Diasporic Guilt by Mohamed Keshavjee

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Union Station Shoeshine © Cindy Woods

‘Shoeshine, sir?’ asked the young lad with a shoeshine box in his hand, as I peered into the window of a shop in New Delhi’s fashionable Connaught Circus.

‘No thanks’, I responded. ‘I’m in a hurry. I have to go somewhere.’

‘Will be quick, and make like new’, he said reassuringly.

‘No’, I said again. ‘I do not want to shine my shoes.’

I tried fobbing him off, but it was difficult. He then followed me and tried to engage me in conversation.

‘From where, sir?’ he asked.

‘I am Indian’, I replied, somewhat mildly irritated.

‘Don’t lie’, he snapped accusingly. ‘That is not Indian flag.’ He pointed out, looking at the Canadian decal on my white African safari suit.

‘Do I have to have an Indian flag to be Indian?’ I asked.

‘Sorry, sir, it was not meant as insult’, he quickly assured me. ‘Please, I will make shoes like new and will do fast, fast’, he pleaded.

‘No!’ I said, ‘I am in a rush. I just want to see a few shops and then get on my way.’ As he hovered around for a while, I could see him from the corner of my eye but I pretended that he was not there.

I walked around the colonnaded shopping centre and reflected on the grandeur of the imperial city built by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker as a testimony to the imperial Raj. Its majesty was overwhelming. Lutyens had explored the region on horseback in the 1920s to choose a site fit for a new, imperial capital and even before the roads were laid, he ordered trees to be planted along certain routes – long-living trees that would survive as long as, if not longer than, Britain’s rule over the brightest jewel in the imperial crown. The King’s uncle, the Duke of Connaught, had visited India in 1921 and New Delhi’s main shopping centre, half a mile north of the Secretariat, had been named Connaught Square in his honour. The first store in Connaught Square was opened in the 1920s by a Parsi gentleman, selling liquor and cigars to the British.

Connaught Circus and its beautiful architecture helped me to connect with my own past – the buildings of my childhood – the Union Buildings in South Africa, which I and my siblings visited every Sunday during our youth because no drive to downtown Pretoria could ever be complete without enjoying the panoramic view of the city from the Union Buildings, which were built on a hill. Even though non-Whites were not allowed to enter the buildings or relax on the verdant lawns around them, they were a constant lure visible to us from wherever we were in Pretoria. Connaught Circus reminded me, too, of the Law Courts in Nairobi, Kenya, which were also designed by Baker, where I practised law in the 1970s. Thus, New Delhi, particularly the city of Lutyens and Baker, resonated in me. The architecture immediately sent the past surging into my mind, but more than that, through it I connected with India, the country of my roots.

As I moved from shop window to shop window in Connaught Circus, my mind went back to the shoeshine boy. Poor fellow, if only I had allowed him to polish my shoes he could have earned a few rupees. That would have helped him. Perhaps, it could have been a contribution to enabling him to go to school, get married someday, buy a small place somewhere, send his kids to school, and who knows what after that? Anything could happen. Perhaps, one day his son would be a great doctor or a lawyer or a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. Paltry as my contribution might be, if everyone thought like me, we would be able to stimulate the law of abundance and give India’s economy a kick start. With India’s plentiful cheap labour, all we needed to do was improve its skills. And we overseas Indians had a particular obligation to help the country that gave birth to our parents and ancestors. After all, my great-grandfather lay buried in Gujarat. My grandfather was born here and I have always, for better or for worse, been called an Indian. I owed it to India – Mother India – to help her.

I looked around, but the shoeshine boy was not to be seen anywhere, so I went into a small shop selling silks, trinkets and jewellery and immediately on entry, declared, ‘I only want to have a look’.

The shopkeeper was accommodating. ‘Please come in’, he said. ‘What would you like to see? We have beautiful shirts and ties, and for the wife we have lovely jewellery – real lapis lazuli, rubies and amber – very reasonable. Please have a look’. I looked around and saw a wonderful array of handmade goods: a wooden lectern to hold the Qur’an, a hand-carved coffee table, beautiful white marble coasters with pietra dora handiwork of inlaid mother of pearl, malachite and jade. This was Indian shopping at its best. But I wasn’t really looking for anything. I had time to kill and the best place to do so, I felt, would be in these pleasant settings so reminiscent of the Raj.

