Thirteen-year-old Monikanchon dashed into the sea of clueless strollers, joyous visitors, and perplexed shoppers. The enthusiastic teenager head-butted and elbow-jabbed to reach some of his favourite stalls at the annual street fair on the occasion of Charak Puja on Beadon Street of Calcutta of 1920. It was the last day of the festival, and waves of people slowly moved through the cobbled road while mobile hawkers and makeshift stall owners screamed at the top of their lungs to attract buyers to their homegrown wares.
“Moni Dada, don’t leave my hand. You will get lost in the crowd,” screamed Godadhor, the trusted caretaker of the Zamindar, Hem Chandra Ray’s only spoilt son. “Get lost Goda! You will only slow me down, you imbecile,” shrieked back the arrogant teenager and pushed his way through the crowd.
A street fair in 1920 was not only a place to casually visit but a great opportunity for the population of the region and its neighbouring areas to buy some essential goods and certain exotic wares from a single location, otherwise not easily accessible throughout the year. It was a venue to meet and greet, a place to buy and sell, a destination to gape and awe, and an experience to take home stories to share.
Right from forged iron tools to wooden furniture and playthings, to pickles of every kind, to crude musical instruments, to spices and oils, to seeds, grains, and plants, to apparel and accessories, to livestock and its fodder, to glass curios, to tinker toys, to the street foods of the time, one could nearly find every sight, sound, and smell of the era in a fair of this kind.
While a wrinkled septuagenarian spun a load of candy floss on a twig of oily cane, a younger vendor blew bubbles of soapy water from the wired ring of a bamboo toy. While at one corner, a pair of dark and sweaty trollish men turned a short and creaky wooden Ferris wheel filled with shrieking children, at another end, male devotees to Lord Shiva swung from poles with hooks thrust through the skin of their backs. All of this was too much of a distraction for a spoilt child of a rich landlord. Monikanchon ran amok through the fair like a fox in a coop of hens, followed by his fat and panting lowborn chaperon Godadhor Gayen.
The zamindar Hem Chandra Ray had amassed a lot of wealth through his string of businesses with the British. From Jute to Indigo to spices, the man had a steak in many profitable enterprises. To him, however, all the treasures in the world were nothing in comparison to his only son, Monikanchon. After losing two wives to stillborn childbirths, Moni was conceived out of Ray Saheb’s very late third marriage. The zamindar had performed many extravagant religious ceremonies to appease the Mother Goddess, and finally, Durga Ma had answered the man’s prayers.
Monikanchon jabbed his right arm into a pot of freshly laid palm-jaggery curd and pulled out a scoop to thrust it into the hollow of his chubby mouth. “What on Earth are you doing,” shouted the poor curd-maker. Godadhor was quick to fling a one-pice brass coin with a hole in the middle at the poor man before he could protest any further about the zamindar’s son’s attack on his curd pot.
The chubby ruffian then pounced on a vendor of freshly fried vegetable fritters, picking up one savoury treat after the other, tossing it in front of his chomping incisors. Godadhor promptly chucked a few coins again to cover up Monikanchon’s food carnage. The tinker toy man fell on the destructors radar next. The round and bulky boy nearly toppled every standing toy, to pick up a red-coat tin soldier. He threw the toy back at Goda for safekeeping and pranced away to the next stall continuing his attack.
One shop after the other, the spoilt brat made his way through the fair leaving behind a trail of a mess, while Godadhor, his trusted warden, shelled a coin after the other to cover up his young master’s gluttonous and greedy rampage.
Monikanchon’s wild run finally came to a halt in front of a beautiful shoe stall. A boy of his age sat in the middle of the shop, which was just a rug of ten-by-ten feet laid on the ground. Handmade pairs of the most unique and beautiful slippers and shoes made with wood, leather and bits and pieces of metal surrounded the teenage vendor in concentric circles. Under a mat on which he sat, he stashed his coins and cash and covered his legs with a coarse woollen blanket. He constantly dusted the displayed footwear with a shredded cloth tied to the end of a stubbled cane.
Unlike his uncontrolled excitement at the other shops, Moni was perfectly still and utterly silent in front of the shoe stall. The sockets of his eyes stretched to the maxim as he calmly scanned the rows of shiny footwear from left to right and then again from right to left. Godadhor stood behind his young master with heaps of toys and unnecessary things pouring out from two massive jute bags. He did not say a word, only panted slowly to catch his breath, for he knew that shoes were the one thing his teenage lord was dead serious and absolutely crazy about. It was best not to disturb him.
