“Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless in facing them. Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it.”
– Rabindranath Tagore
Life is a sum total of experiences pleasant and unpleasant. Some experiences I would gladly embrace, such as a year-long vacation to Abu Ghraib prison, a 10 finger prostrate examination or being struck by lightning; others I passionately avoid, such as shoe shopping. But when faced with the prospect of going barefoot to work or being disowned by family over the condition of my current pair of shoes, I was left with no choice but to confront my fears.
I pulled on a brave face, played the Rocky theme tune inside my head and stepped into a shoe store at a local mall.
The display cases were stocked with approximately 10 million ways of retaining a woman’s attention span for over 5 minutes. I was partly confused and partly embarrassed just as Rakhi Sawant would be, if she were to accidentally stumble into a large book store.
I gingerly sat down in the only empty seat in the otherwise packed place, and performed a quick survey of my surroundings. On my left, a pretty lady was holding up a sandal barely 4 inches from her face. For over 10 minutes, she turned it in a clockwise, anticlockwise, clockwise, anticlockwise pattern like an experienced burglar cracking the combination dial of a safe. On my right, another lady was asking a salesman if they had any thing “more trendy”. Next to her was a large pile of shoes that she had tried and rejected, and her husband blankly staring at a far corner of the store in silent despair. As the minutes passed by, the pile of rejected shoes grew steadily, casting a ghastly shadow over the remnants of the shattered husband, and rousing the interest of local mountaineers that couldn’t afford a trip to Mount Everest.
A salesman spotted me sitting by myself and rushed over. He sported the Arindam Chaudhari fake grin and he shook my hand with the fervent emotion of a childhood friend at a school reunion. He appeared to be very concerned about my health, my family’s health, my social status, and my profession. When I told him that I worked as a software developer, he told me that he also had a computer at home. I nodded and smiled politely. The awkwardness reminded me of the time I’d gone shopping for underwear at a mall in Kerala and how the mall people had, in their praiseworthy wisdom, assigned a FEMALE salesperson at the men’s counter. I remember standing there, gaping like a chimp, as the lady stretched the underwear elastic to show its quality, and made a fist and punched the inside of the front to show its…flexibility probably. I remember how her colleagues giggled amongst themselves as I stood frozen in time during the most fascinating demonstration of underwear dynamics.
“So, what are you looking for?” he asked and shook me out of the flashback. I was tempted to say, “A surfboard, suntan lotion, a pair of floral-print shorts and some nasty waves up in this bitch” but I stopped short – after all, people aren’t expected to look for surfing equipment at a shoe store.
“Black formal shoes with laces please,” I finally said.
Now here’s the thing I discovered: shoe salesmen (or any other salesmen) refuse to acknowledge clear, specific requirements as a matter of principle. They take it as a personal insult if customers think that they know what they want. They laugh off your choice and your taste and show you 1,527 useless items that you didn’t ask for, and would never buy. Finally, when you reject each one of them while constantly reminding the salesman what you originally wanted, they scoff at you for wasting their precious time in showing you what you were missing out on.
Naturally, my request for formal black shoes was denied, and he proceeded to show me the “latest attractive attractions” such as flip-flops, sneakers, Buddhist monk sandals and the state-of-the-art jet-powered roller skates fitted on to a pair of Kolhapuri chappals.
“Not really interested in all this. I’m looking for something more professional,” I reminded him.
His interpretation of professional ranked somewhere between amusing and ridiculous. He placed in front of me a pair of ankle high leather boots with metal straps dangling from the sides. Before I could even open my mouth to protest, he grabbed my right foot, ripped off my shoe and thrust my foot into the leather boot.
“Go on, try walking around and see how it feels” he urged.
I got up and attempted to walk. In only a few seconds, the blood circulation in my leg came to a trickling halt. My brain strained hard to listen to any sort of communication from the estranged foot, but it was definitely out of coverage area. I looked down at my foot helplessly, and I empathized with James Franco from 127 Hours even though I’d been trapped in this shoe for just 1.27 minutes. I reasoned with the salesman that if he didn’t get it off me, I’d be forced to use a Swiss Army Knife on myself. He relented and took it off and I could feel my toes again.
“You didn’t like it? It looked very professional on you,” he said. I assured him that I wasn’t Clint Eastwood, that I didn’t commute to work on a horse, that my profession didn’t involve killing pesky Sheriffs and hence he should show me “something more contemporary”.
Poor choice of words.
“Something more contemporary” was lost in translation, and he pulled out a thing of such exquisite ugliness that it made me stifle a shriek. I don’t think I can ever find the right words to describe the monumentally perverted creation, but it looked roughly like this: a pair of dark-reddish (he called it burnt Sienna) shoes lined with golden threading on the sides, matching golden laces, and abnormally high heels. It was as if a Salvador Dali surrealist artwork had had sex with a bullfrog, and prematurely delivered these hideously deformed twin bastard foetuses.
The salesman brought the shoes right in front of my face for a closer look. I shrank back in a corner and flailed wildly to get away from them. No doubt it was the handiwork of one of those snooty, sadistic bastards from NIFT or some such useless institution, the thieving cunts that come up with bizarre abominations and con dumb ladies into believing that it’s haute couture. I’m not kidding. I have seen women pay obscene amounts for designer shawls that looked like they had been processed by a paper shredder and then hastily glued back together by a 4 year old, marketed with pseudo-philosophical bullshit such as “the delicate material of the stole is a metaphor for the fragility of human life and the arbitrary placement of the perforations is a metaphor for the void in our souls.” Translated for normal people, it is actually “a long piece of cheap toilet paper, torn after multiple usages and now on display exclusively for you to wrap around your neck and firmly establish your status as the most Fashionable Retard of your community”.
Back at the store, the salesman had just about exhausted the last reserves of my patience. It was astonishing to see a 5 word requirement getting distorted into 5000 travesties. The final straw was when he brought out a pair of white tennis shoes.
I lost it and snapped, “I do not want shoes that adapt to environmental temperatures, I do not want shoes with USB 3.0 ports, I do not want shoes that transform into Autobots, I do not want shoes that were thrown at Bush or Kalmadi, I do not want shoes that General Luftwaffe was wearing in the daring Operation Sea Lion of 1943, I do not want shoes that resonate with the divine frequency of the universal Brahman and bring cosmic equilibrium around my feet, I do not want shoes that look like Uday Chopra’s face from a certain angle although they would make great conversation starters, I do not want shoes that Geoff Horsfield was wearing when he came on as a substitute vs. Portsmouth and scored with his first touch in a gripping final day relegation battle in 2004-05. I WANT FORMAL BLACK SHOES WITH LACES. Do you get me?”
He responded by bringing a pair of brown shoes without laces.
Last thing I remember, I was running for the door – I had to find the passage back to the place I was before. “Relax,” said the lady on the right, “they are programmed to deceive. You can check out any time you like, but do you think these Stilettos would look better in beige?”