Friday, December 2, 2011

The Shoe Keeper

The building was old but comfortable. The ceilings were low. There was a basement and four floors, the top one being reserved exclusively for minor surgical procedures. The ground floor lodged the reception, the enquiry and billing counters, the pathological lab and a waiting area. The waiting area comprised of two narrow corridors with chairs on both sides. It was here that I sat while I waited for my number to be announced. I had an appointment with the ENT specialist and the doctor was late.

From where I was sitting, I could see the balcony at the entrance with the rows of open racks for keeping the shoes. It reminded me of a temple. This medical center had a rule wherein patients and visitors were required to remove their shoes before they enter. The man attending the shoe racks is about fifty. He has a big grin permanently spread across his face. Whenever I visit the medical center, I am immediately greeted by that grin while he courteously directs me to the rack where I should keep my shoes, handing me over the token with the corresponding number. Sometimes when all the shelves are full, he reaches out to take my sandals and keeps them in a corner on the floor while announcing, “No token required Bhabi, I will take care of these.” 

My attention now shifts from the shoe keeper to the harried mother who has just entered noisily carrying a baby in her arms while holding the hand of an older child. She plonks down on an empty chair with a huge sigh but only for a second. Her elder child runs off towards the staircase and she runs after her while the baby in her arms starts wailing.

I am bored and my eyes rest on the man sitting across me who had been having a long conversation on his phone for quite some time. From his tone and a few words I catch, I figure that his conversation is about business. He is starting to get agitated and his tone loses some of the earlier politeness. Soon, I can make out, he has embarked on an argument. He is almost screaming now.

The chair next to mine had been so long occupied by a woman. She had been waiting patiently since even before I came along with her husband who was sitting on her other side. Now the husband had begun to lose his patience. He gets up with an expletory under his breath and begins to pace the corridors. 

The harried mother is back by now feeding biscuits from a snack box to her child. There is a slight commotion near the billing counter and I can hear raised voices. Invariably, there must have been a confusion as to who was standing where in the long queue.

I look at my watch. It strikes me that I have waited for nearly three quarters of an hour. By this time I could have completed a household chore or two. The man dressed like an executive who has waited for about twenty minutes was coming to the end of his patience. His time, I gather, is much more valuable than mine. He is constantly glancing at his watch and dialling on his cell phone.

My mind drifts. I idly ponder why everybody is so hassled. Is it really that they are missing out on something very crucial in life while spending their time here, waiting? I hear a muffled sob and notice for the first time a young girl sitting alone in the corner across me. Why was she crying? Is she facing some dreaded ailment? Is she afraid of what she may hear from the doctor? Has she been unlucky in love? My mind wanders aimlessly as I consider these possibilities. Maybe it was something else altogether. I wished I had brought along the book I had been trying to finish since ages. Oh, how I wish I had remembered to carry the book. At least I could have ‘utilised’ my time better.

There is a slight ruckus as a female attendant walks by carrying a trolley loaded with tea and snacks for the staff. I long for a cup of tea. The businessman on phone was now making a series of calls. His mood seemed to have gone sour. It must have been some money issue. I carelessly conclude that most of the tension we bear is either due to money or power or love; or rather attachments to these things. And love covers the whole gamut of relationship issues. I feel wise having reached this conclusion. But before I can ponder more on this, my doctor arrives. He is led by a nurse to his cabin upstairs. I am relieved. Now I don’t have to wait much longer. I start mentally to sum up my throat problem as I would state to the doctor.

A short while later, I am done with the doctor’s visit. I leave the place feeling relieved that my symptoms are nothing more than a minor infection. While I hand over my token, the shoe keeper flashes that permanent smile at me while he bends to retrieve my sandals from the lowest rack. I wonder for a moment what is it that keeps him so motivated to perform his routine dreary job, twelve hours a day, every day. Doesn’t he have any issues with money, power or love? His cheerfulness is too good to be true! I stop for a moment to return his smile and say ‘Thank You’. It strikes me that for the first time I had taken the time to do just that. Time after all is so precious! Besides me a lady is impatiently asking for her token. He turns from me to attend to her with the same eager smile. I suddenly see a sea of faces rush by, each holding its own thoughts, all of them wearing a mask of discontent and anxiety.

As I turn to leave, a small disabled boy with one leg comes hopping, leaning on a crutch. He addresses the shoe keeper as ‘Papa’ and asks for money to buy some food. The shoe keeper delves into his pocket and hands him a few coins telling him to buy a banana. I see a glimpse of fatherly love light up his face as he addresses the lame boy.

I leave. I realise that I am not wise enough. Some things must be more precious than cravings for money, power and love. I walk out completely ignorant yet with a strange feeling that today I have learned something new. Humanity is held together by an indomitable force that surpasses everything else, and truly wise are those who have found it.


  1. You know, you keep surprising me. This was one unforgettable little story, very well crafted, but more than that, it was profound.
    I loved it.

  2. I don't know how many times I've come to the realization that I'm not wise enough. A very moving story, 99. And provocative, as usual.

  3. anyone who thinks they are wise enough surely is not.