Jackboots of God
They told stories in Mutukan hills: Stories which were once true; but no longer. The truth in those stories had a tardiness which was swallowed in by patient listeners who empathized with the teller. So they could tell stories and along the erratic lines of history- their history- their story enlivened forgotten pleasures of hard earned life. Some stories were forgotten, some are forgotten and some yet to be so. Perhaps if told a bit longer than the three generations which passed by, those stories can turn into legends or perhaps myths. It is at this turning point of exaltation the forgotten are remembered. The forgotten still lies dormant in the corner, ready with their own story.
Ousef would have been summoned during those harvest times when he would have not known what to expect from Thazhathil house. They said that Thazhathil hardly called anyone for work unless Mathukutty comes back from Lucknow where he was stationed as an instructor to the medical corps. Ousef must have heard from someone of the paraya colony that Mathukutty has retired from service and now that he worked no longer but stayed at home thinking about nothing but his sons. Mathukutty would now run some agrarian hobby where he would employ some paraya* to till his field and tap rubber and chances are that Ousef knew he would be persuaded to be that chosen paraya. His fellow parayas would have considered him fortunate as Ousef would not be no longer be compelled to work in the footwear shop. Ousef would have thought the same as he descended from the paraya colony of Mutukan hill and ascend to nasarani quarters. Not that Ousef was paid well in the footwear’s that he was reluctant to work for the Thazhithil people, but he was one of those who fall a victim into the enchantments of stories. So Ousef would have felt under the spell of that simple faith in that one Mutukan hill story where the paraya were eternally bound to the nasarani.
“Ah! You’ve come. I was wondering why you didn’t turn up after I’d been back from Lucknow.”
Mathukutty would have said that when he saw Ousef standing in front of the gate, waiting for the answer from the house hold. Ousef should have been waiting for a reply or even a nod from within the boundary as a model pariah he was in following the minutiae of paraya-nasarani tradition. But Mathukutty was not such a person who recalled any of those minutae of traditions to action as he would have expected Ousef to politely barge into the compound without any invitation. Ousef was called in for the same reason that he was asked to work in the field. But I know that Ousef was given the freedom to choose his work in the plantation or if he wanted, to continue his work in the foot wear. I can imagine the reluctance and the polite pretension of Ousef as he agreed to tap the small rubber plantation owned by Mathukutty.
It must be the very first time Ousef saw the pair of army boots lying on the dirty rack close to the kitchen.
Being confined within the margins of Mutukan hills, despite the cuddle offered by a profession which requires attention to particulars of foot wears, Ousef could have never come across an authentic piece of foot wear like that. A queer bundle of pride accompanies experience of any sort. If the bosom that carries the bundle perceives the presence of traceable ignorance, it takes only human nature of humble circumstances to express jealousy. To add fuel to remorse, Mathukutty might have flung the pair to the portico for Ousef, expecting an expression of approval from him. Mathukutty had his military followings; He must have wanted the boots to be polished, whether he used it or not. Ousef must have heard about military boots, perhaps he had already known a few before. But this piece which had now been thrown before him; that was something different. They weren’t the low boots that he had seen before. These shoes had a flap that almost covered the calf. There was no lacing but had to be pulled up to fit in. A pull up strap was a bit stretched probably because of the use. The boot had a rough texture with a pebble feel on the surface. The leather was of excellent quality with prominent white double stitch in tongue, which gave the impression of a archaic attention to details. A leather toe cap protruded outward with its blunt end speaking large about the serious business it had involved in. Around the rim of the truncated oval heel bottom was a strip of iron fixture, a thing he had never seen before. But what Ousef really liked was the hobnail kind of studs that was patterned on the soles of the gorgeous boots.
“I’m not sure how far you can clean them”
Mathukutty must have remarked as he dusted his hands with a ruin of cloth. He continued:
“You see, the leather is suede that the common polish will not give an effect. I didn’t care much because they were meant for rough use”
Mathukutty would have noticed the askance and probably detected the awe which would have given an opportunity to boast about those jackboots. Everyone knew how Mathukutty knew things that nobody else knew. Mathukutty would have told Ousef when they began using jackboots and why the pride of the English household cavalry regiment who still follows the old goose steps is in vain. They still do that in India, don’t they? Mathukutty would have sarcastically remarked with a sly smile asking the approval from Ousef. I can only imagine what would have gone between the two. However at the end of the day, Ousef came back with a firm decision to definitely work in the rubber estate. No one knows what actually persuades a man to work. But Mathukutty did figure out how to keep the paraya in the estate.
