Shoes disappearing from outside temples and masjids is no recent phenomenon. In 19th Century Delhi, they lay at the centre of a thriving trade, writes R.V. Smith
How close to church, temple or mosque the devil dwells may be gauged from the following: “Apne jooton se rahien sare namazi hoshiar/ Ek buzurgh atey hain masjid mein Khizr ki surat”. (Those who come to offer namaz should take care of their shoes. An old man with the countenance of Khizr comes and, impliedly, steals them).” This is a couplet by Altaf Husain Hali (1837-1914), who had the good fortune of meeting Ghalib with the help of the latter’s faithful servant Kalloo, just before the outbreak of the Mutiny. Hali was about 20 years old then and had come from his ancestral village in Panipat to a Delhi seething with discontent. Incidentally, he happened to be the grandfather of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, the progressive writer and filmmaker credited with having launched Amitabh Bachchan’s career with a role in Saat Hindustani. Abbas’ “Last page” in R.K. Karanjia’s “Blitz” was a “must read” for most subscribers to the sensational ultra-Left weekly.
Perhaps Hali had the bad experience of having had his shoes stolen from a masjid after he left them in the care of a venerable old man who looked like Hazrat Khizr. This patriarch is said to be a grandson of Adam, the first man on earth, according to Semitic belief. Khizr goes round the world again and again and will stop doing so only on the Day of Judgement — or so it is believed. Also, if anyone gets lost — in a thicket, grove, on a mountain or in the plains or at sea — he just has to call out “Khizr, Khizr” and the patriarch is sure to help him get over his predicament. But in the case of Hali, when he came out of the mosque he found both the old man and his shoes missing. The deceiver can take on any form and this thief did the same under the garb of respectability.
About the same time in the 19th Century when this incident is said to have occurred, a gang of four men was caught at the Jama Masjid for stealing shoes. Haji Zahooruddin, who was born a year or two prior to the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, was a mine of information on the happenings in the preceding generation. He used to recall how his grandfather and father, Maulvi Rajab Ali and Munshi Turab Ali, had solved the case of namazis coming to the Jama Masjid having their shoes stolen. They watched from a house opposite the mosque (now Haji Hotel) the namaz being led by the Shahi Imam and hundreds joining in it. Though very orthodox, they didn’t participate deliberately, hoping their venial offense would be pardoned for the sake of a good cause. The detective work did not go unrewarded, and they were able to track down the thieves. One would put a fish hook into a shoe, and another, hiding under a blanket some distance away, would pull the string so that it landed in a basket. The third man would carry the shoes some distance and hand them over to the fourth thief, who would then take them to the market for resale.
By the time namaz was over, they were able to steal several pairs of shoes that way. However, before they could get away this time, they were pounced upon by the two bearded “detectives” who had spied on them. Needless to say, the thieves were given a good beating before being handed over to the police. Their trick was to steal only the new shoes and leave the old ones behind.
Earlier Maulvi Rajab Ali was one of those who, along with Hakim Ahsanullah Khan, had persuaded Bahadur Shah Zafar to surrender to Lt. Hodson at Humayun’s Tomb. However, Europeans visiting the mosque hardly ever lost their shoes, as they did not take them off even before Viceroy Curzon’s diktat that they should wear overshoes while entering the mosque. The treatise, “Delhi Between Two Empires,” states that there was a deep resentment over this ‘shoe question’, which came suddenly to the surface during the Darbar of 1903 (held by Lord Curzon), when some Muslim shoe sellers pelted a group of British soldiers (with shoes?) — the first anti-British demonstration since 1857. The shoe merchants, who were predominantly Punjabi Muslims, besides Obeidullah Sindhi and the wealthy Sheikh Karim Ahmed, who later founded Madrasa Karima, must have presumably faced the wrath of the colonial rulers after that.
Incidentally, shoes are still stolen from churches, temples and mosques, though now there are attendants at the Jama Masjid and Fatehpuri mosque to take care of them. (Also, the namazis have become wiser and tend to take their footwear with them.) Mohammad Mian Akbar, who was a known shoe merchant of Ballimaran and of Agra’s New Shoe Market, caught two men in the 1960s who (like local shoemakers) had come to his shop with a whole basketful of them for sale. Akbar bhai’s trained eye saw through the deception and he had both men arrested. They later confessed to having stolen 100 new pairs from a number of masjids. Hali’s warning still holds good as this scribe realised after a visit to the 18th Century Ghaziuddin mosque and had to go home in tattered slippers, left behind by the thief who walked away in his brand-new shoes.