Is it time to go? These days, I’m sure I need to, and I get up in the night, and get outside to the latrine, but I find I have difficulty beginning.
There’s a sense of urgency, but it’ll start, then stop. During these excursions, still dreaming I suppose, I believe that I am at home. I mean the house where I grew up. A boy, stumbling into moonlight. In the room where I slept as a child, the walls smelled of ash and cow dung, smoky and rich. If you haven’t been in a room plastered in gobar I can’t explain. It’s sweet, but catches in the back of your throat. Now, in the rains, the smell alters, a growing thing.
My brother and I slept in the corner. His knee in my leg, my sole on his calf, his snoring. The light from the window, and shadows moving near us. Sometimes we listened to our parents’ soft noises. He stirred earlier, unclouded; I had to be shaken awake, confused, often angry.
My younger daughter-in-law tells her son, Rohan, to love his brother, to look after him. My brother and I were never told such things. When we fought, if it wasn’t out of sight, we were beaten for giving trouble. When we hated each other, which was often, we still slept entangled, resenting it, my knee in his back, his bony elbow in my ribs. There was no sentiment between us, but we would have died for each other.
I remember the offcuts we were given to play with. Small, oddly formed pieces. We learned to plait the leather, or stamp out a flower.
This morning I was polishing the ends of the chappals, varnishing them, checking them. Everything should be perfect. Why so much care for something a man will put between his feet and the ground? But the chappals will be his constant companions. He’ll spend more time with them than with his wife. One side of the sole may wear out more, depending on how he walks, so that you could pick up his chappals and observe that he leans a little into his centre, or a little out towards the world. Some people walk quite evenly, but not many, I’ve noticed, not many. Most of us shuffle along in our own strange way, not giving it attention.
The thing I make is with a man when he’s alone, unnoticed. I like that. And he can rely on it. Our chappals aren’t like the manufactured ones, stuck with glue; ours will be with you for a long time.
I’ve never made the perfect pair. There’s always something. The scorpion’s tail on top of the belt curves differently on one side; there’s an asymmetry in the point of the toe, or the design around the upper lining.
I could say it doesn’t matter; no one will notice. I could say the only perfect thing is a dead thing, that each pair is like a husband and wife: their imperfections complement each other. At first it’s uncomfortable to wear our chappals. They have to be lived with. They will harass the skin between your big and middle toes. You will dip them in water and let them dry in the sun. The varnish will take a while to come off the sole. You’ll wear them in, slipping around. Like a tool used over years by the same man, or a child raised by a certain woman, they’ll bear the imprint of your habitual bias.
My elder son, who makes the manufactured chappals, has heard all this and isn’t interested. They came this Sunday, without Anil, who had a cricket match. My daughter-in-law brought til laddoos for us to take to Pune.
Can you even remember how to make a proper chappal? I asked my son. I don’t know why I feel the need to have these conversations with him.
He nodded and waved one hand slightly. His face is smooth, this son of mine, and his eyes slide around. He’s darker than I, looks more like my brother.
Do you remember how? I persisted.
He smiled, but he looked irritated.
What will you teach your son? I asked.
His eyes slid up to mine, then he looked away. He exhaled. I thought I smelled last night’s alcohol. His teeth are red, too much gutka.
My wife came with tea and fritters. She put her small hand on his shoulder. He looked up and smiled and his face changed, from sly and angry to abashed, open.