If one had to put a financial toll on Young Moni’s collection of shoes back at home, it would perhaps be sufficient to decently feed a middle-class family of four for at least five years or more. In his possession, there were horn tipped Nagras by the craftsmen of Agra, beaded moccasins from the Native American Shoshone Tribe in Wyoming, strapped Roman Sandals from the streets of Italy, knee-high boots from Texas, leather Derbies from the master shoemakers in England. He even had wooden Khoroms made by the monks of the forbidden city of Lhasa, pairs of clogs from Holland, wooden Geta sandals from Japan, and so many more. Back at the Ray Mansion, a massive hall room with rows of shelves housed the young master’s collection of shoes.
“Hey kid, what is your name? Who made these shoes that you sell,” asked Moni to the young peddler? “Me saheb, Mushtafa, I made these shoes with wood, leather, and metal all by myself,” replied the humble teenager. “No way, a bag of skin and bones like you made these beauties. I don’t believe you,” sneered the arrogant boy back at the frail shoemaker.
“Well, I am Monikanchon Ray, the richest buyer you will find in this fair. Give me the most treasured pair of shoes that you have,” demanded the zamindar’s son with an air of arrogance and pride. “I am sorry saheb, the particular pair of shoes that you ask for is too costly for you to pay its price,” softly replied the meek shoemaker after deeply thinking for a while.
“How dare you say that – you rascal. Do you know how many pairs of shoes I have? I have a different shoe for everything I do. When I am doing nothing, I still change a pair every hour. I have a pair from nearly every country, from the most renowned shoemakers. My father has spent thousands of rupees to get me the best of shoes from the farthest corners of the world. How dare you claim to have a shoe, that I can’t pay the price for,” thundered the zamindar’s spoilt son, red and fuming with anger, stomping his foot on cobble.
“Sorry, my lord, please don’t get angry. My most treasured shoe, which I crafted with my own hand for myself, is just priceless. You might be the richest person here, but you just can’t pay the price required to wear it. You simply can’t afford to pay it,” softly replied Mushtafa. “How much; you only name the price, and I will get it for you. Show me the shoe.” angrily puffed the wealthy teenager.
“Okay saheb, but you have to wait for a few more hours till I pack up my stall for the day,” spoke up the poor shoemaker kindling a ray of hope in the arrogant teenager’s heart.
The next few hours were really painful for Monikanchon. The fat kid huffed and puffed and simmered in his sweat on that very chilly evening. Though the weather was cold, all the anxiety and excitement made him boil up from inside. Finally, the moment came, and Moni was all ready to prove the power of his father’s wealth and go home with a pair of shoes that perhaps would be the most priceless he ever possessed.
“Where is the Goddam shoe? Show it to me Mushtafa,” blurted the spoilt teenager, unable to control his excitement. The frail young boy then spread a tarpaulin sheet on top of the shoes on display. He did it while still seated in the middle. He then chucked a few stones and bricks at various spots on the cover, so that it may not blow away. By this time, the fair had mulled down to just a few late buyers. Most of the hawkers had packed and tied their goods for the night and were retreating to the warm beddings inside their flimsy makeshift tents.
Mustafa gently lifted the shawl covering his legs, revealing the pair of his priceless shoes kept at one corner under the blanket. “Give me a few minutes saheb, it takes a little time for me to wear them,” said Mushtafa with a gentle smile on his face while he put on his most treasured pair of footwear.
Tears slowly welled up in the eyes and gently rolled down the pompous teenager’s chubby face. He realised that he could never pay the price required to wear the shoes that Mushtafa had made for himself. It was not only the beauty but the ingenuity and utility of the footwear that made all the difference. The pretentious son of the wealthy merchant felt all his arrogance leave him at that very instance. He realised that all the exorbitant and exotic shoes that were priceless to a rich man’s son like him, to someone like Mushtafa were worthless.
A few days after the Charak Puja on Beadon Street in the year of our Lord 1920, poor teenagers in different parts of the city were seen wearing the strangest and costliest pairs of shoes from all over the world. They said that a rich man’s benevolent son had donated it to them.
Back in the night on the last day of Charak Puja in the year 1920, the chesty son of the wealthy zamindar vowed never to buy a shoe again, till the one on his feet were worn out or became unwearable. That day the spoilt son learnt a lesson on the value of things, that not all prices could be paid with cash and coin. He learnt, how something priceless to a person could be worthless to someone else.
That night while the zamindar’s son smiled with newfound wisdom going to sleep on his engraved rosewood bed, back on the cobbled Beadon street, the poor shoemaker also beamed with happiness as he tightly hugged his priceless footwear close to his chest. The depression below his knees on the blanket covering his body was proof that he had paid the price to wear this shoe, that no one could afford to willingly pay.
Copyright © 2022 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. Some characters, incidents, places, and facts may be real while some fictitious. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at email@example.com or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adventurer, philosopher, writer, painter, photographer, craftsman, innovator, or just a momentary speck in the universe flickering to leave behind a footprint on the sands of time... READ MORE