Sharmaji's shoes by Nighat Gandhi

The day Sharmaji sent off the registration form for the annual retreat at the Krishnamurti Foundation was the day his wife said she was leaving. She didn’t say she was leaving him. She said she was going to visit his daughter, Baby, in America. Baby was going to have a baby.


'When did you plan all this? How long are you going for?'


'I'm not sure ... six months.'


He was outraged. 'Six months? Six months! What will you do for six months in America?'


'What do I do here?'


Her reply took him by surprise. She had never spoken in such a brazen manner and they had been married twenty-five years. When she spoke it was always with diffidence and respect, like he was a priest or a schoolmaster. Their marriage was about roles and rules. What do I do here? What was she trying to tell him? That he made her work for him? He suddenly wanted to pin down her exact feelings in this matter, get clarification, clear himself of blame. What did the hostility mean? When had she learnt to talk like this? Where had she acquired such nerve? But what if she really wasn’t planning to return in six months? He gathered himself and went about his day, drinking his tea in sullen silence, watching the discourse on one of the spiritual channels, distractedly eating his breakfast, and taking a very long time in the bathroom, shaving and bathing.


'Living and dying is the theme of this year’s retreat,' he announced at lunch, to smooth over their morning ruffles. But she went about her duties, bringing him fresh rotis from the kitchen. All she said was, 'You should tell the maid when you'll be returning. She’ll cook for you.' He was hurt by her matter-of-factness. 'The maid? You asked her to cook for me? She can’t cook. What makes you think she can cook?’


‘Then who’ll cook for you when I’m not here?’


He changed the topic. ‘I want to know why Baby didn't ask me? Or send a ticket for me? Am I not her father? Don’t I want to see my grandchild?'


Baby was his daughter from his first wife but whenever Baby called, she preferred to talk to her stepmother.


When she had cleared the table, she said,' If you went with me, you would get bored.'


‘Bored? What makes you think I would I get bored? I could go for walks, I could talk to Baby and her husband and their friends. Don’t they have many weekend parties?’ After a pause he added, ‘And I could play with the baby.'


She shook her head. 'No. You would get bored.'


He found her new self-confidence unnerving. How could she be so sure he would get bored? Mrs Sharma the second he had named her. She was much younger than him, and he only realised on their wedding night how young she was. Any other man in his position would have felt jubilant. But he was embarrassed by the years separating them and the gulf between them widened when they discovered they had very little to say to each other. She became an ideal second wife, never opposing him, never going against his wishes. He was a widower with two children, and in her he found the woman who would make a good mother. A man needs a woman. And Mrs Sharma the second needed a man and a house. On the very next morning after their temple wedding, she quietly assumed the duties of wife and mother as if she had trained for it all her life. She didn’t complain. She spoke only when spoken to. Even in bed she was soundless. He never knew if she was experiencing pleasure, pain or nothing. Intimacy between them declined over the years and she never indicated that she missed it.


The morning after she left for America, he tried to overcome his disconsolation. He drank the maid’s watery tea without complaining. Some of it spilled into the saucer when she set it down with a thud. Sharmaji poured the spilled tea back into the cup, hoping to make a point with her, but she had already moved into the kitchen and was chopping vegetables for his lunch.


He waited for almost a week to hear from Mrs Sharma the second. Finally, swallowing his pride, he called. ‘Hello? All well in America? Does anybody care to know how I am?’


Baby answered but handed the phone to her stepmother. Instead of asking him how he was, his wife asked if he if the maid was working well.


‘No, she’s not. I don't like her cooking. You know she can’t cook. She can’t even make a decent cup of tea. When are you coming back?’ Mrs Sharma said she didn't know when she was coming back.


Afterwards he remembered he forgot to ask when Baby’s baby was due.




