by B. A. Varghese
Just let me finish my story. Listen. I was at this party at a house on Vanderveer Street off of Hillside Ave. in Queens. I was having a great time with my friends, then near the end of the party, I had to leave because I wanted to help my mom. She had called me, you know, she’s older and needed my help, I don’t know, can’t remember, something about her house, maybe the garbage disposal or something, so anyway, I said I’d be there after the party. Well, after a while, I thought I had hung around long enough, mingled enough, so I went to the front of the house to look for my shoes, and I couldn’t find them.
Hey, you know me, I’m Malayalee. My family comes from the state of Kerala, which is along the coast of southwest India, a place some call God’s Own Country, a place where life somehow slows down to a pace far less frantic than found elsewhere in India. Back there, back where people have time to actually live how they were created to live, and age seems to wait for their bodies to catch up in a slow progression of time, back where culture and habits passed down for generations are still practiced as wisdom, there is a custom that when you enter any home, you take your shoes off to show respect, and that expression of favorable regard for your host also extends to his family and to all the people that you have come to visit that live there like aunts or uncles or like their appachans or ammachies, you know, the grandparents. I’m guessing this is the case with not just all Indians, but usually with most Asian people, this custom where you take your shoes off when you enter someone’s home, a custom still practiced even if the family is a continent away from their native land. I mean, it makes sense, you don’t want to dirty the host’s house up with all the places you stepped, you know, bringing all the things of the world that the host is trying to keep out with his house.
Again, it’s a sign of respect, so you take your shoes off, but if you really want to get a Malayalee or an Indian or any Asian mad, just keep your shoes on inside their home. For example, when your hosts open the front door and they greet you and you see all those shoes in the front entry from all the other guests, go ahead and walk right in without even acknowledging that you even notice those shoes, or better yet, look down at the shoes for a while, then walk right in, so that they know you know to take your shoes off but you refuse to, then walk all over the house, and when you’re in the middle of a great conversation, just hoist up your leg and step on that coffee table or that ottoman and lean your elbow on that hoisted knee with your drink in your hand chuckling after you tell your hearty joke, now that, that will definitely be a way not just to get your host furious at you, but to get the whole Malayalee population this side of the Atlantic mad too, because he’s going to call all of them.
I can see him with red in his eyes, and he can’t wait till you leave so he can curse you and your family, and not the kind of cursing with profanity, no, that’s vulgar and too easy. It’s the kind of cursing that takes creativity where the host wishes you grow horns on your head or that your children grow fat and lazy. He’ll probably tell his wife how disrespectful you were by walking around in your filthy shoes and tell her how you were probably raised by animals or white people. Now, I know you might think that seems a bit racist, but it’s not. It’s just a comparison of two extremes. Well, maybe. It could be the residual effect of British imperialistic occupation of India for a number of generations. I mean, the British wore their shoes everywhere. Everywhere. But I digress. Either way, the host would feel that this would be the last time he’d invite your kind. The I-don’t-take-my-shoes-off-because-I-wasn’t-raised-with-manners kind.
I didn’t want any of that, so I took my shoes off when I entered the house, and I remember setting them aside near the tiled front foyer closer to the bookshelf that sat down the hall. I didn’t just throw them anywhere, because I knew that with a custom like this, you may end up not knowing where you originally placed your shoes because they all look similar, especially men’s shoes, I couldn’t say about women shoes, I think they look different. Or you may lose sight of your shoes because someone else was looking through the pile at the front door and may have shuffled some shoes around, causing your shoes not to be at the same location. In the worst case scenario, someone may have taken your shoes by mistake, which would mean that their shoes are still here, and they’re walking around in your shoes, going home, wondering why their feet hurt or why the shoes are too loose or too tight, not smart enough to know that they picked up the wrong shoes. I know things like this can happen, and I placed my shoes slightly away from everyone else’s shoes, but not far enough to suggest that I’m special or I think I’m above everyone else, like, “Look at that guy’s shoes, who does he think he is placing his shoes so far away from everyone else and so close to our carpet?”
