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Ludhiana, the industrial capital of the state of Punjab in northern India, is like any other prosperous Indian city but for one interesting difference. Its cobblers are largely women.

A trip to the inter-state bus stand, outside the railway station, at roadside corners, in the local markets, under trees, and in almost every other place that you can think of, will reveal scores of them, polishing shoes of commuters in the vicinity.

The Shoe-shine Women
The Shoe-shine Women [Illustration by Sudheer Nath]
Actually, they may not like being referred to as cobblers. For it appears that the strange workings of the Indian caste hierarchy is at work here too. These women only polish shoes. They never repair them.

“We don’t repair shoes, our ancestors have never done it and we will also never do it. In fact, we boycott all those women who repair shoes,” says Sunita, a cobbler.

“Polishing shoes is something we are taught from a young age and this is the only work we know,” says Sangeeta, who sits near the bus stand. Sangeeta, like many others in the city, belongs to the Nagur district of Rajasthan.

A lack of job opportunities in Rajasthan have forced these women to come to Punjab where the labour force is dominated by poor village migrants from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

While they had nothing to do in the villages, most of them find that business in Ludhiana is good. The shoe-shine women earn around Rs 25 to 30 every day. A regular income has enabled some of them to even build small houses.

While the women see polishing shoes a means of earning money, some men see it differently. These are men who still feel hesitant about getting their shoes polished from a woman. “I don’t know about other states, but women are respected in Punjab and the thought of putting my shoes in front of a woman to polish them is repelling,” says Gurbinder Sodhi.

But there are others who don’t have any such problem. And it is customers like them who keep these women in business.

There’s a high level of satisfaction among these women with what they are doing. Few of them want to change their source of livelihood, or opt for a better one. And they want their children to opt for the same profession when they grow up too.

“There is nothing wrong with what we are doing. Everybody in our village polishes shoes and both my children too will do the same thing when they grow up,” says Sapna. Neither of Sapna’s two children aged seven and five, go to school.

In fact, the children don’t even want to learn how to repair shoes. Learning to repair shoes would mean an increase in their income. But these children only want to polish shoes, like their mother.

Part of the “job appeal” lies in the fact that it’s easy to perform and requires no training or special concentration. Unfortunately, unlike other trades, it does not teach anything new either.

But one can’t escape the winds of change. A few voices of rebellion are being raised. “I want to study. Will you teach me how to read and write?” asks 15-year-old Sunita, with all the enthusiasm of a teenager.

Sunita sits all day outside the main bus stand in Ludhiana, waiting for passers-by to stop and get their shoes polished for a little money. Not surprisingly, she does not find anything of interest in her present life and would rather study and do something worthwhile instead.

Gradually there may be many Sunitas chafing at the reins of tradition, eager to break free. But till then, these women will continue to be happy doing what they are doing at present.

Women’s Feature Service