A very pragmatic protectiveness of footwear may be at the root of people’s clambering all over train seats and berths without shedding their footwear, regardless of the dirt they are gifting their neighbours and persons who use the seats or berths after them. Many travellers go to the other extreme – walking around barefoot in a train, getting their soles black with dirt before the trip is through. A highly frustrating and uncivic traveller is the parent who lets shod children loose on the train. Are adults under the impression that kids’ shoes are untouched by dirt? Or that dirt transforms into something harmless, even pleasant, by contact with kids’ shoes? That others don’t mind their seats or clothes being stepped on by kids (not their own)? That’s one kind of parent on a train. The other is someone who just suspends all notions of kids’ cleanliness once on a train, letting kids move around barefoot, climb over whatever appears in their arena, and even escorting the barefoot child to the bathroom, a place where extra foot protection would not be out of place! The sight of a 3-year old walking out of a train bathroom barefoot, led by his/her parent in stone-studded sandals ranks very high on my list of disgusting sights.
What of pets’ feet? Many pet owners welcome the frolicking of dogs and cats on their floors, furniture and persons. Many of these pet owners are particular about the cleanliness of their homes, insisting on a distinction between indoor and outdoor footwear, washing their hands at intervals, and wouldn’t dream of strolling around barefoot in their neighbourhoods. Not every one of these pet owners, however, attempts to clean a pet’s feet when it re-enters the house after an outdoor sojourn. And pets’ feet, just like kids’ feet, do not necessarily attract only acceptable kinds of dirt.
Feet are important for Indians, playing vital symbolic roles – we touch feet, or at least dive in the general direction to signify reverence; display photographs of the feet of godmen to stimulate reverence; recount legends of a prince lugging his forest-dwelling sibling’s footwear to the throne in the capital; preserve the footprints of a bride exiting her parental home; embellish toes with rings in elaborate ceremonies; watch with bated breath as a bride tips over a vessel of raw rice to mark her entry to her husband’s home; and so on. We also, particularly if female, make a biggish fuss of the appearance of our feet, colouring the skin and/or nails, ‘curing’ them of calloused skin and cracks, and adorning them with jewellery.
But feet are by no means an exalted part of the body. In fact, that is exactly why we pay attention to the feet of respected persons – as the lowest (fig. and lit.) aspects of their body, and the only ones we would presume to access. Hence, too, our discomfiture when we step on something sacred, or touch someone inadvertently with a portion of our feet, and our speedy amends* thereafter (* touch person/sacred thing and touch own head/heart immediately).
Feet play a starring role in cleaning procedures. From the mundane washing at the courtyard before stepping into the house, and the cursory dousing before sleep, to the ritual scented rinse of the bridegroom’s / guest’s (standing in for God) feet in ceremonies.
Footwear is key in the maintenance of the cleanliness of the feet, and therefore person, and that of the house as well. Thus the traditional insistence on not using footwear indoors. Thus the particularly low status of footwear among garb/accessories amongst Indians. The shedding of footwear, ostensibly the shedding of dirt from the outside world, before embarking on any activity with even a touch of sanctity about it is customary – visiting a temple or even a puja room in a house; taking/bestowing blessings; practising yoga or a traditional dance or martial art form. But, trust people to follow the letter and skirt the spirit of the injunction: Since footwear is not allowed in a temple, people routinely make the entire trip to the temple barefoot, tracking generous amounts of dirt and contributions of spittle, dung etc. into the very place which is meant to be maintained clean and hallowed.
Why this fuss? Is it such a big deal if something from the outdoors enters a living space via feet or footwear? Isn’t the whole of the Western world sailing through life blithely hopping onto sofas, beds and chairs in shod/booted feet to reach a nail on the wall, relax with feet up, or for no particular reason at all? Don’t people routinely pack footwear with their clothes, often without any barrier between the footwear and the garments, when they travel? Aren’t modern Indians who traipse around the house in outdoor shoes and prevent guests from shedding their shoes to be appreciated as free thinkers? Are Indians too stuck up on this matter, like on many other matters? Do we need to get with the times?
I believe that if Indians are stuck up on this matter, it is a very valid sticking up. We may westernise ourselves, our clothes, food, homes, and language, till we go blue, but the world around us isn’t playing the same game. The spittle, sputum, sewage, sand, dung, urine, grease, guano, garbage, construction dust, and mud that we encounter on a daily basis is not the lot of most people in Western nations. A walk outside followed by a rapid, naked-eye examination of the footwear used should verify this. Exposure to a typical Indian road will yield a lot more to shudder about than a stroll on a Western city or suburban road. That said, even the cleaner appearing shoe doesn’t guarantee the Westerner a clean, non-toxic environment. We do need to get with the times – and understand that there is a lot more chemical dust out in the air, and on the ground, than we are aware of, and certainly much more than we are capable of dealing with physiologically. Here is a situation in which the Westerner would do well to easternise – segregate footwear from clothes and furniture, and avoid using outdoor footwear indoors. As for us, we need to review our attitude towards feet, footwear, and our token adherence to cleanliness.