| Ashok Kumar collects slippers left by demonstrators at Jantar Mantar
New Delhi, Sept. 24: Watching protesters clash with police, Ashok Kumar almost forgets he has a job to do. So absorbing the battle.
“It is awe inspiring.”
And it happens almost every day. This real-life struggle. Sometimes well-turned-out college students and aspiring doctors protest against education quotas. Sometimes tribals cry out against displacement from their land.
Ashok Kumar, who could be 23 or who could be 25, has a position on almost all issues with which demonstrators come to Delhi’s hub of protests, Jantar Mantar and Parliament Street.
For instance, he could see why the tribals were so upset about losing land. His stand on the quota protest is a little complex, but then he is grateful for the rich pickings the agitators led by resident doctors from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences left behind for him.
You see, Ashok Kumar’s profession is to collect the footwear protesters lose in the melee with the police.
Once the din is dead, the batons retire, the water cannons leave and the protesters have gone their helter-skelter ways, this tall, dark boy steps on a battlefield dotted with signs of a just-fought war.
All that’s left are slippers, sandals, footwear of all shapes and sizes.
It’s a business. A slipper in good condition, he says, could sell for “as much as” Rs 5. A shoe in similar condition could fetch anywhere from Rs 10 to Rs 30.
But it’s also a form of charity. “Most people leave behind single shoes or slippers, which cannot be sold for much,” he explains.
There is a market even for the singles among fellow tramps and rag-pickers. He himself wears slippers that come from different pairs.
“People like me — there are many here like me — do not have a problem wearing slippers from different pairs. Clothes and footwear are purely utility items for us.”
Ashok Kumar doesn’t know who his parents are, nor when he was born. It seems he was abandoned as a baby in front of a temple from where a couple picked him up.
His adoptive parents live in a slum at Azadnagar in north Delhi, but Ashok Kumar feels cloistered there. He prefers the open skies and the spot of pavement where he sleeps every night outside Madarsa Qadr in Parliament Street.
“I’ve slept here since I was about eight and this is my home.” Not to speak of the friends he has made, his fellow citizens of Delhi who are comfortable not having a roof over their heads.
Asim, for instance, has his home in a bylane connecting Jantar Mantar to Parliament Street. Every evening, Asim the boot-polisher, Shekhar the rag-picker and “Charlie Chappalin” will gather together with other friends — sometimes drivers from the nearby taxi stand will join in — and play cards. They’re all between the ages of 20 and 30.
There’s a story behind how Ashok Kumar came to be called Charlie Chappalin.
Ashok narrates the tale, helped along by Asim. A “well-dressed” person who had come a couple of years back to retrieve her “expensive” sandal had laughingly called him “Charlie Chappalin,” playing with the name of the legendary actor-director who made the tramp famous and the word chappal, which in Hindi means slippers.
His friends frequently call him Chappalin.
Around three in every 10 people who lose their footwear come back for them, either immediately after the clash with the police or in the next couple of days.
“I keep them (the collected footwear) with me for a week in case anyone comes back. I wait with the slippers in Parliament Street, just to make sure no one is coming back for them.”
After that he sells them.
Slippers from demonstrations alone don’t sustain Chappalin. He wanders in the bylanes of Lutyens’ Delhi, collecting single or paired shoes discarded by others.
“These often get me more money than the shoes at demonstrations. But the excitement is there (at the protests).”
Yes, the excitement. Chappalin admits that the biggest challenge he faces is “not getting involved in some of the issues” that lie at the centre of the protests he makes his livelihood from.
“Many a time I wish that those who are facing the batons and water cannons get what they are seeking. But if they do, they wouldn’t protest, and then I wouldn’t be able to feed myself.”