K. Theresanathan who mends shoes, bags and umbrellas speaks to Aparna Karthikeyan about his journey so far
Occupation — Mends shoes, bags and umbrellas
“It won’t stick, Raja,” Theresanathan patiently tells a customer who wants his slipper repaired immediately. “It needs to be stitched, it will take time.” When the customer walks away, Theresanathan tells me that footwear technology has changed in the last 27 years; the new moulded shoes and slippers need to be glued as well as stitched. “Look at this shoe,” he shows me branded sneakers with the sole hanging open. “When I’m done with it, it’ll look perfect. The stitches will be invisible.”
Theresanathan set up his shop 25 years ago in Besant Nagar, having trained to be a cobbler at Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI), Chennai. “CLRI gave me all the tools; I bought this shop from a relative who was very unwell. This area was so quiet then,” he says of the broad 7th Avenue. But the early days were very hard, and he barely earned Rs. 7 or 8 daily. “I was paid 50 paise or Re. 1 for mending slippers. Sometimes, I got Rs. 2 for polishing shoes. It was very difficult to support a family,” says the 53-year-old. Over the years, he hand-made shoes, bought and sold slippers; but now he gets a steady income mending footwear, bags and umbrellas. As we speak, an old man drops off a pair of slippers with a request “first class-a panni kodu,” readily agreeing to the quote of Rs. 80. “I charge about Rs. 200 to 250 for pasting and stitching a shoe, using the best quality materials,” he tells me.
“Besant Nagar has lots of walkers, so I get plenty of shoe-repair work,” says Theresanathan, showing me different kinds of leather and their uses. “I work every day till 10 p.m.; I never rest in the day-time, not even during monsoon; I get umbrella repair work then!” His customers have remained loyal, and sought him out, even if they had moved elsewhere. And it was one of his customers, Shanti Krishnan, who helped with his sons’ education. ‘I have four sons. My wife — Malaimary, and I are not very educated. But we wanted a good future for the boys. Since we couldn’t afford tuitions, we made them sit here (he points to the pavement behind his shop) and study by kerosene lamp. My wife made sure they studied, while I earned money for the family. Today, our first son, Kirupakaran, is a B.Com, M.B.A graduate; he’s married and works in a company in Besant Nagar. My second son, Albert, scored 1,050 in Class XII; but we didn’t know how to guide him in the Engineering counselling. It was Shanti amma who helped him (he’s now a EEE graduate) and my two other sons. The third one, Martin, works in a cell phone company; and the youngest, Alexander, is in final year Engineering. He wants to be an IAS officer,” he says, proudly.But even with his sons well settled, Theresanathan has no plans to quit working. “As long as I’m able to use my hands and legs, I will work hard,” he says, adding that he wants to support his sons financially, until they have paid off their educational loans. “I need to lead by example, don’t I?” he asks, with a smile.