Effortlessly stitching the sole of a slipper, he says, “Its side has torn off.” After finishing the job, Surinder, 24, cuts off the thick black thread with a knife-like thing that he calls raapi. The lady customer slips her feet into the sandal, looks satisfied, gives him Rs 5 and walks off towards Sir Syed Road. I met Surinder in Pataudi House, a tumbledown neighbourhood in Daryaganj, which was named after a once-grand mansion in the vicinity. In a pair of blue denims and a striped shirt, he is sitting at his regular place on the roadside, next to an open drain. There’s no chair, but he does have a padded seat.
Before we can talk further, a burqa-clad lady walks over to us and takes off her chappal. Its strap is broken. Surinder hammers a nail into it. The woman gives Rs 2 and disappears towards Kuchha Dakhan Rai. The young man drops the coin into his wooden cash box, the top of which has a sticker of a bearded saint. “He is Guru Ravidas,” Surinder says. “He used to do our kind of work”
Surinder’s father was also a cobbler. In 2001, he died of tuberculosis. “Papa was in the hospital for two months. One afternoon he vomited blood and that was the end.” For the first time in her life, Surinder’s mother had to leave home to make a living. She set up a fruit stall in Daryaganj. Feeling responsible as the new ‘family elder’, Surinder, the eldest of the four brothers, left school, asked his mother to stay at home and took up his father’s profession. “One has to take tough decisions.”
Then came another problem. Surinder fell in love with Anita, a girl whose house was on the same street as his. “She was darker and weightier than me. When she smiled, I felt very happy.” The lovers would go to Hanuman Temple in Preet Vihar, hang out in the ruins of Purana Quila, or walk in Delhi Zoo. “I kissed her many times but did nothing more.” Three years later, they broke up. Surinder was so upset that he got a classic bleeding-heart image tattooed on his left arm. Besides this private sorrow, Surinder has no other reason to complain.
All his brothers are earning. All the money goes to the mother. The family has all the necessary comforts: a television, a washing machine and a refrigerator. “But mummy still cooks on the stove. We don’t have a gas range.” However, it’s not the kitchen comfort for his mother that is presently driving Surinder to work hard as he takes the 213 Blueline every morning for Daryaganj from his home in Sunder Nagri.
“My sister, Rekha, is 18 and my dream is to marry her to a good boy,” he says. What after the sister is married? “What after my sister’s marriage…,” Surinder finds himself at a loss of words before shooting back, “Whatever the man up there in the sky will decide.”