Sunday, May 6, 2012

Chappal Kumar and Shoe Sahib

A few weeks ago, I was waiting for a flight at Hyderabad's swanky airport terminal. A couple of "techie-geeks" were sitting opposite me, and you could easily guess who they were, from what they wore -- jeans, T-shirts and sneakers. And right behind them, was a gentleman, pacing up and down the waiting area, with a cellphone stuck to his ear. He was dressed in expensive clothes, wore designer glasses, and spoke words that gave the impression that he dealt in millions of rupees -- of profit and loss.

It was quite obvious that the geeks sitting opposite me were also tuning into the conversation. And, they looked quite impressed.

A little later, at the end of his conversation, the gentleman walked right by us, and we got to see his footwear. He was wearing Indian style leather sandals, known as chappals,  which don't have a closing strap at the back. And, as he got out of earshot, I  heard one of the techies with an amused smile on his face, say to the other, "Chappal Kumar!"

And, in that single moment, I realized that the quick sand-castle of respect that the gentleman had built amongst the young techies, had suddenly been demolished -- under the weight of his own chappals.

Indians are very judgmental about what people wear. They won't discriminate against you for not being in a suit in a business conference, but being one of the most striated societies in the world, Indians treat people differently for what they choose to wrap around their necks, or strap around their feet. The so called working class dresses a certain way, and anyone who dresses like them, risks being "one of them", when amongst the sahibs.

In my opinion, the most common way that the Desis dress in western clothes, is quite practical for the hot and humid climate of India. The dressing style involves leaving the shirt untucked, and wearing chappals. Both, result in the quick dissipation of body heat, and keep a man cool in summer.   The sahibs, are easy to distinguish, they need to tuck their shirts and wear their shoes. Unless of course, they decide to dress in western-style shorts on a Friday, and wear sandals that close at the back with a strap -- so no-one can call them chappals.

The educated class in India, will almost always place you in a stratum of society, depending on what you have on your feet. Chappals, no matter how finely finished, will place you amongst the working classes, and shoes, will mark you as one of the educated.  Perhaps, the two techies would have continued to look up to the gentleman who walked by, had he worn a pair of shiny shoes, and perhaps, they would have referred to him, as "shoe sahib."

I am not a big fan of shoes, specially,  in the hot and humid climate of India. However, I wear them, whenever I am at work for a completely different reason. In the very first year of engineering school, our professors and their technical helpers drilled it into us that when you are walking amongst heavy machinery, loose pieces of clothing or the lack of shoes on your feet, can result in the loss of limbs and sometimes, even life. That habit, stayed on, even if I don't deal with dangerous equipment, all the time.

All my friends in my undergraduate days, who were "chappal kumars", when they walked into the engineering school, had turned into "shoe sahibs" on convocation day. And, whenever I met them in the years that followed, I never saw them not wearing a shoe, even on the hottest days of the year.

But, leaving the engineers aside, I have always wondered what the rest of India feels about this chappal-shoe divide. I simply don't get the "techie's universal code of footwear" -- after all, I have never seen a software engineer run off to a game of basketball at the end of writing a thousand lines of code. So, why would they need the sneakers, and of course, why would they laugh at Mr. Chappal Kumar, with his millions in profit and loss?!

There are other countries out there, which are not immune to this phenomenon. In the land of the free, the shirt and shoe free culture was apparently brought into the mainstream by pot smoking hippies. And that, resulted in thousands of business establishments, specially supermarkets and restaurants, placing large signs in front, which proclaimed, "No Shirts, No Shoes, No Service."

But, at the same time, I have always admired the Texans for being different. Many of the things that they do in the lone star state are different, because of the things Texas happens to be -- big and hot.  Once, driving on a state highway amongst the boonies of Texas, I saw a roadside sign advertizing a restaurant and a bar, and almost shouting in large Texas-size font -- "No Shirts? No Shoes? No Problem!!!"

Now, when I think of that interesting sign, I wonder what Mr. Chappal Kumar would have done, if he was "passin' through" as they say in Texas. Unless of course, he didn't feel like stopping -- for a shot of Tequila.

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