Ousef could not have slept that night without dreaming about the boots. They were a beautiful pair! He had dreamt of using some of the costly and pretty shoes that were in the footwear shop. He wasn’t always honest in using his eloquence and convincing power to sell those pretty ones unto potential customers. But now there is something which is so different from all the others. Ousef knew it would be clumsy to wear those shoes in public, but he would be definitely proud to show it off to his friends if he had owned it!
Owned it! Such a thought could have never crossed him any time before. Perhaps one day he can own it? How much will it cost?
Ousef wasn’t so talented to act or to hide the interest he had in the pair. Early at dawn when he chiseled off the vulnerable bark of the trees to tap rubber, he would have been thinking about the beautiful pair. As he cleaned the rubber milk with aluminum scrap and feeling the cold rubber milk which he poured into those rectangular trays, he would want to hold to that tough and warm leather. Scrubbing away the remains of rubber on his hands, he would look at the pair lying dusty, forgotten at the corner. He would have taken it up and used the suede cleaner which came into the market very recently. H e would have noticed that the stitch along the tongue had given away to time. He had to fix it.
“These are hobnailed jackboots, the ones Germans wore during the Second World War”
Ousef would have been definitely delighted to hear about the history of jackboots. One day (he would have already seen it) he will tell it to others about the jackboots he owned.
Owned! How can he ever own a historical piece? Did he not hear the Germans used it for war? What more should he know about the boots?
“Oh they heard the rumbling noise of the marching jackboots from afar when they knew that their life is at peril. Hitler too wore one. Cities trembled as these marching troops closed and plundered towns and villages. Oh the Germens had to conquer fast and they needed the cavalry to march long distance in short times. ….”
Ousef could not have fixed his attention to the history he wanted to hear. He was looking at the pull up straps which could be easily replaced with cheaper ones. He could even use these boots once the straps were changed. No, he wouldn’t. If he change it, how can he really call it an antique piece! He needed the original straps when he trifles with them in front t of his friends.
“Do you think you can change the straps?”
Ousef could not answer it in affirmative. Soon the boots will have to be his.
“These jackboots are gifted to me by one of my friends. You see… his father served the British army and this pair belonged to a German general who was already dead. This was all that he knew about the boots. I thought it would be a fancy to have these”
Dead! Did he say dead?
‘I guess they would have stopped using footwraps by this time. These boots were designed to be worn with a thick covering around your feet…like those long crape bands you use for fractured arms or a broken foot or something like it... ”
Mathukutty should have added with a thoughtful pause:
“… Only they were shorter”
Ousef must also have heard about the way they used to wrap those things around their feet before they were actually worn. The history could be delightful, not that he listened to the details, but he pretended he would do the boasting himself one day. True, Ousef could dream; dreams about the harmless arrogance he would display before his previous masters of the foot wear. They will have to recant and would exclaim with utter disbelief the dormant confidence that now did sprout out. He would posses it one day.
It was another rainy day and he could not tap rubber. He had come to Thazhathil as usual but could not do the tapping because the bark of the trees was very wet. As the showers were ruining the day, Ousef must have decided to check with the boots. To his shock he may have found the boots still on the corner drenched with slime dabbled all over. Ousef could not believe that the boots were neglected. He rushed to the boots and swiped off the slime with a ruin of a cloth. Mathukutty walked into the scene and saw the spectacle. The next question was abrupt.
“Do you know God?”
Ousef had no answer. Work is worship, isn’t it? They in the footwears had told him that. He had believed in work. What else is there worthy of belief? He has to make sure that the boots are in their best so that he can have it later. When Mathukutty got no answer, he continued.
“I guess you do, Ousef. I know you attend the Salvation Army church.”
Ousef did attend the church. It was the Salvation Army church who had taught him to work hard. He would have squeezed a tip of the ruin into the secret recess of the boot. He pushed his whole arm into the boot to stitch the flap. Once, this cave was inhabited by a white leg of a German general. Now, a paraya pushes his hand against the inner sole to fix the defect. Ousef smiled at the thought.
