Balvinder Banga works as a lawyer in London. Several of his short stories have been published and he has completed a novel, Land Without Sorrow, that traces the journey of two untouchable boys from India to England.
Bare Footed Dreams of my Father
It didn’t matter if a hockey stick smashed your bare shins, or the fat man, some tailor from Ludhiana, used your feet as a trampoline, launching off them to strike at your face. If you played hockey you played without shoes, with your bare feet pounding the makeshift pitch, your heels throwing dust in the face of your foes, and your heart pounding out, “I am alive.” This was my father’s truth. Shoes were rich men’s toys, for city boys from Delhi, or tailors from Ludhiana, a district in the Indian state of Punjab.
Back in the village, when the family’s cow needed feeding he would walk it to the water’s edge, his feet gripping the earth so that his chappals stayed dry, saving their tread for days that never came, keeping their pristine purity beneath a charpoi his father had made. It didn’t matter that one time his feet met a snake, and he danced into the sky until it slinked away, oblivious to my father’s sweaty panic. To bare your feet was to bare your soul, to show the village you walked like a man.
But four decades come and go in the blink of an eye, in the same time that it takes for a tear to fall. When he came to the West he was felled by a stroke more powerful than any tailor could give. And for a year his life swayed between a Victorian hospital and home, and his ankles swelled in proportion to the shrinkage of his hopes. As days passed, he would tell my mother to slip shoes on his feet and dress him in the cheap suit that she had bought from a market in readiness. In readiness for what? He would sit and wait for the white nurse who visited daily, not wanting her to think that Indians were slovenly or dirty or undignified, not knowing that he was not an ambassador. He was a peasant and the earth was his, but he had retired with the force of his bare feet now shriveled like dead roots in cheap shoes. If only God had told him. Ask him now what it means to walk, to walk as a man with nothing but the entire earth gripped and held still by your feet. See if he doesn’t throw his shoes in your face.