In the good old student days, I enjoyed adjusting devotees' shoes in racks at the capital's Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, for a couple of hours each day between classes at Delhi University and the YMCA Institute of Mass Media.
Two decades later, I was back at my favourite task of doing "seva" (volunteer service) and taking care of hundreds of shoes of the "sangat" (devotees).
People removed their shoes into my hands or returned their tokens to collect the pairs. Nothing had changed; the footwear, the racks were the same. The rich, who may not have ever polished their shoes at home, and the poor, with barely a proper leather on tired soles, were all extending their hands through the large windows.
Time had changed neither the ambience of the basement nor the blackish-iron shoe racks bearing the token numbers. The same hymns composed in classical ragas echoed into the basement from the sanctum sanctorum upstairs. Many others like me were also on the job, standing in rows along the racks and grabbing their opportunity to serve.
Some pairs were branded and well polished, delivered by healthy hands, while some were simply the "chappals" of the labourers who had come to the national capital to better their fortunes. "God bless them," I spoke within.
The two muddy pairs of slippers were of a middle-aged couple seemingly from central India, surely not a Punjabi. The "chappals" were moist, as if with sweat, perhaps from the day's grind. Then came the college boys with sneakers: Nike, Adidas and all. "They could be the present YMCA batch," I thought. It felt good adjusting their young shoes into a rack after some 20 years. It was reminded of the Puma pair I took pride in during the college days.
Looking back at the youngsters while handing them the token, I said a prayer: "May God give them a clean system and a good work atmosphere." An old woman removed her sandals with a blessing smile. I returned the smile, delivering the token into her wrinkled but fair hands. Her white sandals could be of a fairy with all the wisdom. I took special care returning the magic pair. She looked to be of my mother's age.
My sister came with a token and an expression suggesting it was time to leave. The next destination, Bengali Market near Connaught Place, no longer had the romance of the college days that taking care of hundreds of pairs of shoes had made me feel.