Near the church centre in Rajahmundry, I. Raju sits in front of his shack of a house, framed by the screeching tyres of whooshing vehicles and shuffling feet of pedestrians. In drunken stupor, lost in thought, he’s surrounded by the tools of shoe repair: a few pairs of shoes, scraps of leather, padding assortments bunched up, signalling that he is on duty. When things were good, he was a chappal triage specialist, a master craftsman with pricked fingers that mended many a damned chappal and shoe beat up beyond redemption. An ill-fitting chappal can ruin one’s day, and this man has seen all kinds of mangling the footwear is subjected to.

Now, his son, David Raju, 30, manufactures chappals and shoes for sale in villages around East Godavari district and up to Visakhapatnam. This is specific hand work, he says, and the beauty, good people, lies in the footwear, not in your feet.

While proudly showing his workmanship, Raju holds aloft a girl’s five-inch bruised and broken sole. He snips some threads sticking out of it, carefully fits sole on shoe, and pounds it, smoothing out kinks. He glues layers of padding and pounds some more. Squeak back in the heel and sole, and girl and chappal will confidently walk into the world.

“People may feel the chappals we make are of poor quality,” he says, “but we manufacture them and sell them to retail shops for between Rs.80 and Rs.90, and the shops sell them for Rs.200 or more.” Each pair costs him Rs.60-Rs.70 to manufacture.
He has listened to the tap-tap-tap, click-click-click of chappals and shoes since he was a boy. For 12 years, Raju has lived in Agra and Hyderabad, learning the craft. “There are wonderful craftsmen in Agra,” he says. Once he came back here, he took over the responsibility of running his family: parents, wife and three children.

His brother walks into the room where the family stays, where he keeps his tools of the trade and models and moulds. Pointing to his brother, Raju says, “He completed B. Com. and has computer knowledge and can produce works of art, but now he works with a chappal factory for a small salary.”

Raju shoves away a pile of resin sheets, his voice steeped in the bitter sting of dispossession and talent gone unrequited. “For 20 years, my life has been the same, no major changes,” he says. To take it to the next level, he needs Rs.20,000, which he knows not how to get.

“Once I applied for a loan of Rs.50,000 with S. C. Corporation,” he says, “but was given Rs.12,000 and the rest was corned by middlemen.” Raju takes some loans from moneylenders who charge exorbitant interest rates, buys raw materials, makes chappals, sells them in retail shops and in villages. Moving from place to place, he somehow manages to pay off the loan and takes money again for the next shipment. So it goes, his income bled away into paying back the money, cobbling together barely enough for his family.

Fifty-seven-year-old Babji echoes the same sentiment in a gruff, invective-filled speech. He employs five others who handcraft chappals and sell them. “It just goes on and on because we know only this.” Babu, 35, used to manufacture and sell chappals but switched to working in a repair shop which provides the space because “I don’t have capital”. The town had about 200 chappal craftspeople back in the day. But now only around 20 remain. Some abandoned families and absconded, unable to pay loans. Some drank themselves to death. Others simply vanished in time.

Back in the room, Raju traces the contours of the foot in pen on a sheet of paper. “I can make a beautiful pair with just this outline,” he says. “But nobody trusts us enough to give some money.”

Despite troubles and dreams, he often visualises how a pair of chappals or shoes might fit on the foot, the texture the foot feels while wearing, how it looks, how it sounds ,and how long will it last. So some trusted customers flow in, like this 60-year-old man who has just walked in, seeking a pair. Raju obliges gladly.

(G B S N P Varma is a freelance journalist who reports from Andhra Pradesh.)

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