May 062008

Wyndham Lewis recounts that when he and T.S. Eliot were going to France in 1920 for vacations, Ezra Pound gave Eliot a slightly heavy parcel to be delivered to James Joyce, who was then in Paris. Upon arriving in Paris, he sent a note to Joyce, who came to the hotel to collect the present. Opening it in the presence of Lewis and Eliot, he found inside a pair of brown old shoes. He did not pick the shoes but took the two mortified writers to a restaurant for a good French meal with expensive wine.
This practice of insulting someone by sending him old shoes was not uncommon in Sindh until about 50 years back. But there was a certain protocol to it, which was to be followed strictly. For example, one did not send one’s own shoes. They had to be collected from the town’s garbage heap, the oldest there being preferred. Secondly, unlike Pound’s parcel, it was not given to one’s social equal to be carried. A servant or a street-loafer was usually commissioned to do it. Or the postal service was resorted to. Lastly, one did not use red cloth or paper to wrap the object, as that was the colour used in the weddings.
The addressee usually guessed where it had come from, but did not tell anyone. He kept his normal demeanour, while planning the act of revenge.
The custom is dying out now, presumably because our new generation is too lazy to preserve the established mores. They would rather buy a new pair and ask the shop to send it to a designated address, than take the trouble of scavenging the garbage heap and then finding a way of delivering the shoes without arousing suspicion.
I recall Ganajendr Nath’s famous painting “A Man Beating His Wife With A Shoe” came under discussion among the guests at a dinner. All agreed that it was a very good work. But some wondered why a shoe? After all, hands inflict more pain. The consensus was that the shoe is employed where the object is to insult rather than hurt. 
Incidentally, the feet themselves have a double status in our traditional poetry. A critic may tell another, who may have criticized Euripides, that he was not good enough to carry the Greek playwright’s sandals, the most menial task possible. But one would also be ready to kiss the soles of the feet of the woman he loves, e.g. Mashafi: Ji mein aata hai kay bosa kaf-e-pa ka lay loon, Rung honton pay teri taza hina ka lay loon. Or Hasrat tells us joyously that the woman he loved kicked his face lightly as he bent to kiss her feet. So the feet do have sex value. The very fact that henna is applied to the feet indicates that they are included among the “objets attirants” of the body.
Well, one imagines contempt and veneration meet round the circle, like Hegel’s unity of opposites.

 Posted by at 6:57 am

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