Sharmaji focussed more on his afterlife these days by giving up thinking about carnal pleasures. He started attending spiritual gatherings and he never lost hope that Mrs Sharma the second would also one day accompany him. Just before she told him she was leaving, he had stood at the entrance to the kitchen and read aloud from the leaflet. ‘This gathering’s focus will be on living and dying. Dying is a part of living.’ He turned to her. ‘So living, loving and dying are the same thing … do you hear? Did you hear what I just read?’ He was a little unclear about how living, loving and dying were the same thing, but it had to be true if his spiritual guru said it was. He wanted to explain it to his wife, to his doctor son in the UK, to his daughter in the US. But his wife wouldn’t drop whatever she was doing in the kitchen and listen.


When his lawyer friend, Guptaji, called at night, he convinced him to come for the retreat. ‘Remember, what a good time we had last year?’ he said. That's where he met Guptaji for the first time. He enjoyed his company and the food was great. They were served gulab jamuns every day. Sharmaji had continued to call Guptaji regularly. The last time Sharmaji called, Guptaji casually mentioned that his wife had moved to her father's house. When? Why? For how long? But his friend didn't divulge details. So Sharmaji tried to make light of their shared plight. ‘Wakeel sahib, we are both in the same boat now! We have both become bachelors. My wife has gone to America. Yours has gone to her maika.’




The two arrived at the retreat around the same time and Sharmaji  greeted Guptaji warmly but soon things began to sour. Especially after Sharmaji’s shoes went missing. He was hoping for compassionate sharing and unburdening and was hurt by Guptaji’s understated arrogance when he went about scrutinising other people's footwear. Guptaji was sneering at him. Discussions on Living and Dying faded to fuzziness. He couldn't concentrate. His attention was taken up by the loss of his new Nikes. How could somebody steal his shoes at a spiritual gathering? Baby had gifted him those Nikes on her last visit and he had kept them in their original carton, wrapped in tissue paper to take out on a special occasion.


He had placed them just outside the entrance to the lecture hall. But an hour later they were gone. He stared in disbelief at the spot where he had left them. He walked up and down the hallway, hoping somebody might have mistakenly placed them at another spot, pausing in despair at each pair of shoes and sandals. He waited as people came out of the hall, slipped on their shoes and departed. In the end there was only a worn out and ready-to-discard pair of red and white sneakers. Sharmaji slipped them on unwillingly as if slipping into another life. They were a size too big and as soon as his toes came in contact with the sweaty, dusty insides, he cringed. His toes curled in protest. He limped across the lawn in the red and white shoes. His feet refused to relax in them. It was a strange, unclean feeling, accepting the clamminess of a pair of shoes belonging to another man. May be somebody would bring back his shoes and leave them outside the lecture hall. His hope led him to make several visits to the hall that day.


Guptaji was attending a parallel session in another hall. He guffawed when he heard about Sharmaji’s Nikes. This was worse than losing the shoes. ‘Arre, Sharmaji, kya hua? It’s just a pair of shoes. Next time, you should do what I do. I separate the pair. I put one here and one there. Nobody steals just one shoe.’


‘Guptaji, you’re laughing? Do you realise we are in a sacred, spiritual place. We’re not at a railway station. Who steals in such a place?’


The lawyer retorted, ‘Spiritual place? What do you mean? Do you think people are different in a spiritual place than they are at the railway station? People are people, Sharmaji. Same everywhere.’


‘No, Guptaji. Not everybody is the same. How many people at a railway station would be interested in attending a spiritual gathering? Only a select few come to such places. Even my wife is not interested in attending.’


‘Your wife is probably only too happy to be left alone. I think our wives enjoy more without us. But you should tell her to come back from America after your grandchild is born.’


‘Guptaji, why are you changing the topic? Why talk about my wife when I’m talking about my shoes? This is a philosophical question. Can there be thieves among spiritual seekers? If there are thieves among us, then what’s the point of coming to a retreat like this? Somebody stole my shoes. If I tell my wife, she’ll say she doesn’t think much of people who come here.’


‘Then you better not tell her! But how can you be so sure your shoes were stolen by a spiritual seeker? It could be one of the servants. They were Nikes, na? Bhayia! Bugger will sell them and make more than his monthly salary.’