I know I left my shoes closer to the bookshelf, by that mahogany or what looked like mahogany bookshelf in the hall, and I know what my shoes look like, leather brown loafers, no laces, I’m too lazy for laces, sleek, clean, no prints or stitching along the sides, just plain deep brown, soft shoes, but I couldn’t find them, so I looked around, you know, in case a shuffling of shoes occurred by someone prior to me wanting to leave. Sometimes, a shuffling of shoes occurs when people come in, those people who arrived late, like it was fashionable to be late to a party, but this was an Indian party, you come really late to these kinds, and the host will think you were brought up in the poorer towns in Kerala, like your family doesn’t have education and were workers sweating in a paddy field, because Indian parties, weddings, funerals, or any functions already start late since we run on Indian time, like if something is scheduled to start at 5:00 p.m., every Indian knows that it’s going to start around 6:00 p.m., so everyone comes at 6:00 p.m. Indian Standard Time, and if you decide to come fashionably later than that, then you’re really late, and the host will wonder why you came at all.
I know what my shoes look like, and I know I left them near the bookshelf, but they weren’t there, and there wasn’t too much shuffling of shoes, I could see that each pair was together, so a major shuffling hadn’t occurred yet. It would seem I may have misplaced them, maybe I didn’t leave them near the bookshelf, the fake mahogany one, maybe I left them by the other one on the opposite side, the black one with the wood sculptures of cranes and elephants, but I don’t remember noticing those sculptures when I placed my shoes nearby, because I would have noticed them, I mean the whole bookshelf was covered with these wooden sculptures, and that would have stuck in my mind, that image and realization that this crap was in every Indian house.
I decided to look around because now I’m doubting my memory. I didn’t see them by both bookshelves, maybe I didn’t leave them by any bookshelf. I looked deeper into the large spread of shoes in the front. Maybe the host, well, Jose Uncle, actually, he’s not my real uncle, it’s another Indian custom we practice where you elevate an older acquaintance to a position in your family, you do this out of respect. The same thing with older women, they’re aunties. Maybe, it was Jose Uncle, spelled J-O-S-E, but not pronounced Jose like he was Mexican or in a way that would imply Spanish descent, but literally pronounced the way it was spelled: Jose Uncle. Well, he did sport a very thick mustache and was chubby, and his hair sat combed in a way that formed the shape of a sombrero. Probably, he saw that I moved my shoes away from everyone else, and he moved them back into the pile. It’s known to happen. Now I’m wondering if he did that and didn’t say anything, another custom of my people, not to say anything but to teach silent lessons to those younger than them.
Either way, if my shoes were moved to the pile, then they must be here. I went over the whole pile and still couldn’t find them. I decided to start from the top and move slowly down the pile to the front door, once in a while touching and picking up shoes that came somewhat close to the look of my shoes. During this whole time, I had a number of people come up to me asking what I was doing like it wasn’t obvious, like they couldn’t put two and two together to know that I was looking for my shoes, so I told them that I was looking for my shoes, and some, the more thoughtful ones, even asked what my shoes looked like, and I told them that they were dark brown, soft, no laces, but after their questions, they all seemed to continue back into the party, they went back to talking to others and not one of them looked back or helped. Not one. It was as if they just wanted to confirm that my actions of looking for my shoes actually matched to what was going through my head, the thoughts of where are my shoes, and that was enough for them. Like if I said I was looking for the dip, they would have pointed toward the kitchen and went on their merry way.
Now I became worried. Or at least it felt like worry. I scoured the front entry for my shoes, and I couldn’t find them anywhere, and no one, I mean no one, was offering any help. Everyone was busy with the party, and I felt nervous. Or was it something else creeping inside, and I just failed to figure out this feeling? Maybe I felt anxious because I was thinking that my mother was expecting me to be at her home soon, and I was not there and like most Indian mothers, well, all mothers, they worry, and I didn’t want her thinking that I was lying in a ditch somewhere, because that’s what they worry about, that we end up lying in ditches, but they don’t understand that if all the mothers worry about that, then we’re all probably in the same ditch, we’re all okay, and we can help each other out of the ditch.
