Thursday, October 30, 2008

if they don't have bread, let them eat cake

These past few days have been revealing in terms of what part of the sum total of my life experiences are because I am Indian. And while that has been interesting, it hasn't been strange in that I already expected that US is a different culture from a land half way across the globe. What's been strange is that, amidst these revelations, I occasionally realize that experiences that I thought were true of all Indians, is true only of me. And suddenly the joke's on me.

Let me explain.

So I have my new pair of adidas shoes that I bought with much love and excitement. I use them pretty much all the time. And you walk everywhere in them, through dirt, through mud, through dried up hay and through sudden rain, and they get dirty. What do you do when stuff gets dirty ? When stuff you could swear is white is actually on the blacker side of gray ? Don't you clean them ? No don't answer that! Not yet at least.

I clean them.

I dump it in a bucket of water, with detergent and some liquid bleach, let it soak for a day or two and then clean it and brush it with an old toothbrush and let it dry in the sun. And lo and behold! Clean shoes!

And then I came here.

Here, I am faced with the problem of no washing stone, no backyard to dry stuff in, no proper place to pour away buckets of muddy, soapy water and I have a pair of shoes that I can't bear to look at. I was pretty sure that this country that loves its sports goods must have found a way to clean 'em. And I figured I'd do the brave thing. I'd ask one of them, as stupid as the question might sound.

Enter labmate1

Labmate one doesn't clean his shoes. He buys new ones when its time to throw the old ones away. In fact the last time he realized he had to get new ones was because he was walking on the snow and first his felt cold, then his feet felt wet and both of those feelings were horrible. And it was then that he realized that the sole had a hole and he threw them. Wipe them, he says. I can't wipe 'em. What about the dirt inside those beautifully tailored "meshy" stuff. That won't help.
Throw them in the washer and dryer he says. Won't they shrink, I ask ? There's no answer.

So labmate1 asks labmate2 and labmate3.
It turns out labmate2 buys new ones, never throws away the old ones, and has at least ten pairs of old shoes. Labmate3 has very spiffy shoes that are now black that he vaguely remembers as being white once. Welcome to the capital of capitalism says labmate 1. I nod in despair, not willing to let go of my shoe cleaning, hitherto cumbersome, suddenly very sensible values. Labmate1 is now reassured that he isn't the only with bad shoe cleaning habits but also feels bad about my dilemma. He is sure that there must be someone who cleans shoes he says. I tell him they're probably indians who've tried to adapt to america. The way we heat tortillas and call them rotis. The way we eat yoghurt and call it curd. The way we eat salsa and sometimes think of pickle. And the way pickle can never ever be brined cucumbers!

My only source of comfort at this point is labmate4's report that she too used to clean her shoes back in Korea. We recounted how our parents would make us wash our shoes as a way of inculcating discipline, how school captains would inspect ur shoes and make you run around the field if you presented yourself with dirty shoes. This we did while getting very scared looks from the other labmates. Labmate2 concluded that shoes were a big deal in that part of the world. Labmate1 wonders if we would expect our kids to clean shoes. We insisted we would, except if they were going to be raised in this country, it was likely that those expectation would never be met. In any case, labmate1 decides to raise the question at tea time. During tea, of course everyone insists that they throw their shoes away. A couple of people say they sometimes hose it down or use the same detergent that they use to wash the car. They wonder how I washed them back in India and get very excited about the washing stone.

Is this a special stone? Asks labmate3. No. Its just huge, I say. We have huge stones here, he says, apparently offended. Someone brings up the existence of mount rushmore. I describe to them with much enthusiasm, the sloped stone, the soaking, the scrubbing, the bashing and the wringing of the clothes and the sun's role in drying them. It seems like much effort to wash those clothes they say. Why don't we just get a washing machine. It is then that I realize how pitifully little they know about a world where not every house has a washing machine. Where even the houses that do have a washing machine, use them sparingly because of power failure and water shortage. Back home, there was a huge bridge to cross:- from having clothes to being able to afford a washing machine to clean 'em in, from buying shoes to not having to worry about throwing them away. LAte Mary Antoinette must've felt the same way. If they don't have bread, let them eat cake. Mary Antoinette probably went to the pantry in the middle of the night with a hungry stomach. On opening the larder, when she failed to find the bread, she munched on cake. One cannot blame her. In a country where the alternate to dirty shoes were new shoes, I found myself rather dumbfolded.

Labmate n ( I have lost count by now, how many people were telling me that they all bought new ones) suggested I buy a shoe dryer. I'd rather throw my shoes away, I say and in that one sentence we all became kindred *soles*.

They also say in unison that my shoes weren't even that dirty. I wondered if they were walking around with such dirty shoes, why bother about clean socks. Its coz our shoes are dirty that we need clean socks they say. I admit I hadn't thought about it that way.

There was a member of the staff that cleaned her shoes though. She did it pretty much the same way I did. At least, where and when shoe cleaning happened, the method seemed to be the same :)

I came back to my computer thinking that this would be a good story to tell all my indian friends.
Here came the real surprise. Several of them were saying that never cleaned their shoes either. I exclaimed that there was shoe shampoo and bleach and everything. We had affordable tools for clean shoes. They didn't clean them, they said. I was baffled. I did not want to be this person that does strange things anymore. I found myself grappling with a sense of loss, a sense of indian identity. There must be someone who found it funny that ppl didn;t clean their shoes. I briefly wondered if I should move to Korea even. And I went on an "asking marathon". I asked anyone who came online if they cleaned their shoes. And when enough of them had said yes ( count = 5 and counting), I felt that perhaps I wasn't the only one.

Mary Antoinette's legacy on the other hand, clearly survives.
The queen is dead.
Long live the queen!


Avi said...

I was just imagining what Cinderella would do with her glass slippers in such scenario? :P
Paying a return visit. Nice to have you drop by.

Janani (used to be Anaztazia) said...


in india, she might throw it away. her pining prince charming would then remould the pieces into a new bottle and drink out of it until cinderalla comes home to him.

in the US, we'd just throw them away and get new prada shoes.
capitalism can be many many things; but never romantic.

even the mastercard ad had to do away with all things romantic when they said "there are some things money can't buy"

Jaya said...

I am a bit dumbstruck... I wrote a blog post with the SAME title and pressed publish. Then I did a search on the web for that title to see if my article came up... yours did. So I read it and find that I am reading a post from a fellow Indian.

Welcome to America! You write well. :)


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