“As I told you, Ousef, boots were once a symbol of power and pride. When the soldiers wore it, they felt distinguished.”
The boots were wet and it was the best time to stretch the leather. He just had to be careful and he can restore the beauty of the boots. He could have wondered what it was when first given to the German general or even when Mathukutty’s friend had inherited from his father.
“… but the Germans became infamous for their cruelty that jackboots became a symbol of terror, something which called for dictatorial authority. Now jackboots are synonymous to unbridled power…”
Should not one claim his own possession? Should he not resort to any means where he acquires what his own? Is not the boots his? Should not a possession belong to the one who really cares about it. What right does one have in keeping something which is not his? Ousef has thought well.
“… there are some who still hold on to that crazy idea of owning one of these shoes… those Nazi wannabe schumucks. They will pay anything to own one of these. I wonder what makes their purchase so precious.”
Mathukutty had that twisted face when he has a low opinion on crazy modern vanity. He continued.
“Once, a symbol of power and authority, the jackboots became synonymous to autocratic rule and frenzied power. It’s worse now… Ousef, it’s worse… “. Mathukutty sighed
“…they have bent jackboot to be a symbol of eroticism.”
With an inquisitive paleness, Mathukutty asked: “Tom of Finland?”
Ousef had no clue who that was. The details that concern a simple pair of boots were now exasperating him. Did he really need to know a lot to possess a simple pair of boots?
“Never mind, Ousef… I guess man has done the same with God. There was a time when he knew who God was. He worshipped God with a pure heart and he submitted himself to the authority of God…”
Mathukutty was now preaching. He had made a smart move of talking about God through those jackboots. Mathukutty seemed to be serious about his topic and he had become fluent in his talk.
“… but I guess man took the authority and freedom that God gave him and distorted the image of God in him. He made a totalitarian claim on himself and failed to understand God’s ways. And worse of all he became so stone hearted that he gave himself to lust…”
Ousef was listening very intensely to Mathukutty. He was taken back when Mathukutty drew a very negative picture from those innocent boots. Mathukutty did not value the boots for its worth and for the history he had related till then. Ousef went home that evening as a happy man. He sat at the door of his hut leaning on the wooden frame. He could now posses the boots. Mathukutty did not really care for those boots! Even if Mathukutty once find the jackboots missing, he wouldn’t bother to search it out.
A religious man can for once or more, in moments frail and tempting, say in his heart that there is no God. Ousef had by then developed a dark intention of stealing the jackboots. He reasoned it thus: Primarily It wasn’t really Mathukutty’s, it belonged to some German general who was already dead, and which was already stolen by an Indian soldier, passed it on to his grandson, who gifted it to an undeserving Mathukutty. Further Ousef cares for the boots than Mathukutty that the boots would rather belong to him. Mathukutty also derives immense negative feeling from the boots that he would rather get rid of the boots. If Mathukutty does so, the boots would be lost to him forever! Ousef knew what had to be done. He knew where the boots were kept and he knew how to get hold of it and escape without a slightest of suspicion.
It was Mathukutty’s voice from the muddy pathway calling out to the paraya quarters. Mathukutty had come to the quarters. He perhaps did not know which one was Ousef’s hut. Ousef hasted to Mathukutty.
“… I was passing by this way and thought I would give these Jackboots to you. You keep them.”
It was short and Mathukutty hurled each of the boots to the other side into Ousef’s hands. Mathukutty did not talk much and with his usual gait of an army man, he left for his business. There were already other paraya eyes watching the spectacle. On some of the faces, there was a smile, on some they still had those curved eyebrows, and some of them came close to see the piece. Ousef held those boots close to his breast and returned to his hut.
It was a pleasure to see Mathukutty himself work in his plantation the next day. We were told that Ousef reported sick. No one asked to know the details: after all falling sick isn’t uncommon. As for the jackboots, they said it lay in one corner of Ousef’s hut. The forgotten boots still lies dormant in the corner, ready with their story. Oh! He never cleaned it again. Anyway it now belonged to him and sure did not fit him, did it?
*Nasarani and paraya are two categories of Christians in Kerala. Nasaranis claim a higher caste while parayas are converts from lower castes