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India Shining' Shoeshine boy walks the talk

Mumbai, April 9: Thwack, bang, thwack, bang… goes the cobbler’s brush on his wooden box, beckoning weary travellers with dusty shoes. No screaming, no hollering, just rhythmic beating of boxes: thwack, bang, thwack, bang…

That’s life for the cobbler cum shoeshine boys at Mumbai’s railway stations — Churchgate, Marine Lines or Bandra. In their sooty, bedraggled uniforms they look all the same and their shoebox rhythms sound all the same.

At Kalyan station, too, things are pretty much the same. Only, one 31-year cobbler Ramsingh Siras nurses dreams of making it to Parliament.

Paalish chahiye kya'” he asks, earnestly peering into the face. But as the camera pops out, he instinctively starts speaking protest, hope and egalitarianism.

A contestant from the Thane Lok Sabha seat, Ramsingh knows his limitations, both of birth and finances. But he is sure he will be able to rally enough support to make his rivals sit up and take note of “the poor Chamar boy who had to drop out of school to look after his impoverished family”.

Ramsingh has already gone some way ahead of others in his line. He holds the contract from Central Railways to employ shoeshine boys at Kalyan, Thakurli and Dombivili stations. He also owns a cellphone and hopes to drive a Maruti in the near future.

“You have to go for it,’’ he says, his companions vigorously nodding their heads in approval. “Sahi hai na, saab'” Ganeshia adds, “you have to take a try at least. If you win, the prize is yours, if you fail you can always blame it on God.”

Ramsingh feels that even if he loses, he would have made his point that Indian democracy is not the preserve of a privileged few. “My candidature is also a protest. I worked very hard as a NCP worker for over a decade but failed to get an official post in the party.

“The party has been appropriated by a few and I didn’t like what was happening. I just thought I might as well give it a go.”

When Ramsingh went to file his nomination, some 50 people — cobblers, shoeshine boys, autorickshaw drivers, vegetable vendors — accompanied him. He is pitted against the Shiv Sena’s Prakash Paranjpe and the NCP’s Vasant Dawkhare.

Ramnaresh, a bhaji seller at the station, says Ramsingh is one of them and “all of us” can identify with him. “If nothing else, I respect his courage.” Many more like him believe Ramsingh will live up to his promises if he is voted in.

“I will have a 3 feet by 3 feet space reserved for each vendor and will call for more reservation for the Chamars and marginalised people. I will also work to make our city a better, safer and beautiful place, especially the temple town of Pandharpur.

“And of course, our harried policemen should have a strict eight-hour shift. No one should be overworked,’’says Ramsingh.

Between shining shoes and counting pennies, he still finds time to campaign. He usually goes from door to door telling people he should be given a chance. “I will be very honest, very earnest,” he says.

As passengers on the Kalyan line thin to a trickle, Ramsingh readies to return home to his wife and two children. “Who knows,” he says, “Sushil Kumar Shinde came from a poor, scheduled caste family and he is today Maharashtra’s first Dalit chief minister.

“My point is, why can’t I take my best shot'”

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