Shoestring existence


It's a tough job, especially when the shoes don't sell, says the cobbler's anvil to Pheroze l.Vincent

Mahalingam has been hammering me for 15 long years. We met when he came from Tiruchirapalli to make shoes here in Coimbatore. Back then, working out of his shanty in Kamaraj Puram, we could produce a dozen pairs a day. Even with a rudimentary anvil like me we could make a profit of 35 per cent.

But after our customers went away to the big footwear outlets, we had to shut shop seven years back. We now work, out of a room in Ramanathapuram, for a local businessman. We have a few direct customers but now we mainly supply shoes to the dealers. Mahalingam and his friend Velu often have to wait long before they get paid. After our boss gets his cut, we make a meagre five per cent profit. No wonder none of their kids want to become cobblers.

Their children push vegetable carts and work in plywood depots. They plough the turmeric fields of Erode and harvest potatoes in Mettupalayam. They even work the textile units of Kangeyam, Tirupur and Perundurai. None of them can take the drudgery of sitting a room making shoes all day, but there aren't many jobs for mere matriculates.

If Velu and Mahalingam could read, they could've started a more profitable trade. They don't even have bank accounts, but nothing's left to save anyway. During the monsoon business is so bad that even a jolly anvil like me feels depressed.

Back in the day, we made joothis just like those from Agra, Kanpur and Delhi. But who buys stuff like that nowadays? Not from us they don't.

In the 80s, some lucky anvil ended up in cobbler bunks. These government granted bunks were by the roadside. The heat tempered us but business was brisk, until we were evicted for encroaching on highways department land.

Velu and Mahalingam feel that a separate cobblers market somewhere in the city would end their woes. It would save them the rent and perhaps they could get a better bargain on the raw materials. Maybe even start a co-operative to market our ware.

The government wouldn't mind giving us our market out of the city, but who will buy from us so far away.

What we anvils need is a union. That'll make them agree. But for daily wagers like me, where's the time to unionise.