They had settled in their cots for the night. The others had not yet returned from the after-dinner discourse. He had removed the repulsive red and white stinkers and washed his feet to remove any clinging traces of sweat, dirt and stickiness, soaping and re-soaping his long, almond-shaped toenails. His first wife, his first love, loved his toenails.  She used to call them ‘my eight almonds’. He dried his feet and slipped on his bathroom slippers. Mrs Sharma the second had never evinced any interest in his toenails.


‘All I have now are my bathroom slippers and those smelly shoes left by the thief!’ Sharmaji rested his head on the pillow and looked up at the ceiling through the mosquito netting. The lawyer’s cleverness was irritating. He didn’t want clarity or cleverness and clear-cut solutions. He wanted depth and compassion and debate on the deeper questions about right conduct. He didn’t know how to express this. He stared at the peeling plaster on the ceiling split up into thousand little fuzzy squares through the netting. And said, ‘Your good advice is a bit late, Guptaji.’


‘Sharmaji, I’m a lawyer. My advice is always timely. It’s up to you what you take from this experience. I always learn from experience. How to put one foot here, one foot there. If you do that, you will never lose.’


It was Sharmaji’s turn to puncture his friend's exasperating elan.‘So Guptaji, when is your wife coming back?’


‘She'll come back today if I tell her, but I don't because her father is, what can I say, in the last stages of life.’


‘My wife will also come back today if I ask her, but I don’t. My daughter needs her.'


‘That is no reason for your wife to stay on indefinitely. Life without wife must be difficult for you?’


Guptaji was just becoming more and more unkind and intrusive. So he opened the Krishnamurti booklet he received as part of the welcome package and proceeded to read. ‘If somebody told you that you were going to die at the end of the day, what would you do? Would you not live richly for that day? We do not live the rich fullness of a day. We do not worship the day; we are always thinking of what we will be tomorrow…’ He read the lines several times but the words didn’t make any sense.


How did one live richly and fully every day with so much plaguing the mind? How to focus on the richness of each passing moment when each moment was besieged by some unpleasant thought? How to remember that each day was made up of many noteworthy moments? He’d been reading Krishnamurti every day like he read the newspaper. But he still didn't know how to make sense of what he read, or live according to the teachings, how to die every day, how to die before dying, how to free himself from the movement of thought and time. He stopped going to the temple and had given up the gods he grew up worshipping, but he still hadn't found the answers to questions: What would become of him after death? What lay beyond death? Why was death not really death? Would he have to come back to life? Or was this his last lifetime? Could he hope to meet Mrs Sharma the first when he arrived at the other shore?


At last year’s gathering he bought 17 Krishnamurti books and couriered them to his doctor son in the UK. ‘Do you know what he did with those books?’ he addressed Guptaji though a few minutes ago he had decided he wouldn’t speak.


‘What books?’


‘Krishnaji’s books. I sent them to my son and he sent them all back to me. Arre, he could have donated them to a library. They have many libraries in UK. And can you believe this, he wrote me a note: Please don't send me such books again. It is a form of violence to force your views upon others.’


Sharmaji, young people nowadays, especially if they live abroad, have their own ideas about everything. They don't want to be told what to think.’


‘How can sending spiritual books by a man who has changed my life be a form of violence?’


