Video: Nilutpal Baruah reads a section of “Boots” in the original Assamese.
Bedo Bora bought a pair of boots.
He got them at the most expensive showroom in the mall. And went home with the triumphant expression of a Samurai back from an intense war at the border.
They were expensive.
Shiny black leather boots with steel studs.
They had an aura about them.
It was not as if he did not own any shoes. He did. It was not even as though the boots were going to suit him. They would not. This, he was sure of. He put them in the back of the closet.
Bedo Bora was a gaunt man. At first glance he seemed to have no personality at all. Someone who would not stand out in a crowd. Swarthy. Dim eyes. Feeble voice. Not well-endowed.
People said Bedo Bora was a foot fetishist. He was fascinated by women’s feet, they said. When you met him he stared at your feet.
(Their neighbor Ragini Saikia appreciated this habit of his. Ragini Saikia spent a large part of her college-teacher husband’s salary on her feet. Regular pedicures, waxing, massages, expensive nail polish . . . And after that, she would put on a tight black skirt and a pair of red shoes. And then she would go out, exhibiting her beautiful feet, white as the inside of a bottle gourd. Her feet were her weapon, her power, and her admirers bowed before their beauty. Ragini Saikia was delighted when Bedo Bora stared at her feet.)
The whole thing was quite unpalatable. But as he only looked, which was not criminal, no one had lodged a complaint against him.
But Bedo Bora was not a foot fetishist. He did not have a sexual fascination with feet.
He had never licked or sucked or kissed his wife Nidhima Kashyap’s feet, even though Nidhima Kashyap Bora had beautiful feet. Beautiful enough to inspire jealousy. She took good care of them, too, though her womb was much more important to her.
Everyone thought he had a foot fetish. In fact, Bedo Bora was actually fascinated not with feet but with shoes.
Hidden deep within his heart was a shoe infatuation. It ran through his blood, through his veins.
It had not been long since Bedo Bora had gained confidence in himself. His parents had named him Bedai. The villagers too used to call him Bedai. He despised the name and the inferiority it made him feel.
When he enrolled in the school run by the local church, he gave his name as Bedai Bora. God knows what the nun from Kerala heard or understood, but she wrote his name with the English letter corresponding to the “Bh” sound. He had to spend his days in high school as Bhedo Bora.
His self-esteem turned into a larva that coiled deep within its cocoon.
He won a scholarship from the Sonai Kalita Trust to study in a distant town. When his classmate Akangsha Sonowal, product of an English-medium school, called out to him there, “Hey, Vedaa . . . listen!” it was as though his self-esteem became a lemon sapling that sprouted deep inside him and started spreading its branches.
Akangsha’s Spartan sandals with their leather straps wrapped around her calves made him give her everything willingly. His lab records, notes . . .
But he dared not offer her his heart, nor did she ask him to.
Bedo Bora always lived a modest life.
Extremely modest . . .
He had an uneventful childhood.
His parents’ daily, noisy coupling to fulfill his father’s hope of another child! The tussle every night between his reluctant mother and blunt, enthusiastic father. The creaking of the old bed his mother had brought with her trousseau.
Sweat-soaked objections permeated the two-room log house.
In this dimly-lit house, Bedo Bora’s shoe obsession gradually intensified.
To play the role of a messenger, his father had rented a pair of ornamental sandals from the costume store . . . that was his first encounter with an image of a shoe. Bedo Bora took the shoes, which were decorated with small stones and a golden lace.
For a very long time, he even slept with them, until his father found them and returned them to the shop.
There was a celebration the day Bedo Bora received his first pair of shoes. His father took him early in the morning to a market far away. Usually, they just took the vegetables to sell in the weekly market. But that day they had two sacks of a rare variety of rice too.
The squealing of piglets being sold, the nonstop advertisements of the local medicine seller . . .
Luridly colored sweetmeats being fried as the bubbling oil sizzled . . .
The fragrance of jasmines wafting from the bearded perfume seller . . .
The smell of raw bananas filled his senses as Bedo Bora sat waiting for all the rice to be sold.
Munching on the cookie his father managed to hand him at one point, he looked beseechingly at each of the traders.
Every look was a plea.
A prayer thick with fervor.
The entreaty of the accused before the jury.
It took a lot of pleading and bargaining before the Muslim trader sold them a pair of canvas shoes, and those only at the price of two bags of rice plus their unsold ridge gourd and sponge gourd.
A father swollen with pride at having bought his only son a pair of shoes, and the elated son transformed into a victorious Cossack . . . ! They were homeward bound on a creaking cycle, down the narrow, winding cow trail.
His father could not wear shoes. His feet were deformed. His big toes stuck out, which wore out his rubber slippers quickly on this terrain. It was only when he went somewhere that he wore them.
(A pair of sandals from the Bronze Age was discovered during archaeological excavations in Greece. It might have dated back to nearly 5000 years BCE. Apparently, the formation of people’s feet began to change when the idea of shoes materialized. The shape and size of the feet of human fossils pointed to the status of the person. Enslaved people and peasants had broad feet with crooked toes. On the other hand, the feet of the aristocracy were unblemished.
Bedo Bora’s father’s feet were undoubtedly not those of an aristocrat.)
By the time Bedo Bora realized that people ate three meals a day and that each meal had its own distinctive name, his feet had outgrown the black canvas shoes. His big toes had poked holes in them. Bedo Bora applied some tar on that area and prayed earnestly—this time, for his feet to become small.
(As small as was necessary for Chinese women to be considered beautiful. Aristocratic ladies of China used to wear wooden shoes during the period of the Five Dynasties and Seven Kingdoms of the Song Dynasty to keep their feet small. And their feet did become tiny. But it made the women sick. It made them lose their balance. Groaning with unbearable pain, the small-footed women later suffered from both physical and psychological disorders.)
