Venkatesha has been working as a cobbler for the past 50 years. He has been sitting on the same pavement for almost half a century. New buildings have sprung up around him during this time. The way of life has changed during this period. The cost of living has risen. Everything has changed except his job and his place of work. There are lesser trees. Other sellers left the pavement and the scorching sun. Shail profiles the elderly cobbler who stayed back, against all odds. Here’s a slice of oral history exclusively for Different Truths.
“Him that makes shoes go barefoot himself.” ~ Robert Burton, English Scholar, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy.
“Shoes divide men into three classes. Some men wear their father’s shoes. They make no decisions of their own. Some are unthinkingly shod by the crowd. The strong man is his own cobbler. He insists on making his own choices. He walks in his own shoes.” ~ S. D Gordon, author, public speaker.
If you were to walk by on the road, there would be a greater chance that you might miss this elderly gentleman seated on a broken piece of footpath. Unlike other people belonging to his profession, this man has few tools to claim his own, few things that can boast of his being a master of his profession.
Venkatesha has been working as a cobbler for the past 50 years. He has been sitting here on the same pavement for almost half a century. New buildings have sprung up around him during this time. The way of life has changed during this period. The cost of living has risen.
Everything has changed except his job and his place of work. Hailing from the town of Vandavasi, in Tiruvannamali district of Tamil Nadu, 75-year- old Venkatesha proudly talks about his life as a cobbler.
During the course of talking to him, people come and go, most of them approaching him to mend bags and baskets. Seeing my expression, he tells me, “Now that there are shoe shops everywhere, very few people actually come to get their shoes and slippers mended. Earlier, I even used to make slippers.”
And, when I try to remember when and where I last saw a cobbler, I find it difficult to remember. There are cobblers in and around the city but their number has dwindled over the years especially since the age of use and throw products have become the in thing today.
“There were more trees around here when I used to work earlier,” Venkatesha tells me. “So, there was lots of shade. And many people used to sit on pavements like these and sell things. Now, there are hardly any trees and lots of traffic. So much sound everywhere. Nobody wants to sit in the hot sun and earn their living. I have no other choice. I don’t know any other profession and at my age I cannot do anything else.”
“No, I live at Pallavaram” (around 20 kilometres from Chennai Central Station).
So, how does he travel to work from so far every day?
“I don’t do that. I live here” and he points to a building behind him. “I sleep here in that compound in the night.”
What about food?
“Oh! That I manage. I get something to eat here itself.”
But, what about his family? They must be waiting for him at home?
“My wife died 20 years back when my last child was just a baby. I have three sons and a daughter. Whenever I go home around once or twice a month, my daughter-in- law cooks something for me.”
Venkatesha, has over the years become hard of hearing. Most of the time, I had to raise my voice to ask him questions. His fingers have also withered with age and are not as nimble as they may have been years earlier.
When I ask him how many grandchildren he has, he takes some time to count on his fingers.
“Five, I think” he says.
“My daughter is married. My sons did not study much. One son did not study at all. But, they are doing something. After all, they have to earn something?”
When I had asked to talk to him initially, Venkatesha had been hesitant. He got even more suspicious when I told him that I was a writer wanting to write about him. It took him a while before he agreed and began talking.
Just imagine! What a big piece of history he has been witness to during his journey of 50 years as a cobbler. What we can only read of or hear about in the news, this 75-year- old man has actually been a part of. One need not be educated to make history. One only needs to live a life of self respect against all odds braving the storm of passing time and deteriorating health to become history himself. Very much like Venkatesha.
“When my photo comes in the paper tell me okay?” he tells me as I stand up ready to leave.
“If I am not here, then across the road, you see that shop there?” and he pointed out to a small shop. “Ask that man for Venkatesha and he will know. He is a friend!”
“Seringay Periverey! Poit varein” I tell him. (Okay, Elder. I shall take leave.)
As I walk away from him, I feel as if I was walking with a piece of history!
Pix by Vinod Naraen.
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