Cobbler, cobbler, mend my shoe
It is Wednesday morning and after the heavy downpour of the previous
night, the bright sun seems almost too hot to endure.
Yet it makes no difference to Uppan Maniappa. Rain or shine, he has
his work cut out for him. Piles of shoes, slippers, handbags, purses,
umbrellas lie heaped under and around his little stool, each of them
carrying an 'Urgent' tag on them.
The pleasant forty-something man who sports a tattered cap brown with
dust and an equally dusty T short and faded brown shorts, does not look
up when I stop right in front of him.
He gives me a brief smile when I introduce myself as a journalist
from the Sunday Observer and continues with his work. His eyebrows
tighten with concentration as he threads the strong 'tyre nool" in his
cobblers needle and I watch as his fingers fly in, out, in, out, finally
coming to a stop when he completes his task.
"All done," he breathes a sigh of relief wiping the sweat off his
brow, and dipping into his old tool box containing the barest of tools,
to pull out a sharp knife. With this, he snips the thread and frees it
from the gent's shoe he has been mending.
"The sole had come off and I gave it an extra firm base after using
some glue and then stitching it up", he tells me, using a little spit on
his hand to wipe the shoe. "That's to give it an extra shine" he grins,
seeing me grimacing...
He next picks up a pair of ladies slippers, and turns them upside
down, showing me how the straps as well as the soles have come apart.
"The owner gave this to me and has just informed me she would be here
within the next hour. So I have no time to stop working. But you can ask
me any questions you wish".
To my first question on how long he has been in this business he
shows ten fingers and says, "Multiply that by three, and you'll come up
with the right answer".
Illiterate with no schooling since his father could not afford to buy
him clothes or school books, he says that the little he knows to read or
write is what he has learned from his children who are still schooling.
So how did he enter this business? Was it by accident? Or was it a
family business he inherited? I ask.
"My father and grandfather were cobblers. They were the best around
town and no one could match them. So I guess it's in my genes', he says
with a note of pride. " I learned all about this trade from the time
they taught me as a child of five when I used to sit on my father's or
grandfather's lap and watch them work."
Was the money he earned enough to pay for his family's needs? I
"Definitely not at the present cost of living. I earn between Rs 500
to 600 a day. Barely enough to feed my growing family, my wife and
myself. But that's life. I guess. I'm not trained in any other job and I
don't want to do anything else at this stage of my life", he says with
an air of resignation.
His charges are minimal. Unlike the shoe repairers operating fancy
machines in luxury shopping complexes, Mariappa's charges are minimal.
They range from Rs 20 for a simple job, to Rs 80 for a more complicated
repair job. "Everything I do is a labour of love and every item given
for repair deserves the same attention, whether it is an umbrella, show,
handbag, slipper, gent's purse
or even a raincoat whose buttons have come out", he says. Living in a
rented two roomed tenement house in Armour Street, for which he pays a
monthly rent of Rs 5,000 carefully collected coin by coin, rupee by
rupee from his day's earnings, he walks most of the way to save on bus
fare, to his permanent stand on De Saram Road which is cheek by jowl
with the large shopping complex of the National Hospital.
"I set out at six a.m and reach here by 7 a.m when the first of the
hospital visitors are trickling in. I never lack takers. There's always
someone wanting to have a shoe, umbrella, slipper or handbag mended. The
problem is they are always in a rush. So I've got to finish everything
before I leave.
"Anyway I don't leave anything behind till the next day as I have no
room to keep them in my home anyway".
Before he moved to his present work place, he was doing his cobbler's
business at the other end of the road near the Eye Hospital. "I used to
sit under the shade of the Bo tree. When the police chased us pavement
hawkers away, I decided to shift to this place. This is much better as I
can take shelter in the market when it rains. Besides, many kind
visitors coming to the hospital often give me a free lunch as a 'dana'.
So God has truly blessed me", he says raising his hands skywards.
On days he gets no free lunch, he quenches his hunger with a cup of
plain tea and sometimes a piece of bread. So what happens when he
becomes too old to continue working? Will he pass on those skills to his
son and daughters?
"No" he says firmly. "My wife will not allow it. Nor will I. My
children are schooling now and I have dreams of a better future than
this for them.Someday, who knows, they may win a scholarship, enter the
university or go into some well paid profession. Times are very hard for
the likes of us who are in this trade.
Many of my friends have already given up their professions despite
having hailed from families of cobblers. I intend doing the same when
the time comes." And until then? He is determined to continue plying his
trade of 30 years and more, with the same zest and dedication.
"Cobbler, cobbler, mend my shoe"... How many times have we sung this
well loved nursery rhyme as children. Then, cobblers dotted every street
corner in highways and by lanes in the city and outside.
Today they have been reduced to a handful. With skills like theirs,
it is time that the authorities step in with timely interventions to
prevent the extinction of this iconic symbol of our culture, and give
them the recognition and a place of their own which they truly deserve.