Sharmaji willed himself to say no more to Guptaji. He wished he could talk to someone who could listen without shooting him down with ready-made answers. He wanted to give vent to his outpourings, his heartache, but the fear of receiving more clever rebuttals deterred him. He ached to speak of how hurt he was because Mrs Sharma the second hadn't called him even once. But how could he talk when he was made to feel as if everything was somehow his own fault? He wanted tenderness and receptiveness of heart to speak of the differences between his first and second wife. His own heart was burdened and he wanted to lay it bare. He wanted to pour out feelings he hadn’t fully acknowledged even to himself. He wanted to share how his first wife’s death had unmanned him – a man like him, an army man who had fought three wars for his country, had not had an opportunity to get angry, to blame God, to weep his grief. He had remarried instead. He was sixty-five now, still in good health and yet, why did he feel it was best to rise above all worldly desires? This was puzzling. He wanted to renounce desire but desire was keeping him chained. He couldn’t confess that he woke up in the middle of the night with his heart thudding and longing to be held and soothed. Longing to be embraced. Who could embrace him? It was an infantile yearning for a safe corner, a tucked away haven where his inner child could rest. Mrs Sharma the second had never offered such womb-like shelter. She had moved out of their bed and into Baby’s room after Baby got married. He lay awake most nights, alone, and imagined the different ways in which death could come. Dying suddenly in his bed, and nobody finding out till the next morning scared him.


Guptaji was yawning and the other guests had started trickling in for the night so Sharmaji returned to reading Krishnamurti until the familiar words lulled him to sleep.




Next morning Sharmaji was at the receptionist’s desk. ‘Mistake? No, no, madam! No mistake-wistake. How can there be a mistake? The moment you step into somebody else's shoes, you know they are not yours. If it was a mistake, I would have got my shoes back by now. My shoes have been stolen.’


She noted down his complaint in her register but her attention was diverted by other complainants. ‘Madam, I'm telling you mosquitoes were biting all night. The mosquito net has holes. Please change the net or provide me an All-Out.’


‘Madam, I have room with Indian toilet. I'm eighty years old. I made special request for Western toilet. Can you give me room with commode?’


Sharmaji  waited to ask the receptionist about his shoes. But he could see that she had more urgent problems to deal with. He left her and walked down the cobblestone path leading to the vast, sun-bathed lawns. Along the periphery of the lawn were the rooms for small group discussions that were held after each morning's lecture. He took off the sweaty red and white sneakers and decided to walk barefoot. Two peacocks darted away as soon as they saw him approaching. He paused to watch their iridescent plumage as they took flight. He couldn't register their beauty. Nor did the silver-speckled river beyond attract him. Yellow butterflies flitted and restless parrots screeched as Sharmaji passed under a tree. In previous years, all this had delighted him but today nothing did.


The facilitator opened the discussion by asking why, after listening to so many of Krishnaji’s talks and reading so many of his books, why most people were still caught in the movement of their egos? He suggested that they had to reflect on this in total silence. Sharmaji’s own mind was hardly ever silent or reflective. He was trying to gauge which one of the men in the room could possibly be the shoe thief.




The following morning, Sharmaji hurried along the path accompanied by the hu-hu-hu of the doves from the gnarled tamarind trees. He arrived at the reception before the other participants and their complaints and put on a smile as he approached. ‘Madam, Namaste. I am happy to see today you are not as busy today as yesterday. Have you had your breakfast?’


The woman nodded and looked up from her register.  She had noticed his smile. ‘Oh, it’s you, Sharmaji. No news about your shoes?’ He seized the opportunity. ‘No, madam, no news, but you’re so kind, you remembered my name. I am honoured. You know, I am quite good at reading hands. Would you like me to read yours?’


‘Accha! If you can tell me a few things quickly,’ the woman put down her pen and offered him her right hand.


‘I can tell a lot, Madam. Give me both your hands. Spread out your palms like this.’


‘Sharmaji, what do you see? Any money?'


‘I can see a lot more than money. You are an extremely fortunate woman! You'll live to be a hundred years old.’


‘What good is a long life without money?'


‘No, no! It's going to be a good life in every way. Your lifeline is very strong and unbroken. But this! Madam, this is amazing! Just look at this diamond! Do you see it? This here, this diamond!’ He picked up the pen and traced a diamond in her right palm. ‘A most rare thing! You don't find it in everybody's hand. Do you know what this diamond means, madam?’


The woman looked at him expectantly. ‘This diamond is about something else!' The receptionist stared at the blue ink diamond on her palm. 'This diamond means you've been gifted your last lifetime in this life. Liberated from the cycle of rebirth! Freedom from rebirth. True wealth, madam, the real thing. Congratulations, madam!’