Eating nothing but pumpkin tendrils, jackfruit seeds when they were in season, or raw plantains when they grew, the still-growing boy Bedo Bora finally saw an expensive pair of shoes for the first time.
His classmate Babul had dropped out and joined the militant outfit ULFA. The thickset Babul’s body changed suddenly.
Whiling away his time at the crossroads, Babul, by now a regular cardplayer, bought a RX100 motorcycle. Bedo Bora’s eyes nearly popped out at seeing the denim-clad Babul wearing a pair of Woodland shoes. He even allowed Bedo Bora to touch them.
Bedo Bora inhaled the crisp smell of new leather to his heart’s content.
. . . Later, he saw his college classmate, Utpal, wearing a similar pair.
Utpal, who had once proposed to Nidhi Kashyap.
Nidhi had not responded.
On the contrary, one afternoon, at the head of a deserted corridor, it was Nidhi who had proposed to Bedo Bora.
(It was simply an invitation to procreate. She was fixated on bearing a child.)
Gazing with rapt attention at her shiny black pumps, Bedo Bora fortified himself after the shock.
He understood instantly—this love was not an impetuous one. It was calculated. An easy way to arrive at the perfect equation. The brilliant Bedo Bora’s outstanding marks were all that was required for this love to materialize.
It astonished everyone that the beautiful daughter of a blue-blooded administrative officer was the lover of the unattractive, mute Bedo Bora.
Nidhi Kashyap was neither too sharp nor dull.
If someone were to ask her at an intimate moment, “Nidhi, what is your aim in life?” she would reply in the blink of an eye, “To become a mother!” To carry a child in her womb.
That was all.
The sinuous Nidhi Kashyap of the hourglass figure wanted only to be a mother.
That is why she had selected Bedo Bora: for his superior sperm.
And that was what Bedo Bora’s and Nidhi Kashyap’s love-talk was about . . . Nidhi Kashyap would steer the conversation toward pregnancy every time.
“Normal delivery would be best. A caesarean can create complications later.”
“If only we had one of those foot-operated wooden pestles . . . That’s how you set the baby perfectly in the womb. No problems during the delivery.”
“If the mother eats half a dry gooseberry and uses the other half to shape the baby’s eyebrows, the baby will grow up to have perfect arched brows.”
“You know, Bedo . . . my first child will be a girl! Sharma uncle checked my horoscope today.”
“The baby’s nails will fall off on their own if I blow on them first thing in the morning, before I even brush my teeth. I am so scared of nail cutters.”
Bedo Bora was very sure that if someone were to write about their love story, they would definitely title it “Bedo and Nidhi’s Journey to the Womb.”
He had hoped that they would go to Armenia for their honeymoon. (The world’s oldest footwear had been excavated in Armenia. A ceramic bowl, the horns of a goat, and a pair of shoe-shaped leather objects.) But it did not materialize.
One night, Bedo Bora saw the boots of the State for the first time.
Gleaming black ones.
Heavy, blunt boots.
Babul of ULFA was beating up small traders with a thick bamboo stick in the market, for they were not coughing up money for the organization. From the vegetable seller to the one selling cattle, no one escaped his wrath.
One night, a panting Babul dashed into Bedo Bora’s house. The military had surrounded the entire village.
A sturdy soldier followed, pushed him to the floor, and stood with his boot on Babul’s battered head.
A thin stream of blood trickled from Babul’s nose. A single movement, and several other pairs of boots stomped on Babul.
Shivering under the bed, Bedo Bora saw these boots of the State from a very close distance. They were dark, heavy, with metal rims.
(Later, Babul became an informer for the army. With a dark cloth tied around his face, it was he who pointed out Charu and his gang when they were hiding near one of the islands that appeared seasonally on the river. At the end of a night-long gun fight, the police wrapped the dead bodies of Charu and his mates in bamboo mats and threw them on the school grounds at the edge of the village.)
As he aged Bedo Bora was drawn deeper into the world of shoes.
An infinite cosmos; a shoe universe filled with the endless illusion of reality.
A young Latin American woman, sitting on one end of a stone bench in Lodhi Garden, talking animatedly on the phone . . . She was telling her sister about their father’s new girlfriend . . . She was wearing a pair of bison-hide red moccasins . . .
The young Kumaoni woman who entered the Mango showroom in South Extension . . . She drew her feet in as though to hide her battered Rexine sandals on the sparkling marble floor . . .
The young man from Ghana, wearing Veldskoen shoes . . . He used to sell drugs in the area near Satya Niketan . . . The police had taken him to the station, making him sit in between them on their motorbike . . . He was probably not out of jail as yet.
Years passed. Bedo Bora became a father. His daughter became a young woman. And a young man began bothering Bedo Bora’s daughter.
He rode past Bedo Bora’s house.
Whistling, lewd gestures . . .
He shouted obscenities as he sped past on his motorbike.
He paid no heed even if Bedo Bora was sitting in the veranda.
There was nothing menacing about Bedo Bora, in any case.
But one night the young man sped by, laughing at Bedo Bora.
Bedo Bora remembered his boots.
Bedo Bora stood up.
He retrieved his boots.
He put them on.
At last Bedo Bora stepped into his boots.
“Juta” © Nilutpal Baruah. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2023 by Rashmi Baruah. All rights reserved. Developed through the Write Assamese project, a collaboration between Untold and BEE Books, supported by the British Council and KfW Stiftung. This story will appear in the anthology A Fistful of Moonlight: Stories from Assam, forthcoming in 2023 from BEE Books in India and MacLehose Press in the UK.