Shining silver: Polishing shoes for over 50 years on Parliament Street, Delhi

Shoe shine man Kanhaiyya Lal.

Shoe shine man Kanhaiyya Lal.   | Photo Credit: Akshay Lokapally

Septuagenarian Kanhaiyya Lal has polished shoes for a living, working the brush over the past 56 years

The world has ‘progressed’ over the past five decades, and 73-year-old Kanhaiyya Lal has watched them go by, from his spot opposite the Parliament Street Police Station. As a shoe-shine ‘boy’ he has used his brush and polish on the leather of strangers, who later became regular customers.

He has watched, as the city has grown into a menacing concrete jungle. “It was a serene place,” says Kanhaiyya, as he recalls a pleasant past. “Very few vehicles, no pollution, friendly people, no dust. It was a good time.”

Back in the day

He began in 1963, polishing at 25 paise. “It is ₹20 now,” he smiles. Earning five rupees a day used to be enough to feed the entire family (his wife, three daughters, a son). He lives in Regar Pura, near Karol Bagh, and at some point used to walk down to his ‘workplace’.

The past few weeks have been hot and humid in Delhi, not the best weather for those who work on the streets. Sweating, but only a little, he reaches Parliament Street in Lutyens’ Delhi, home to Parliament House. He keeps sipping water from his bottle that he fills from a point on the street, and looking at the sky: There is rain in the air and there are no customers in sight.

Born and brought up in Delhi, Kanhaiyya looks pale, sitting under the shadow of a tree. “My father did the same work, but none of my children do this.” He mends and polishes shoes, and speaks about his life and his journey with absolutely no trace of bitterness.

Shoes, then and now

Kanhaiyya saw the State Bank of India building come up, when he moved there briefly, from his current spot. He remembers his customers from those days, office-goers who mainly wore shoes made of chamda (leather). “They wanted their shoes to shine. Tip-top. Times have changed. People prefer sandals and sneakers now. Those who have leather shoes buy instant shoe-shine. But it is the shoe polish that we use that gives the leather longer life.”

He had synchronised his work timings with theirs, 9.30 in the morning until government offices shut, by about 5.30 in the evening. Continuing to talk about his work, he says on some days he may cater to as many as 40 customers, but sometimes, there may not even be 20.

Compared to the days when he had just started, business is comparatively low, but he also had to face stiff competition then as about 30 cobblers would sit near the Regal and Rivoli theatres. “Now, I am the only cobbler on this entire road from one end to the other,” he says. This does help his business.

Come and go

He did try doing other things: His spot in front of SBI motivated him to appear in various entrance examinations. “I only passed the exams, but never got selected.” He moved back to Parliament Street, where to his dismay, his spot was ‘hijacked’ for a park. Relocation wasn’t a problem. “I had to just cross the road,” he laughs.

He has seen all the Prime Ministers come and go: Pandit Nehru, who he first saw in a car with another visiting Prime Minister, whose name he cannot remember; Indira Gandhi, when she was summoned by a nearby district court (now shifted); Atal Bihari Vajpayee, V.P. Singh, and now Narendra Modi.

His fate, however, has remained unchanged. “I have been locked up by the police 11 times. I was fined many times, but never kept the challans. I would have been allotted a shop on the basis of those challans. A judge once asked me to produce evidence that I had been working there for so many years, but I had none. I have no regrets.” The judge still visits him. “I put my heart into shining his shoes.”

He has other regulars too, some who have been coming since 1971. Retired officers from SBI sometimes visit, getting their shoes polished and asking about his well-being.

As a drizzle sends people scurrying for cover, Kanhaiyya packs up. Business has been low, but the coolness in the air is a good bargain. Anyway, he’ll be back, tomorrow.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 4:14:24 PM |

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