Some stories are just too good not to be told, and I’m so grateful Amy has given me an opportunity to share this one about a young man who dreamed of great things.
*Chennai is a city of free-roaming cows, not to mention water buffalo, chickens, goats, dogs, horses, cats, and the occasional pig. All this livestock turned roadsides into minefields for an unwary walker like me. During my first months in India, I stepped in something yucky nearly every day. My sandals spent most of their free time soaking in a bucket of bleach, which weakened the leather and guaranteed I’d be shopping for new shoes frequently.
On one of my first shoe replacement expeditions, I went to the Bata store, an emporium of higher quality footwear located about a mile up the road from where I lived. The women’s section was on the second floor and a terrible disappointment for me. Indian women have shorter feet than most western women and a passion for bling. Sequins, glass gems, gold colored studs, plastic flowers and colorful embroidery garnished every miniature shoe on the shelves. Finding plain, sturdy sandals in my size seemed like an impossibility until a young salesman came up the stairs to see what was taking me so long.
He was very short and very thin, with unfortunate acne and the worst case of halitosis I’d ever encountered in a human being. He pointed to the relatively unadorned shoe I was holding and said, “Feet big.”
I stepped back to get my nose out of range and asked if he had the sandal in a larger size. He looked at me blankly. Holding my hand about an inch away from the toe, I responded with one of the five Tamil words I’d learned so far. “Periaya?” (Bigger?)
He grinned, verifying my suspicions of poor dental hygiene, and led me to a small mountain of shoe boxes piled up at one end of the showroom. They were stacked in no particular order, all styles and sizes jumbled together. We began opening boxes, looking for my size. Some boxes contained no shoes, others held two completely different shoes. As we checked and discarded boxes, he requested my good name, an interesting phrase that always made me wonder if Indians had bad names, then asked where I came from.
“Canada,” I told him.
He handed me a box and said, “I Canada.”
Many people I spoke with in India weren’t fussy about including verbs in sentences. I assumed he meant he’d been to Canada, or possibly intended to go in the future, or maybe he came from the Indian state of Karnataka where the official language is Kannada. I took the box, which held a pair of sandals that looked like a possible fit. They were heavily encrusted with fake rubies and had bells on the sides, but those could be cut off. The straps seemed sturdy. I tried them on.
“I Canada,” he repeated. “You take.” He wasn’t the first person who had asked me for immigration assistance, although possibly the most optimistic, given his command of English.
“Illai,” I replied. (No.)
He interpreted my answer in wonderfully Indian fashion, seeing it as a bargaining challenge rather than outright refusal. “I Canada,” he insisted. “You take. Marriage. Visa.”
Shocked by this proposal from a boy who could have been my grandson, I just stared at him.
He smiled back at me hopefully, then his face twisted into an expression of comical horror. “Illai! Illai!” he exclaimed. “Beauty wife. Yellow hair.” He held his curved palms six inches away from his chest to illustrate the size of his last requirement. “Boozums!”
Feeling remarkably lucky to be gray and ugly, I picked up the box and clomped downstairs on my big feet to pay for my new sandals.
I owe that young man, and the countless other dreamers I met in India, a debt of gratitude. Hope permeated the country like an infectious disease. I caught it and brought it back to Canada with me. So when I decided to look for an agent to represent my book, I wasn’t discouraged by internet warnings of endless rejection. Like the optimistic shoe salesman in Chennai, I reasoned there was no harm in trying. “You can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket,” I told myself. And guess what? I didn’t get all that many rejections.
Someday, I may see that young man, walking along a Canadian street, arm in arm with a well-endowed blonde woman. It doesn’t seem likely, but as long as he never gives up his dreams, it’s not impossible.
About Sisters of the Sari
A debut novel about an American woman and an Indian woman who are about to dramatically change each other's lives-along with the lives of those around them.
While vacationing in India, Kiria Langdon, the opinionated and driven CEO of a major company, meets Santoshi, a former slave who now works as a cleaning lady and lives in a shelter for homeless women in Chennai. Appalled by the conditions in the shelter, Kiria becomes obsessed with the idea of building decent housing for poor working women in India. Santoshi reluctantly agrees to help, even though she thinks Kiria's ideas are too crazy to succeed.
Embarking on a rich journey of personal discovery, both women will learn invaluable lessons about themselves as they forge a powerful bond of sisterhood across the barriers of language and culture-a bond that makes anything possible.