Today, Kerala is the most literate state in India. But, going some half a century back, its villages had very few schools and hardly any for education beyond the primary level. Children who wished to continue their studies beyond the fourth standard had to walk several miles to reach their schools mostly located in the towns. Most villages had no motorable roads. And motor vehicles were few and far between. Public transport was scarce and often unaffordable for the villagers who toiled all day long on the land to eke out a hand to mouth living. Our story is set against this backdrop.
The protagonist of this story is a boy who lived in a fiddling hamlet hidden deep inside the bowels of the quiet and lush green Kerala countryside of those days. He was a fifth standard student in a government school in the town nearly five miles away from his home. On school days, the boy footed his way through stony dirt road and filthy alleyways to the school and back.
In those days, very few people in the villages and small towns enjoyed the good fortune of wearing footwear. They mostly walked on their naked feet over the rough and rugged rural tracks. Our hero too had no footwear. And that was the case with most of his schoolmates. As the lucky few strutted around in their sandals, the barefooted rest watched them with yearning and envy. Obviously, our boy too longed for a pair of footwear that would make his school trips less gruelling. But, his parents apparently did not think that he needed such a luxury. And even if they did, they did not have the resources to buy him a pair. However, a pair of footwear soon came to his possession.
Those were times when there were no vacation classes or entrance coaching establishments. So, most children spent their midsummer vacations with their relatives, often far away from their homes. That year, our boy went to spend his school vacation with a relative who lived in the city. The city had several surprises for the village lad. One of it was footwear. Everyone in the family, with which he was staying, wore footwear. And each one had several pairs.
His buddy at his temporary home was a boy a year or so his senior. One day they were playing in the yard and his playmate suddenly noticed that his guest from the village wore no footwear. He ran inside the house and returned with a pair. He threw it at the feet of our boy. It was an old pair of well-worn sandals probably discarded long ago by his companion. He tried to push his feet into those. But it was very tight. With some struggle, the boy finally managed to get his feet inside.
The footwear was small for his feet. Part of his heels lay outside it. But such details did not bother the boy. He took a few tentative steps wearing it. Instead of the usual pain of stones jabbing at his feet, he felt the soothing kisses of supple rubber. For the little boy, it was simply heaven!
The boy soon removed the footwear, washed it clean and laid it out in the sun to dry. Later, he picked it up, wrapped it in an old newspaper and put it securely away. He had no heart to use it for fear of spoiling it. He planned to wear it to his school on the day it reopened and impress his barefooted schoolmates. He wished that the vacation quickly ended.
While the boy was excited outside about his first pair of footwear, he also had the nagging pain inside that the footwear did not quite fit his feet. The straps were too tight and the soles short. He tried to console himself by finding plausible advantages of wearing smaller sized footwear. But that did not work. Finally, he came around to accept the reality that he could not make the footwear enlarge itself to fit his feet. The only other option was to shorten his feet to fit the footwear.
So in the middle of the nights when the world around him lay in deep slumber, he lay awake turning on his bed. Once in a while, he got up from his bed and banged the back of his heals on the floor and against the walls of the room. Early next morning, he would furtively bring the footwear out of its wraps and try it on to see whether his nocturnal adventures had any success. He knew it was futile. Yet, he was disinclined to abandon hope. A few days later, he returned to his village clutching a bundle of expectations and the pitiful pair of footwear.
The schools reopened. On the first day of the new academic year, the boy was out of bed unusually early and soon got busy getting ready for the school. He took out the footwear and firmly pushed his feet into them. He bent down and checked how the footwear fitted his feet. To his dismay, he realized that his feet had not become any shorter. A hint of pain pulled at his heartstrings. He ignored it, stepped out of the house, and headed for the school.
Although there was some awkwardness in the way he walked, there was an unmissable skip in his feet. He often looked around slyly to see whether people were looking at his feet. But his footwear did not apparently generate much of a flutter in the rustic society around. That dampened his initial enthusiasm a wee bit. But he did not lose heart and kept a steady pace. He had anticipations of a more encouraging response at the school.
Half-way to the school, his feet started hurting. The straps were apparently brushing against the skin as he walked. Before long, his feet were burning as if he was walking over red-hot coal. He gritted his teeth and kept walking. Once inside the school compound, he glanced around in anticipation. Many of his classmates were huddled together talking animatedly. They were perhaps sharing the stories of their vacation adventures. He hardly had any friends. Many of his classmates simply ignored him. They had no reason to be too close to the smartest kid in the class. A few tried to smile. But almost none seemed to have noticed that he was wearing footwear.
His agony was mounting. The pain was radiating up his legs. He staggered towards his classroom trying to fight his tears back. Some of his schoolmates noticed the clumsy way he walked. We do not know anyone had sympathised with him. But many might have found it an excuse to make fun of him. It did not matter to him. He only hoped that some of them had noticed his footwear at last!
He entered his classroom and was much relieved to sit down on his bench. He tried some slick manoeuvring with his feet to get rid of his footwear without attracting the attention of others. But the footwear stayed stuck. Finally, he bent down and as unobtrusively as possible, pulled them off with his hands. It was a great respite. Yet, his feet hurt badly. He artfully pushed the footwear underneath the bench and ran his fingers over the feet. It was damp at places where the straps had scraped off the skin. He almost howled in the pain when his fingers touched the many sore spots.
As time ticked away, his feet cooled. The pain and burning gradually abated. During intervals, the boy stayed put in his seat. By afternoon, the pain had more or less died down. It was soon evening. The school bell rang signalling the dismissal of the classes for the day. The boy gathered up his belongings and headed home. As always, the rugged track kept hurting his feet. But he kept walking with his head held high. He had learned to ignore the aches and agonies of a tedious life.
As he turned the last curve, he saw his mother standing in the front yard. As he approached her, she looked at his feet and asked, ‘Where is your footwear?’ He looked down at his bare feet. He knew that the footwear he had considered so precious that morning lay discarded underneath a rickety bench of a government school five miles away. But he had no regrets about its loss. He lifted up his head and looked into his mother’s eyes for a moment. Then without a word, he walked into the house. A mysterious smile played on his sweet face.