An orphan, Devaraj ran away from his village in Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu when he was 15. Illiterate and penniless, he travelled ticketless on local trains and eventually got off at Ernakulam Junction, Kochi's twin city. That was 30 years ago. He liked working with his hands and fate led him to the local Master Cobbler, a "real guru" according to Devaraj. Adept with his fingers and a quick learner, Devaraj soon became the star pupil. Over a period of time, he acquired a tool kit and went into business at the railway station. He worked there for 10 years before moving to a more upmarket residential neighbourhood, because his friend, Subramani, a fellow Tamilian who sells tender coconuts, dis-covered he could charge a rupee more there. For 20 years, Devaraj and Subramani have been sitting side by side during the day on the pavement, and sharing a room at night.
Devaraj decided I was a schoolteacher from the moment he saw me 20 years ago. I surfaced during holidays, preferred to walk everywhere and always carried an umbrella, as it is either raining or too sunny in Kerala. "Schoolteacher, when did you come?" is always his first question, his face creasing with the widest, most delighted grin imaginable. And then he would declare I had become darker or thinner or that I'd cut my hair too short. Devaraj always looked the same to me. He still wears a faded saffron dhoti, a faded light-coloured shirt, with a dab of sandal paste on his forehead. He is small, thin, dark and wiry and his oil-slicked hair is still jet-black. For the past two decades, neither his location nor his rudimentary tool kit has changed. And his fingers still weave magic. Just to give him work, I would hand over broken sandals that ought to have been thrown away. But Devaraj would repair them so deftly they were back, good as new.
Along the way, Devaraj diversified. He started repairing umbrellas, bags and suitcases. It's because of people like him that the cost of living in India is still so unbelievably low compared to Europe or the US. The possibility of repairing shoes or radios or clocks doesn't exist abroad because labour and time is so expensive. You have to throw away things and buy anew, thus becoming the nuts and bolts of the wheels that churn consumerism. Had it not been for Devaraj, my leather garment bag that tore on the last journey would have been junked. But he fixed it and for Rs 10 at that. The reason why Devaraj is so delighted to see me is also because I am probably the only customer who, instead of haggling, pays him more than what he asks for. "Why do you charge so little?" I ask him. "Because that's all it costs me," he replies, adding, "Schoolteacher, I make about Rs 150 a day. That's enough for my needs." A true Gandhian.
Devaraj may not have changed, but life has changed all around him. The main street where he sits symbolises the dramatic changes that have swept through urban India, especially in the last decade. The sleepy street has broadened into a busy four-lane thoroughfare. The Fiats and Ambassadors that ambled along have been overtaken by speeding Balenos, Ikons and Scorpios. The saplings have grown into luxuriant neem and mayflower trees. Houses have been converted into restaurants and beauty parlours.The dim, flickering streetlights have been replaced by bright sodium vapour lamps. The second medical shop, provision store, tailoring unit and fruit stall have all opened up in the neighbourhood's shopping centre (near the entrance of which Devaraj sits). An atm has come alive. Not just money, man and matters, even God has not been spared of change. The humble little tiled church is being transformed into a Spanish extravaganza.
Devaraj has seen a few changes in his trade too. A decade ago, the only branded footwear he got to hammer and stitch was Bata. Now that represents the lower end, though the bulk of what he still deals with remains inexpensive, unbranded sandals and shoes. But perhaps to the dismay of a few ceos, Devaraj also ingeniously repairs Nikes and Reeboks that in any other country would have been thrown away and replaced by the latest model. And it can certainly be of no comfort to them that most of what Devaraj repairs anyway are fake labels.
Devaraj has been affected by migration, globalisation, outsourcing, diversification, consumerism—all the 'ations' and 'isms' we constantly debate and discuss. He sits in the eye of the storm of all these phenomena. There is so much change and progress swirling all around him, and yet visibly very little has changed him. In an era and area of rapid, dizzying change, Devaraj remains a bedrock of continuity. It's people like him who make India so endearing, special, real and different from all the other nations of the world. But he also represents an Indian paradox. A small engine who himself remains virtually stationary. One who has benefited so many, but has little to show for himself. One who sits in the eye of change, but in real terms, sits on the fringes. Real yet marginal. There are millions and millions like him, if one bothers to look. Part of the Indian paradox is that they are indeed noticed, but only during elections and that too by vote-seeking politicians.
(The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)