In this city of grief, I keep telling him that we should empathise with each other. But no, this old fox always points out faults in others.
Streets aren’t the same anymore, so he thought—watching footfall from his cobbler corner. That old bustle, as he remembers it, has long disappeared in the bludgeoning hush. Pretence, he feels, is being played out daily on the streets of his homeland. Characters which once made it a happening place have become some faint figures of proscribed past now, reckons the cobber reading the pulse of times.
Every morning his arrival coincides with the morning shift of paramilitary personal. Most of these armed forces have become a regular street fixture in Vale after the abrogation of Article 370. Khalil Sheikh, as they call him, loathes these men for having cast their shadow on those lively pedestrian parliaments. There’s a whistle, a wallop and a whack now. This stringent order, the cobber says, pinches like shoes.
“What’s there for commoners like us in these big political developments we keep on hearing these days?” Khalil told Ismail, a ration-depot labour, who often cools his heels at the cobbler’s corner. “We’re not even cheerleaders of this charade…”
“Call us bodies they do their experiments on,” the wizened Ismail replies.
Khalil’s corner is an echo-chamber of such street anguish. The man in his late fifties must have last smiled in early 2010. That year when a promising schoolboy was buried in two places, he turned sullen. And that sullen face forever buried that warm smile he once used to greet everyone in the locality with.
Surmising and sitting on the untidy footpath, he often hears one cleric’s Friday sermon with rapt attention. Lately, his frown face flowered with radiance when the revered voice amplified by speakers talked about Khalil’s cryptic class.
“So, that cobber told that pious man, hold my hand if you want to offer Salah in Mecca. He did and instantly landed in the house of God,” so the cleric said making Khalil his captive audience on street. “But once the secret of spiritual powerhouse got out, the cobber passed away the very next morning, not before fulfilling the wish of that man…”
Such sermons make Khalil believe that someone like him, often dismissed as “watul”, can achieve a superior spiritual strength in life. Perhaps this realization makes him a silent worker.
His makeshift workplace has a wooden shoe-shiner box, with a shoe platform. Camel hair brushes are scattered around, along with polishing rags and polish on a white plate. Shoelaces of different colour variants are tied to the edge of the box. A hammer, an awl, a knife, spare leather, and thread are his tools. He opens the lid of a tin-box with tiny nails scatter in it.
At noon when he was about to take his lunch, a lanky man in his mid-twenties approached him from the unkempt narrow alley. He was taking brisk steps to reach him, but his shoe was making it a slog for him. Both the pairs of shoes looked tattered and rugged when he stepped in closer to the cobbler.
He took off his shoes and passed them to Khalil for repair. Dragging hard on his cheap cigarette, the cobbler had a careful look at the dusty pair. Sole needs to be changed, he told the young man, as Ismail showed up with a gunny bag.
“This free ration that Delhi is feeding us in this lockdown reminds me of Bakshi’s subsidiary system,” the ration-depot labourer blurted out while taking a breather near Khalil’s street workplace. “Workless people are flooding ration depots for free lunches these days. They want to take home whatever is being offered free of cost…”
“Buying silence with the belly is an old trick in Kashmir,” Khalil scoffs, looking at the rotten bottom of the young man’s shoes. “Why’re you complaining, as if you haven’t taken a pound of flesh home already?”
“Bugger always plays pope!” Ismail got up in anger, and left muttering.
The young man turned to the cobbler and asked him about his outburst on the poor labourer. The cobbler stood nonchalant. Minutes later, he looked straight into the eyes of the young man.
“That man is a friend with a flaw,” the cobbler told the young man. “He always points out faults in others. He has faced my militant mood over it. In this city of grief, I keep telling him that we should empathise with each other. But no, this old fox thinks his disgusted bile on other’s condition will end his own life miseries. He’s being delusional. I interact with different characters on street daily. Most of them are walking sorrows around. Should we slay our people for queuing up for the free ration that comes at the cost of their crippled lives?”
The young man stood amazed at the cobbler’s street-smart views and took his shining boots with a smile from him.
Khalil shifted his focus to the streets again. Some street sentries were closely watching men with their suspicious eyes. Apart from strugglers on street, they were symbols of suspicion for his ‘security’ tribe unleashed to check the native nerve.
The cobbler watches this street spectacle in silence, till his simmer is settled by another Friday sermon—advocating sabr over one’s situation.
Sabir on street, perhaps a cobbler is Sheikh for a reason.