The receptionist looked up. She seemed unconvinced. Liberation from rebirth was not a trivial thing but she was hoping to hear something more beneficial. ‘Thank you, Sir. Life is hard so it’s just as well if I don’t have to come back again. You've been coming here for many years, sir?’


‘Do you know why I keep coming back? Because of good honest people like yourself. I've gained much from meeting like-minded souls who are seeking answers to same questions as I am. About life and death and what lies beyond. But only this time, I had bad luck. Instead of gaining, I have lost.’


She said she would once again make the announcement about his shoes. He heard the announcement over the loudspeakers. It was the last day of the gathering, his last day of hope.




That night, after dinner, he walked towards the river filled with rising resentment – he, a respectable, retired army man who had fought in three wars and won medals for bravery was reduced to tottering about in some man’s old, filthy, too large shoes. The moon had risen to the right of the temple. He sat on top of the ghat steps going down to the river, rubbed some Odomos on his arms and neck, and studied the moon’s image in the sluggish river. He couldn’t say why the trembling moon reminded him of his first wife. Even in his youth he wasn't prone to sentimental outpourings, but tonight, the shimmering moon reminded him of her. He stretched out against the thick trunk of an old neem. The moon's silver reminded him of her hair when she washed it and let it fall in waves down her back. His eyes watered as he looked at the flickering lights of vehicles on the far away bridge. Cars seemed to be crawling like giant glowing ants. It was a cool night, and the gnarled neem, the softly rippling river, the moon, and the chanting from the temple unfurled desires he had long ago dispatched to distant corners of his heart. He lay stricken by the weight of his longing. Memories rose and made him unsettled.


She was awaiting him in the bridal chamber, his bride, bundled up in gold and silk, the bed strewn with roses and jasmine – their first night of togetherness. He was at a loss for words. He put his arms around her and she turned to rest her head on his shoulders as if she had been resting it there all her life. He could feel her lips on his skin, and his whole body opened up with an enormous yearning. To remember her by the light of the moon on the river was to taste her lips. He lost all sense of body; he was one with something much greater than himself. She was turning her head away playfully as he pulled her to him. She was clasping herself to him in a gentle, almost motherly way. He couldn’t tell who she was or who he was. Their bodies were wrapped around each other. Then, slowly she began to untangle herself, setting him back on earth, setting desire ablaze with her fingers and lips, spreading out over him like a mythical, forest-growing creeper. Falling under her spell he fell fast, he became limitless, rising above and beyond her, the river, above the moon, merging with the night sky.


He sighed with joy and exhaustion, ‘You know how to treat a man like a king.’


‘Bhayia? Do you need help? Are you lost?’


‘No, no, I’m not lost!’ he said abruptly, and stood up to face the man addressing him.


It was late. He trudged back, picking his steps carefully in the dark, wondering what had come over him by the river.


Back in the dormitory he said to Guptaji,‘Did you see the moon?’


‘No. Since when have you become a moon watcher, Sharmaji?’


‘I went for a walk and sat by the ghat. What a moon! Like a bride.’


‘You army walas can also have feelings! Tell me, why was tonight’s moon so special?’


‘Tonight’s moon … what can I tell you? Did I ever tell you about my first wife?’


‘Your first wife? No.’


‘The moon was like her. When I came back from the '71 war, she was already very ill, and in a month's time…’ Sharmaji's voice trailed off. ‘In a month’s time she left me. She died of cancer.’ He stared at his toes, unable to tell him how much she loved his toes. What was breaking his heart? In what language could he speak of her koel-like voice, when she soaked his feet in warm water, scrubbed his soles with pumice stone, clipped his toenails – her beloved almonds. And dried his feet with her gentle hands. His feet would tingle just watching the movement of her head and hands. In what words could he speak of that long-forgotten rapture that leapt up from the soles of his feet and spread upwards and enveloped him?


He took out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes.


