shoemaking still exists today in some poor and remote rural areas that made custom shoes.
A road side cobbler is the most important person to give you relief if your sandals get broken in middle of a busy road! He has been an integral part of Indian society since time immemorial, but now they are at the verge of getting vanished into pages of history. And before it is too late, we as a society need to bring a change in our social behavior! If we buy ten things in our day to day life, let us try to purchase at least minimum of two from local craftsmen, only then these century old traditions can be saved. The Government can frame some schemes for them and many are already in force but until the society as a whole doesn’t get actively involved with a changed mindset, till then it is difficult to save these disappearing local traditional crafts. A Mirza Ghalib said
Hum Na Badle Gey,
Waqt ki Raftaar ke saath !
Jab bhi milein gey,
Andaaz puraana hoga !!
(The author is Professor and Head Department of Biochemistry, Government Medical College Jammu.)