Then my wife finally showed up and saw me looking around the front, thank God she was here, I had totally forgotten that she was here because I was so wrapped up in looking for my shoes. I should have known to stop after a while and ask her, because she would know exactly where they were even though I’m the one who placed them somewhere. She would know. Women are like that.
I was relieved she was here, and I told her that my mom had called and I was supposed to go there after the party and I just couldn’t find my shoes, and I looked at my wife the whole time I was talking, and at the end of my explanation, she rolled her eyes.
She rolled her eyes.
Like I was some kind of a moron or paddy field worker who couldn’t find his shoes. She asked if I looked through the pile in the front, and I could not believe she asked me that, and I told her, what the heck do you think I was doing and that I was here looking for my shoes, who knows, for the last half hour. This time she rolled her eyes and shook her head, and I couldn’t believe it. It was as if she was looking upward and shaking her head toward the sky, and all of Heaven was looking down shaking their heads, wondering how God could have slipped up and allowed such a perfect Malayalee woman to marry such a complete idiot. An idiot who couldn’t even keep track of his shoes. I asked her if she was going to help or not and she said not to worry and that we would find it. Her words comforted me, and I started looking around again, and I started picking up each pair of shoes. This time, I looked at them top and bottom, like I was going to recognize my shoes from the sole, and after a few minutes I looked over to see if my wife found them or not, and she wasn’t there in the front. She was by the kitchen talking to someone with some food, probably a samosa, in her hand, and I bet you she was looking at first but then became distracted with conversation like most women do and totally forgot or gave up on the idea of looking for my shoes.
I stood there shocked that not only did no one help, but my wife didn’t seem to want to help either. Now, I know that I made a thorough search for my shoes and couldn’t find them. I came to the conclusion that someone must have taken my shoes by accident and left theirs. I thought maybe I can take their shoes and get going, but there’s absolutely no way of knowing what shoes they left behind except that the shoes must have looked exactly like mine, but I didn’t remember seeing anything that looked exactly like my shoes. After all that, I thought my shoes were gone and there was no way I’m getting them back, so I went toward the front closet and looked around and found some old shoes which I knew must have belong to Jose Uncle. I grabbed them, which in retrospect I shouldn’t have done, but I was angry, and I walked through crowds of conversations and laughter, and finally found Jose Uncle, and asked if I could borrow his shoes, and he said no and that he needed them. He told me that he only had a few shoes and how the ones I was holding was his favorite pair. Now I noticed that he wasn’t too happy that I was walking around holding his shoes, and that is another thing you must never do at any host’s home, you don’t go rummaging through their things, it doesn’t matter if you’re Indian or whatever, it’s just bad manners, and I knew that somehow my mother was going to hear of this, and then she would rather have me be lying in a ditch somewhere than disrespect the host in such a way.
I don’t know what went through my mind to go through another person’s items, and I told Jose Uncle that I was sorry for looking through his front closet, and that I would even buy this old pair of shoes from him. He said okay, thirty-five dollars. Thirty-five dollars? For these shoes? I asked how about ten dollars and he said no, thirty-five dollars. I told him that I could buy two pairs of shoes for that much at Payless. He said that I should feel free to buy shoes from there and if I buy from him, I would PayMore. I don’t know if it’s a custom or anything, but it seems that almost all Indian uncles dispense corny jokes, almost as if in order to be privileged enough to be called an uncle, one must read the ancient manuscript of lame jokes passed from one uncle to another over generations like some secret society of Uncles of the Freemasons, the Indian Order.
Now, it was at that very moment that Thomas Uncle stepped in and placed his hand on my shoulder. His eyes were wide, and he was happy to see me, stating that he hadn’t seen me for years.
He told me how fat I had gotten.