Guptaji watched him. ‘Sharmaji... you never told me. I’m sorry. What to do? Death comes for all of us sooner or later.’


Sharmaji spoke only after he had stashed away those unsteadying feelings somewhere deep and safe.


‘Yes, Guptaji, my fate. The injustice of it. Why did she have to die so young? Leave me with two children? I had found happiness but the gods didn’t like it. I didn’t really want to marry a second time. But what could I do?’


‘Was she your first love?’


‘First and only love! The only one who knew how to make me happy.’


Sitting by the ghat, he had revisited her, his home, their room, their bed, had caressed her girlish shoulders and her arms through her tight-sleeved blouse, had played with the pearls in her earlobes, stroked her long hair cascading down her back, had clasped her to himself, had pleaded with her not to torment his hunger with her touch, and ended up murmuring, ‘You know how to treat a man like a king.’


Being treated like a king by her was not an ordinary piece of luck. With her he yearned to become a better man simply because she believed he could. And twenty-five years of separation from her had only intensified that yearning. Who was he? Who was he really? Behind the retired army man that the world called Sharmaji was there another man neither he nor the world knew? Between thoughts of dying without ever coming to know this man were sprinkled other thoughts about long-buried intimacies and the havoc played on skin with lips and fingers.


‘Life is cruel, Guptaji,’ he hinted in careful language so as not to reveal his disturbing experiences by the ghat. ‘But then why do I still want to go on living? Why are we afraid of death?’


The lawyer got up to turn out the light. ‘Sharmaji, all I know is life goes on. What is this life? Life is what we make of it. All this philosophical talk about living and dying is ok for these gatherings. You remember that song? Jeena yahan, marna yahan, is ke sewa jaana kahan? Here is all there’s to life.’


On the last day of the gathering Sharmaji bid goodbye to his friend. Their friendship seemed to have suffered and he wasn’t sure he would meet Guptaji at next year’s gathering. He bought a pair of cheap sandals from a roadside cart near the railway station and tossed out the red and white sneakers into a garbage heap.




Back in Delhi, Sharmaji joined a laughter therapy group. They were a group of men who laughed all the way to the neighbourhood park and back. Each one cracked a joke and then everybody laughed till the next joke. He knew very few jokes. After a few days of pretending to laugh at jokes that didn't really make him laugh, Sharmaji stopped going out with the laughter group.


He was watching the spiritual channel on tv. A young guru in a saffron lungi with a thick crop of hair and an equally thick covering of hair on his chest, was addressing his audience with great confidence. ‘Depression? What is depression?’ the guru asked, paused, and smiled. He looked a little sinister to Sharmaji. ‘When people come to me and say they are depressed, I laugh.’ And the guru threw back his head and laughed. ‘Do you know what I tell them? I tell them you are not depressed, you are just obsessed. Obsessed with yourself. All the time thinking about yourself. What will happen to me? What will my future be like? You are depressed because you are obsessed. No obsession. No depression. If they don’t listen, I tell them to get lost. If I hug them and hold their hands and let them cry and cry, they'll never get over their depression.’


The bell rang. It was the maid. Sharma was parched for a few words with another human being. The maid placed a cardboard carton by the door and made her way to the kitchen.


‘What’s in the box?’ he asked.


‘I found it downstairs. The guard told me he was going to throw it out. I said why do you want to throw it? It’s a life. I’ll take it home for my daughter. Her dog Moti died and she keeps crying.’


Sharmaji crouched by the carton and lifted the flap. Inside was a kitten, small and trembling. He reached in and lifted the kitten and stroked its warm, fuzzy back. ‘Why don’t you see if it will drink some milk?’ he called out. ‘Also make me some masala chai. And have a cup yourself. Don’t forget to add ginger.’



Nighat Gandhi is a writer and mental health counselor. She has been a recipient of the Krishnamurti-Buddha scholarship and is the author of short story collection, Ghalib at Dusk and Other Stories. Her work has appeared previously in Out of Print.