The devil wears Prada

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I belong to years gone by — only chronologically, I would like to believe. The advantage of being in the tooth for a long time is having a rich bank of memories. If dementia permits, you can draw on it at will. HG Wells wrote a short story, ‘The Time Machine’, about time travel in a device. But old age gives us a built-in time machine with a rewind and fast forward button.

After ordering a pair of sneakers online, the package arrived at the door within a day. It was certainly convenient and hassle free. But my mind took an Olympic leap back when buying shoes was a chaperone event. Bata, the famous Czech company, was the leading brand of footwear, both in leather and canvas. An Indian company Carona was a competitor in the canvas shoe business and recently waged a “product war” like the Coke and Pepsi “publicity war” with Bata. Carona has withdrawn due to family feuds, but Bata is moving forward in well-shod and “fleet footed” even now giving “Happy Feet” to millions of people around the world. In the 60s, one of their advertisements said everything about them number one: ‘First Bata, then school’!

Visiting the Bata store in downtown Srinagar to purchase the standard round toe flats, one felt a palpable excitement. Being pissed off by the seller for correct foot measurements and pressured by the parent to buy a size larger in the interest of sparing was the tragedy in getting fitted! Arrived at a modus vivendi we would go home triumphantly with the trophy.

I remember even keeping the cardboard shoebox, almost like a setup, to keep the new shoes tidy until they get nicked and the love story loses its meaning. But the luxury of the snowy winter was the beautiful soft leather shoes that one wore at home, lined with fur and adorned with exquisite crewel embroidery by Kashmiri artisans. A warm memory for those who could afford it.

The rugged mountainous workforce of Kashmir has also been seen wearing dried reed sandals called ‘pulhor’ and carry heavy loads in winter without a whisper. Apart from that and the “shoes of the fleet”, we remember the ugly black rubber boots we wore in the snow. It was great to have the knee-high protection against the melting snow when the world was “wonderful” and “muddy” as poet EE Cummings wrote.

Evolving from quadrupeds, with natural padding, to bipeds, humans have covered their feet for millennia in variations of shoes as we know them now. Anthropologists measured from the shrinkage of the toe bones in skeletal remains that humans began wearing from shoes about 40,000 years ago.

Chinese women have been subjected to the horrible practice of bandaging their feet during puberty for centuries to make the feet small, almost like the feet of a doll. A length of three to four inches was a mark of beauty, but unfortunately it resulted in physical deformities. Fortunately, this patriarchal practice of “lotus shoes” was banned and foot binding died out at the start of the 20th century.

Shoes have very sophisticated avatars in the age of disposable income and brand awareness. A Louis Vuitton, a Gucci, a Jimmy Choo or a Nike — we are spoiled for choice. A unisex lust for attractive footwear leading to shoe fetishism is there for everyone. Imelda Marcos for one will be immortalized for her gigantic shoe collection.

Lest we blame shoes as greed improvers, remember that shoes have also been used since biblical times as a tool of protest. Many “Shoe Gates” have been recorded, but in recent memory an Iraqi journalist’s “shoeing” to George W Bush is worth remembering. He threw his two shoes at the POTUS as his “only” weapon, which successfully dodged them! It is definitely a “shoo-in” that the shoes cannot be ignored. Even the devil wears Prada!


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