I visited a number of shops and found much of the same. In such shops, the moment anyone enters, he or she is treated with gushing courtesy and friendship. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ I was asked.

‘No thank you’, I would reply.

‘No need to buy anything, just have a look and see what you would like’, each shopkeeper would say. Customer service has never been so good in any country I have visited then and since. This is India, a country that gave the world the concept of hospitality.

After a number of such visits and a minimal purchase of a set of marble table coasters, I found myself back in the circular humdrum of Connaught Circus and spotted the shoeshine boy again.

‘Not gone yet?’ he asked.

‘No’, I said, rather embarrassed. ‘My friend is still busy at work. I’ll be meeting him a little later.’

He looked at me and said somewhat pleadingly, ‘Can I do polish? –Will be quick.’ I couldn’t say no this time. I just wanted to do my little bit – for him, for India and for my bruised conscience.

‘OK’, I said, ‘but please be quick. I have to go. This time, I really have very little time’. The boy immediately put down his shoeshine box and installed himself on the pavement in front of a store specializing in silk goods.

He asked me to put my right foot on his box as he studiously looked at my burgundy-coloured Florscheim shoes. He started by dusting my right shoe with full gusto and making it ready to receive the elixir of life. After all, he was going to make them new again!

He opened his bag and took out a tin of reddish brown polish and a brush, all ready to take on this job for which he had waited for over an hour and on which I had done some deep reflecting. I was braced for the exercise. My conscience was going to be assuaged through a symbolic ritual act of cleansing.

All of a sudden, he asked me to take off my shoe and took it into his hands and bent it, as if that was part of the exercise of ‘making it new’. He gripped the heel with one hand, while holding the shoe with the other and tested its strength.

‘Old shoe’, he said.

‘Yes’, I answered, ‘but I like it. It’s very comfortable. It’s well worn’. While we were talking, he said, ‘One minute, I am coming back’ and suddenly took off like a bolt of lightning.

The passageway between the pillars began to fill up as people started making their way home after their day’s work. There I was, in the middle of the pavement, alone, with one shoe on and one shoe off, with my leg resting securely on the shoeshine box. There was no other equipment to establish the temporary territorial claim of this one-lad entrepreneurial set-up. I stood there for a while, hoping against hope that the shoeshine boy would return with my footwear. Where could he have gone?

What would he do with just one shoe? A perverse thought entered my mind. Perhaps he has gone to sell it to a home for the disabled. I waited and all sorts of thoughts went through my mind. My white sleeveless Safari suit with a small, red Canadian flag stitched to my upper jacket pocket made me conspicuous. I imagined passers-by wondering, what on earth is this guy doing standing in the middle of Connaught Circus with one shoe off, waiting for someone to return?

After a few minutes, a man asked me in a friendly tone, ‘You waiting for a shoeshine boy?’

‘Yes’, I said. ‘He has just gone off somewhere without telling me where he was going. He has taken my shoe with him.’

He appeared perplexed. ‘Why has he done that?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know’, I answered.

‘I think he has gone to do something to the shoe.’

‘Do you think he is coming back?’ he asked.

‘I should dearly hope so’, I answered.

‘Good luck’, he said and off he went.

I waited another ten minutes and to my utter relief, the shoeshine boy returned with my shoe in his hand.  Beside himself with joy, he said, ‘Fixed heel, make like new’. I took one look at the shoe, put it on and to my horror, found that the new heel was totally unaligned with my other shoe.

‘Why on earth did you do that?’ I asked. ‘Who told you to change the heel?’

‘Loose, sir, loose, sir’, he said proudly, ‘Make like new.’

At that moment, I lost my cool and told him, ‘I did not want my shoe polished in the first place, but you followed me. You begged me, you made me feel guilty and now you have ruined my shoe by changing my heel, something I least needed. Why did you do this?’

He looked at me somewhat contritely but was obviously puzzled as he said, ‘Sorry, sir, no mean bad. Shoe loose, shoe loose’.

‘I suppose you now want me to pay for this’, I said.

‘Shoemaker waiting’, he replied.

