[This began as a comment in response to Beth’s reflections on using our hands. Soon I realized there were a bundle of memories waiting to emerge, and inspired by Dave’s response I decided to write one myself.]
Growing up in India, I spent a lot of time barefoot. School prescribed a uniform that included black leather shoes, but back home I spent the rest of my day wearing nothing on my feet. I wasn’t conscious of this: it was a way of life. The weather – hot and dry most of the year – may have been a reason, but it had more to do with habits that result from watching people around us. These people – our relatives, friends, and neighbours – put on footwear only when they left home, on an errand, for a social event, for work; at home they went barefoot.
I played cricket on a street near home, an unpaved stretch that would turn squishy with mud during the monsoon, and although I wore slippers out of home I took them off during play: it was easier to run barefoot. Sometimes a sharp stone cut my foot, or, when I went searching for the ball in a plot that hadn’t been weeded, a few thorns pricked my soles, but these were part of the game, minor episodes that were soon eclipsed by an action in the match, like a boundary or a wicket. When I returned home with a bruise or a cut I displayed it proudly – it perhaps gave me a sign that I was growing up, capable of bearing pain; then, ignoring all my protests, my mother sat me down and patiently smeared an ointment – Betnovate or Neosporin – on and around the wound, advising me to be more careful next time.
In summer I visited my grandparents in Bangalore. They lived in an old house with red oxide floors, and I remember the texture of that floor, the experience of walking on it barefoot: it was smooth and cool, like granite, but soft, like earth. I also remember telling my father that if he ever built a house – a wish he often spoke of – he must use red oxide flooring for it; he wholeheartedly agreed. (As it turned out, he could only buy an apartment, and it had ceramic tiles all over.)
While wearing footwear at home was unthinkable, outdoor footwear did not occupy much space either. I wore sandals most of the time; shoes for casual wear were a luxury. At school I wore black leather shoes or, during the sports period, white canvas shoes. (White canvases are trendy nowadays, but to us they were plain as vanilla). I do not recall another pair among my possessions. When a classmate acquired a new pair of Addidas, it was a major event. And since he refused to wear them in school – they were meant for more “distinguished” occasions – some of us went to his house to see it. The gleaming white sneakers had three blue stripes on either side and tiny perforations all around; they let the feet breathe, our proud classmate explained. We gathered around him as he put them on, first loosening the wide shoelaces before sliding in his feet, then tightening and tying the laces in slow motion. He reminded us that Addidas was a German product. (This was around 1989, and few foreign goods had entered the Indian market.) After some persuasion he also revealed its price: eight hundred rupees. My father, an engineer, earned about five thousand rupees in those days, and I did not dare ask him for a pair of shoes that cost almost a fifth of his monthly salary. The shoes remained a dream, a luxurious one.
These days I hardly know the ground beneath my feet. In winter the toes must be covered always, even at home, but in summer too I wear slippers at home. I suspect it is again a habit acquired from others around us. The Germans always have something on their feet, and when they visit our home some of them bring along their house shoes, wrapped neatly in a bag, which they proceed to unwrap at our doorstep and wear; when they leave the drill is reversed. Although we do not carry our house shoes to other people’s houses, this practice no longer surprises us.
I can barely remember the sensation of walking on grass, of blades tickling my feet. I walk regularly, in the nearby woods or through the neighbourhood streets, but my feet are always protected. So the other morning, my mind still under the spell of these childhood recollections, I decided to step, barefooted, into my balcony. It had rained the night before, and the tiled floor was wet. I stepped outside, a little gingerly, and let the cool sensation course through my veins. The world was new again.