My mother wore shoes for the first time in her 60’s. Until then she had shared a very dissatisfying relationship with footwear.
Her first trip abroad to Singapore with my father in the 1980s, was ruined by uncomfortable footwear. She had bought new sandals to take with her and learnt the invaluable lesson of never carrying new sandals on a trip that would require walking long distances.
Sandal-shopping with my mother was a continual nightmare. As much as we wanted her to find the right fit, we wanted to avoid the long and frustrating process it would turn out to be each time.
Most often she could not find sandals that fitted her to her satisfaction. We would blame the failure to find the right sandals on my mother’s indecisive nature that I have regrettably inherited.
But her relationship with footwear was a tenuous one. She had spent the first ten years of her life unsupervised by parents, who had left her with her grandmother in the village, because of a transferable government job. In the village she constantly played truant to catch fish or watch over the silkworms that her grandmother had carefully reared.
She was heartbroken when her white-collared father decided that she was growing up as a rustic peasant girl and sent her away to join her older sister in boarding school in Guwahati. Her older sister, who my mother describes as being the delicate one, was always upset about her rustic sister’s lack of self-consciousness.
In a friendly kabbaddi match played in her hostel courtyard, Ma tore away from the girls, who came to catch her, so violently that she left part of her dress behind. That upset her older sister and Ma did not understand.
The only adornment I have seen on Ma is the big round red bindi that sat in the middle of her broad forehead. I put make up for Ma for the first time. Using very light kajal and lipstick afraid that the make-up will be as alien on her face as footwear is on her feet.
But her quest for the right sandals was something that we were never quite able to help with.
Her feet did not have the delicate narrow shape that most sandals demand of a woman. Her feet were broad and the shape was robust like that of a peasant woman’s. Her toes were knotty and the little toe in the end stuck out refusing to be confined by footwear. A bone stuck out below the defiant little toe like an extra appendage which had no function other than to cause inconvenience to the bearer of the feet.
Ma says that the odd shape of her feet was due to never having worn shoes that could have otherwise restrained the unruly growth of her feet. She would look at our uncomfortable black leather shoes that we wore to school and regret that she was never required to wear them to school. She believed they were prescribed for girls so that our feet could be sculpted to fit into the shape ready for the dainty elegant sandals that she had longed to wear, which was probably not very far from the truth.
In her 50s she began to apply dark maroon nail paint to her toes to hide the uneven surface of her toe nails. The maroon made the light skin of her feet appear translucent. The dark maroon hid the dead nail of her big toe of the left foot. It made the blue veins on her feet appear like the blueprint of an ancient map.
Her failure at disguising her rustic feet was pronounced by the constant comparison with my father’s feet. His feet were narrow around the arch and extended gently towards his toes. The toes receding in perfect proportions from the big toe to the small. The toe nails growing out in square shapes as if manicured to perfection. The sole of his feet had grown softer with age and because of being constantly in shoes. He has never not worn shoes while going out. Only time I have seen him in slippers is after 8:00 pm at night.
On my first trip abroad with my parents, I found my father constantly walking fast and leaving my mother behind. I would slow down to walk with her and worried about all the trips they went for together without us. Did he always leave her behind like this, struggling with her uncomfortable footwear?
Ma found the answer to her footwear problem in the men’s section of sports shoes. At 70, she no longer feels the need to force her feet into feminine dainty sandals, and has very comfortably opted for the comfort of sneakers, even with her sarees and mekhela.
Even after a knee replacement surgery her steps haven’t lost its spring. Now she would do all her errands in the house in sneakers and put them on with her saree too. Now I never really see her without her sneakers. Although sneaker shopping with my mother is another kind of story altogether.