Professor E is sitting at his desk and talking about some complex and baffling movement in history. I am in awe and completely intimidated; I don’t understand a thing and I am sure that no one does either, though everyone looks like they do. I look down to escape the embarrassment of being ignorant. He is swinging his feet to an unknown rhythm, clacking his feet against the metal foot rest. He’s wearing brown sandals and his nails are digging into the leather. I am now having an epiphany. I have nothing to be afraid of. He is just another person, like me, and I could make an effort and ask him what he was talking about. No need to hesitate. He now seemed more approachable somehow.
There’s something very reassuring about a person’s feet. Every time I notice someone’s feet, I develop a comradery with them—and they have no idea about it. A feeling that they’re just as grounded as I am, just as ordinary as I am. That at one point, they were just as afraid of the rest of the world as I am. This is when I started noticing other people’s feet, when it was too unnerving for me to look at their faces.
Unevenly cut nails, tan around the slipper line, drier than the rest of the legs, and muddy brown if you’re not wearing shoes. Feet have a personality of their own. A personality I am more interested in than the actual person I am conversing with.
They tell me of the hours you’ve walked when you couldn’t find the bus, or when your footwear fell apart and you had to be barefoot for the entire day. The uncut, craggy nails talk about your inability to bend low enough for evenly cut nails. The tiny blisters remind me of the numerous times you’ve spoken about shoe bites and the flat foot reminds me of why you couldn’t join the army.
My grandfather has baby’s feet. He’s 95 years old and has walked places most of his life instead of using his vomit-green Ambassador. But his feet resemble smooth pebbles. They’re soft and narrow and completely different from the wide chunk of trotter the rest of the family has inherited. He’s well respected. His knowledge knows no bounds. He’s larger than life and the sight of his feet is the only thing that makes him seem like the cuddly grandpa he is, rather than the shrewd man who made a fortune in the production business.
D’s feet caught my attention. She had, what I’d like to call, alien toes. The front part of the toes are noticeably larger than the back part. I have the same type of toes, but hers just seem different. They all point towards the big toe. Maybe years and years of tight ballerinas were the cause for that slight change in structure. She had always seemed far too ahead for me to catch up with. Now I know she spent an extra two minutes tightening the buckles on her ballerina, trying to make her feet look smaller. Trying not to be teased because of her wide feet. She still scrunches her toes when she wears flip-flops and peep-toes.
It was him wearing kolhapuri chappals even when it was raining that made me look at his feet. They were muddy from all the walking he’d done. I wondered why he was wearing them, when he was sitting under the tree trying to stitch the tattered parts of the soft leather together. It was to make his feet look nice, he’d said. He thought they were too dark and rough. His nails had cracked in various places and there were white patches indicating calcium deficiencies.
He looked like a little boy trying not to cry at a sight he couldn’t stand. His tired and dirty feet seemed to dominate his thoughts while his only pair of kolhapuris lay tattered after a job well done. It was somewhat sad to see the confident boy I’d known being replaced by his insecurities about his feet. But this made me know him better. I haven’t seen him in a long time now, but I’ll always know that he tried to hide his feet in the folds of his panche.
I didn’t always know I was staring at people’s feet. It came as a surprise when I realised what I normally did. But I did understand more from their feet than their words. After a few years of looking down I could now look at people’s faces when I spoke to them. This, though, has never stopped me from covertly glancing at a person’s feet when I’m having a conversation. It gives just that little insight into them that I’m curious about but not rude enough to ask.
It was during this phase that I met A. She walked like a penguin, her tiny feet pointing outwards. This explained all the clumsiness that was her. She always fell and tripped on a smooth surface because she couldn’t walk straight. She was loud. Really loud. Annoyingly loud. But her adorable penguin feet just put everything into perspective for me. Her feet made her seem more human than a loud speaker. I noticed more of her stories were about falling and getting back up instead of being just noisy. She became my best friend in two seconds flat. Her feet had wormed their way into my heart.