Saving soles

4 min read
17 Oct 2017
4 min read
831 words
From the Archive (Jun, 2016): Every day, 46-year-old Rameshwar Ram Mahara, puts his skills to use in his shoe repair shop, which is a small workspace on a busy pavement in Baluwatar

Rameshwar Ram Mahara has sacrificed much in order to ensure a better life for his sons than the one he has had. He believes his hard work has been worth it

A middle-aged woman approaches the shop and hands over to Mahara her son’s sports shoes. He quotes a fee of Rs 50. She tries to lower the asking amount, saying she could buy a new pair of shoes with what he is charging. Mahara emits a loud laughter—to emphasise how ridiculous he finds her claim. The laughter has done its trick: the woman realises that her gambit was a tad too ridiculous, and customer and shoe expert amicably settle for the Rs 50 deal. The woman leaves the shoes at the shop and Mahara starts on his first job of the day.

“You won’t find rich people bargaining in shopping malls because they think such behaviour demeans them, but you will find plenty of them bargaining with street vendors and people like me for the smallest amount,” he says.

Mahara has learned to discern customer behaviour at a glance. That’s because he has dealt with so many of them in the 20 years since he first came to Kathmandu, from his hometown of Brahmapuri, Sarlahi, where he used to work on a small landholding that his farming family owned. He picked up the craft of repairing shoes from his friends once he got here, got into business right after, and hasn’t worked another job since.

Most of the years that Mahara has been at work have passed in a blur. Strangely, he says, while details of many of the days don’t bubble up in his memory, he does remember the smell and the colour of many of the shoes he has worked on. “Perhaps, it’s because for all these years, I have been going home smelling like a room full of used shoes,” he says, with a chuckle.

His reverie is broken by a young boy who approaches him, cradling a broken umbrella. Mahara quotes Rs 10, and the boy agrees to the amount without even attempting to bargain. “This is the most common trait among young people, especially boys. They don’t understand the value of money,” says Mahara to me. He says all four of his sons are the same way.

“Luckily, they are all well educated. My eldest son just completed his bachelor’s and is looking for a job as a teacher,” he says. Mahara has spent so many years repairing countless shoes just so that he could put his sons through school—so that they can have a better life than him. He wants all of them to marry well-educated girls. “I want my sons to go to big offices. I want them to wear perfectly shined shoes when they go to work, like the rich gentlemen who come to me to get their shoes polished do.”

The life he imagines for his sons is a stark contrast to his own. Mahara lives in a small flat in Chabahil, where he has to perform all the household chores by himself—washing his clothes, cooking his food, all the little things—because his wife and sons are living back home in his village. He leaves for work early every morning, usually on an empty stomach, and that habit, he says has caused him gastritis problems. “I miss my wife every morning when I am too lazy to cook,” he says, with a giggle.

Mahara usually wraps up for the day at around seven in the evening. Before he heads home, he leaves his tools in the hands of his friend who has a barber shop right across the road. He jokes about why he can trust his friend with their safekeeping. “What would a barber do with my tools? He can’t sew his customer’s hair,” he says.

When you talk to Mahara, you begin to understand that his sense of humour has helped him keep working through the years. Lately, the work has gotten a little more difficult because his age is catching up to him. He says his eyesight is weakening, and he stretches the skin of his hands to show how it is wrinkling.

“I just want my youngest son to get done with school,” he says. “As soon as he settles down, I will go back to my village. And every day, I’ll devour the meals cooked by my wife.”