Almost twenty years ago, I moved into the ground floor flat near Earls Court station where I still live. The upstairs apartment remained empty for the first few months of my occupancy and I congratulated myself on having secured so peaceful a residence at a moderate price.
Then, everything changed. A young family moved in. I could hear the child running around on the bare wooden boards overhead and the slower clump clump of the grownups taking possession.
Some days later, my door bell rang and when I opened the door I saw a nice looking lady- to my surprise of Indian origin- along with her little daughter. These were my new neighbors and they had locked themselves out. Could they wait in my apartment till the husband returned?
I offered tea and biscuits, and we got chatting. It turned out that they were Gujerati speaking Ismailis- followers of the Aga Khan- who were born in Tanzania. More recently, after marriage, the young couple had spent the last five years running a business in Madagascar owned by a relative.
Now, again with help from their relatives, they had relocated to London and had the management of a shop close by.
Soon enough the husband turned up. He too was as voluble and forthcoming as his wife. Both were perhaps a trifle more talkative than is usual in London. I, for my part, found them charming. The little daughter, however, was a model of English reticence. I tried to interest her in a children’s book- Kipling’s Jungle book- but she seemed wary of me. However she agreed to take it with her and later on I was astonished by the fluency with which she read from it.
Around about this time, a great Ismaili conference was held in the Earls Court Centre. I realized that the young couple, in taking a flat so close to the Conference centre, had intended to use it as a base to offer hospitality to distant relatives and to network with business contacts who had flown in from the four corners of the globe to attend the event.
In a neighborly gesture, more characteristic of small town Africa than cold hearted London, the young couple made a practice of inviting me to keep their guests company. For my part, I played the role of the old bachelor Uncle who takes delight in showing off the accomplishments of the little niece- getting her to read aloud samples of improving poetry and so on.
However, one thing worried me. Saira- that was the wife’s name- had a full time job in a Travel Agency in Oxford Street. She had to rush home to cook for guests and keep everything spick and span. The husband- Karim- helped with the household chores but he spent a great part of each evening picking up people from the airport or dropping them off at the homes of relatives. Thus the burden of all this hospitality fell upon Saira alone.
One day, Karim dropped in to see me. He had big news. The shop under his management had done well. The family had now been offered something bigger and better. They would be moving soon. In conversation, it turned out that Karim and Saira had their hearts set on immigration to Canada where they had family. Indeed, the young couple had charted out their future with commendable foresight. I expressed regret at losing such wonderful neighbors. Karim’s face fell. He suddenly addressed me in Hindi- he was a big Bollywood fan- ‘Saira considers you her elder brother. You must say something. She will listen to you. Me, what can I do? I am only the husband after all.” His face was a mask of tragedy.
“What must I say?”
“The high heel shoes! Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed it. Everybody always comments. I mean to say, it is all right when a lady goes to office to wear fashionable shoes. But there is a limit. What for she is wearing high heel shoes at home? It is a childishness. You know how people talk.”
“My dear, Karim, your thinking is appropriate for Africa. This is London. Here style is king. Ladies are wearing high heel shoe at all time. As for U.S and Canada- they are even more advanced. Arre, I am telling you, nowadays- Bombay, Ahmedabad, Surat- India is also changing. Women have to obey fashion rules. Believe me you are worrying for nothing.”
Karim looked at me bitterly. “Bhai Sahib, you don’t know. At the end of day, when she takes of shoes, the pain is so much she cries. She tries to hide it from me but I know. Can you imagine the hurt it is causing me? Yet however much I remonstrate she will not listen to me. You only can do something. After all, here in London, which other brother does she have?”
Next evening, after the guests had gone, I said to Saira- ‘Sit down. We need to talk.’
She came and sat down but there was resentment in her eyes. Resentment or perhaps pain from those damn high heel shoes. As a bachelor, I don’t notice much about women. But, that evening, I had noticed that far from making her more graceful and stylish, her high heel shoes made her clumsy and awkward. Karim was right. In fact, he was more than right. He thought she should only wear these shoes to the office. Actually, at least in London, there was no need for her to wear them at all. She could wear comfort shoes. After all, the Feminist movement had some achievements to its credit. As things stood, Saira was martyring herself for no reason except a childish whim- or perhaps a small town African ideal of European sophistication.
In my bumbling, bachelor Uncle, manner I began lecturing her. She got the gist immediately. Her face fell. For a moment, exhaustion overcame her. Then, she looked at me bitterly.
“If I take off these shoes, you will be happy?”
“No, some more time, I must wear them.”
“You know what everyone says about me? They say she is a nice lady but crazy on high heel shoes. Coming from Africa she did not even know how to wear them properly. That is why she ruined her feet. That is what they will say at the time of my daughter’s wedding. Not that I will be wearing high heel shoes then- but, you see, the damage will have been done. I will be remembered as a warning to young girls.”
“I don’t understand. “
“Brother, I was born with this deformity of the feet. Now people are visiting this house- people whose opinion will matter when it comes time to arrange my daughter’s marriage- which is better? That they remember me as having lamed myself by a foolish passion for stylish shoes or that they say ‘there is a deformity in that family. It may come out in the grand-children. Better chose another girl.”
All that happened almost twenty years ago. Now their daughter is married I can tell you the story. Also there is a personal secret I want to unburden myself off. You see, twenty years ago, I was an atheist. Though I never touched Saira’s feet, I wanted to. That set me on the path back to the devotional piety of my ancestors. However, my writing in English- it seems to me- is like Saira’s high heel shoes. What I can’t understand is- for the benefit of whose marriage am I suffering this hurt?