It’s one of those things growing up Indian that when you’re greeted by an older person, they need to either comment on how skinny you’ve gotten or how fat you’ve gotten, yet that perfect middle form and weight, that fine line is almost near invisible and is impossible to attain, so attempting to fix yourself in either direction will result in again falling short the next time you meet. I smiled, talked to Thomas Uncle for a little, then turned to Jose Uncle and thanked him for his hospitality. Yet another customary thing or habit we did out of respect as a younger person, not to show our true feelings, because we were young and had not earned the right to speak one’s mind, a right that comes with age. I walked back to the front of the house and threw his shoes as hard as I could back into the closet. For a moment, I thought of taking someone else’s shoes, but I felt I couldn’t make someone else suffer and have them think that someone took their shoes by accident when I did it on purpose, no, I couldn’t make them go through what I was going through. This was it, I decided to walk to my mother’s house without my shoes. This is probably why some people keep their shoes on inside the house.
My mother raised me with good manners, and I know that when leaving a party or gathering that you should go and say bye to your friends and any new people you had met, but just imagine how strange it would be go to a party and just leave the house without telling anyone and eventually people at the party would wonder if I was still there or if I left without saying a word, yet if I decided to do such a thing it would be another infraction my mother would hear of, so I walked over saying goodbye to everyone and telling them how great of a time I had, and I said bye to Jose Uncle and auntie and then to my wife, and they all smiled and said bye and said that it was great that I was able to make it to the party. While I was walking to the front, I couldn’t help but feel that no one cared because no one asked me if I had found my shoes. They all knew I was looking for them, but no one brought the subject up. At the front foyer, I looked down on the pile of shoes, then back at the party, at all the people talking, all my friends and some family, uncles, aunties, everyone, and I opened the door and went outside.
It was cold, and the wind was blowing, but I didn’t have a jacket on, and I couldn’t remember if I had brought a jacket to the party, yet another thing like the shoes to worry about, but it didn’t matter now. I could feel how cold the cement sidewalk was under my feet, and it was unlike the carpet and its warmth by the fireplace in that house; that house filled with the aroma of chapatti and chicken curry, a smell that hung in the air and that had embraced me like a loving mother when I had entered; that house filled with friends and loved ones whose warmth was first felt through shoulders of soft wool sweaters and cotton shirts and smooth silk saris; that house filled with painstakingly created treats like chewy fried banana chips and the lentil fritters sitting in warm China bowls on the oblong plastic-covered dining room table. Out in the cold, the chills crept through my feet all the way up my spine, spreading all over my back, then penetrating as if I were being swallowed up into the darkness. Leaves whirled in the wind around me with moans and whistles. A small bird sat on a blade of grass, looking up at me. A few feet away, I looked back at that house and could see that the party was still going on, I could hear the muffled music playing, and the windows lit bright like white square eyes against the darkening slate sky. It looked warm and loving, yet I noticed that no one looked out the windows to watch me leave or to see if I was okay, which should have been the job of the host, Jose Uncle, to see me to the door and watch me leave the house, another custom, but not this time, no one watched from the house. No one cared to follow good customs, the ones revolving around love.
At that moment, while my eyes were locked on that house, a feeling crept back up inside along with the cold. It was something I couldn’t shake, a raw visceral emotion deep down. It was at that moment that all of it felt like a dream, all the memories that I had just experienced stripped into the darkness, and I stood there like a statue with tears, observing the poverty of it all. The small bird sat still, and I stayed there in my socks, shivering without a jacket, crying into the darkness, looking toward that house, yearning for its warmth, and I recognized the feeling, and I realized that it was how I had felt, how I had been feeling for the past year.
B. A. Varghese graduated from Polytechnic University (New York) with a degree in electrical engineering and is currently working in the information technology field. Inspired to explore his literary side, he has earned a BA in English from the University of South Florida. His works have appeared in Apalachee Review, Prick of the Spindle, and other literary journals. (www.bavarghese.com)
Image credit: Peter Hershey on Unsplash
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