‘How much?’ I asked.

‘50 rupees’, he said.

I rummaged through my pockets and realized that I only had a credit card and enough rupees to pay for a rickshaw ride to see my friend. I managed to rustle up some rupees and gave them to him, but not before giving him a quick lecture on business ethics. ‘Always ask a client what he wants before spending money on his behalf’, I said.

‘Yes, sir’, he answered.

I then hailed a rickshaw to take me to Sarojini House in a fashionable part of New Delhi where I was to meet my friend. The rickshawalla agreed to wait for me for a few minutes while I borrowed some money from my friend.

It was now beginning to get dark. My friend, Habib Datoobhoy, paid the rickshawalla and I installed myself in his spacious executive office. We started chatting and I told him what I had done that afternoon.

‘New Delhi is so beautiful’, I remarked.

‘No doubt, it was conceived in an era of spaciousness’, he replied. ‘We really like it here.’

While we were regaling each other with New Delhi’s unique characteristics, his teenage daughter, who was at the office that afternoon, walked in and said, ‘Daddy, look what I found in the reception’. She showed him a shoe heel with many nails protruding from it. Horrified, I recognized it as the ‘new’ heel from my shoe. I hadn’t realized that it had fallen off while I was walking over Habib’s plush carpet.

I told Habib what had happened to me. ‘You’ve been ripped off’, he said, looking at me with sympathy. I then told him that, in addition to the shoeshine charges, I had also paid the boy money for repairing the heel. ‘Oh my God’, he exclaimed, ‘perhaps he knew you were a foreigner’.

‘Never mind’, I said. ‘But can we have it repaired now?’

‘Impossible’, he said. ‘This is New Delhi, not Bombay. Shops here close early.’

I had no choice but to make do with what I had. We went for a sumptuous dinner that night and Habib drove me to the airport to catch my flight to Paris. I limped past the immigration counter with six jars of Indian mango pickle labelled ‘extra hot’ in my bag, a few cloth flags which someone had given me for a colleague in France and a shoe heel with a lot of nails protruding ominously from it. Security was lax in those days and no one interrogated me about what could have been mistaken for a weapon.

After passing through the immigration counter at Charles de Gaulle airport next morning, I was walking out through the green gate at customs when I was called back by a customs officer, an Antillean by his looks.

‘Bonjour, Monsieur’, he said. ‘Quelque chose à déclarer?’

‘Nothing’, I said in English.

‘En français, s’il vous plaît’, he requested and began to go through my bag. I was wondering how I would explain to him, in French moreover, why I was carrying objects that were strange to him.

How would I explain to him that the ‘extra hot’ mango pickles were part of my culinary identity? Spicy pickles link all diasporic Indians to their motherland, even if they have never visited it. No Indian meal anywhere is ever complete without that embellishment.

As for the flags – all I could say with my limited French was ‘C’est pour mon ami’. And when he held up the heel orphaned from its shoe and looked at me inquiringly, I just took off the shoe and said, ‘Voilà! Une petite catastrophe en Inde!’

‘Ah oui’, he acknowledged. Then he looked at my Canadian passport, read the Muslim name and noticed my South African origin and asked to see my French residence permit. I obliged and that seemed to settle his curiosity. ‘Allez-y’, he said with a grin and I limped with my heavy handbag to a taxi.

The next morning, I rushed to the only cobbler in my village of Gouvieux, hoping to get new heels put on both my shoes, only to see a notice on the door, which read: ‘Fermé – Mois d’août’. The place was closed for the month of August.

It was not until another month had passed that I was finally able to bury my diasporic guilt.

By Mohamed Keshavjee


Mohamed Keshavjee is a lawyer cum mediator who has specialized in cross cultural mediation. He has written two books, Islam, Sharia and Alternative Dispute Resolution based on his doctoral dissertation on conflict resolution and Into that Heaven of Freedom, a memoir based on his family’s diasporic journey after leaving apartheid South Africa in the 1960s. He is now in the process of finalizing his third book, Diasporic Distractions- New Faces in New Places his first book on short stories. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Darwin International Institute for the Study of Compassion. He lives in the United Kingdom where he lectures on ADR and Law at various universities.