Posted by: cochinblogger | June 2, 2010

The Calcutta Itch and My Love Affair with Rubber Ankle Shoes

I did my schooling in Calcutta. After settling down in Cochin, I developed the Calcutta itch. I kept comparing the new town I had planted myself in to that great city throbbing with life. It took me a few years to grow out of that feeling of discontent and feel at peace here, but I still retain positive memories of the city and its denizens.

I learned a few years ago that I was not alone in harboring such sentiments. Keralites who worked in Calcutta and left to settle down in their native Kerala have formed an organization to keep the Calcutta memories alive. Take a look at this article:

By the way, Shevlin Sebastian, the Indian Express journalist who wrote this article, lived very close to my house in Calcutta. But I have never met him — not even in Calcutta — and he does not know me from Adam.

Malayalis and Bengalis are similar in many ways: a diet centered on rice and fish and, historically, a soft corner for the Left. Both peoples live along the coast, and bear the brunt of the monsoons; and hence, the consequent need for protective footwear, if one values one’s leather.

After I had tried one brand of rubber shoe after the other without feeling satisfied, one year I found myself in a well-known shoe shop in Broadway just before the onset of the monsoons. After I shook my head at the few specimens he brought for my approval, the wizened old shop assistant disappeared down a flight of steps into the bowels of the shop and came back with a unique-looking rubber shoe, which looked like a cross between an ordinary shoe and a Wellington: a flap of rubber covered the foot up to the ankle. I was sold on the spot. The manufacturer? Duckback, a Calcutta-based company.

That pair of shoes served me well during the monsoons. Roads here often get flooded up to just below ankle height, and these shoes kept out muddy water that ordinary, lower-center-of-gravity rubber shoes would have admitted. Wet socks suck.

A pair cost about Rs. 300, which suited my modest budget. The life of a pair was one monsoon. The next year, I would buy another pair. At the workplace, others saw the shoes, asked where on earth I’d found them, and bought pairs for themselves and relatives. I little realized as I walked out of that Broadway shop that fateful day with those shoes tucked under my arm that a Calcutta connection, a bond, was to be forged that would stand the test of time.

After a few years, the Broadway shop from which I bought that first pair stopped stocking them, and I couldn’t locate them anywhere in town. In desperation, I tapped all the possible sources of information I could think of and managed to track down the new dealer, a Gujarati shop, located further down the same road in Broadway. All was well again, and I could look forward to the monsoon with renewed confidence.

Then … I needed to replace my pair before the monsoons, and called up the shop (Shah & Co). Yes, he did have my size (size 10). I resolved to pick them up next week, but when I went next week they had run out of stock. No size 10. I kept calling after that, but no luck. It was always next week, next week, next week … I eventually lost interest and weathered the monsoons that year with my old pair, which was barely serviceable. When I called next, I was informed that there was a production line problem in the Calcutta factory with the size 10 shoes. Shah & Co had no idea when the problem would be solved. I even became desperate enough to go down and try on the size 9 pair, but it wouldn’t fit.

One thing I learned from my numerous phone calls to the shop was that the shoes were called ankle shoes. Wonderful name. I could hear the man shouting at an assistant, “Ankle shoes, size 10 hai”? My old pair had developed a hole, and I dreaded the thought of wearing ordinary rubber shoes during the coming monsoons. I could almost smell the wet socks. A Kerala monsoon without my trusty Duckback ankle shoes? Unthinkable!

It has not escaped my notice that the ankle shoes I’d fallen in love with are a Calcutta-Kerala hybrid: the design is from Calcutta, but the rubber must be from Kerala. Bengali brains + Malayalee industry and flexibility. (This rubber-like flexibility is why Malayalis are such skilled negotiators; hence, the endless stream of trade union leaders, athletes (rubber-like bodies!), and diplomats.) It adds up!

I kept calling Shah & Co at regular intervals, but it was the same story each time. Size 10 not coming. Production problem. Try two weeks later. I gave up. Maybe I was destined to get used to wet socks after all.

Then one day, the auto driver who takes my kids to school mentioned casually that he’d heard on the radio that it’d rain next week. The sky was cloudy that morning, so during the lunch break I called Shah & Co. Oh, Joy! They had size 10 in stock. The production glitch was solved. I told him to reserve a pair for me; I picked up my pair that very evening.

With a piece of Calcutta beneath my feet, I was ready to take on the monsoons again.

Today, a couple of years later, Shah & Co stocks another brand from Calcutta, which I have on my feet now. I’m happy with it.

With a Calcutta-Kerala combination, how can I not be?

Happy ending, right? A great way to end this post, eh?

But I now have a sneaking suspicion that the shoes are made of rexine, not rubber. 🙂 That’s life for you.

Never mind. This blog post is already written. Let it stand as a faithful depiction of my emotions about the shoe.

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