Fiction: Footprints

Ranjit Kulkarni
I see Ram Pyaare Yadav park his two-wheeler a few meters away from my shop. It is a three-wheeler actually, with brakes, gears, and the accelerator near his hand. 
There is a row of small chappal shops lining the lane at the end of which he parks it. Ram Pyaare Yadav doesn’t stop at any of them. He passes them all and walks straight to mine. He limps along like usual, but I don’t see the normal mirth of Diwali either on his crumpled face or in his stumbling gait.
The man who runs a small ‘tyre puncher’ shop as he calls it has the ritual of buying chappals for his family every year before Diwali. “Chappals are better than Clothes. They are easier to buy, they fit better, and they are more useful,” he once told me. 
In normal years, he doesn’t leave it to the last day before Diwali like he did this year. There is a lot to do on the evening before Diwali at home in normal years. The sweets, the decoration, the crackers, the puja preparation. I see him limping along towards me. His hands are empty. His face is squalid.
“Happy Diwali, Ram Pyaare,” I greet him.
“Namaste, Ram Ram,” he greets back, wiping his brow with his sleeve on the hot afternoon. 
The heat and the physical labour of his work might be getting to him, I think. More bikes and cars, more tyres, more punctures to fix, I guess. His tapering hair has more grey than black now. He has been a customer ever since it was all black. He is not growing younger; I feel like teasing him.
But he seems to be in a hurry, in a mood for finishing his business.
“Have you got the sizes?” I ask him.
He never remembers sizes for his four children. Four is a lot, of course. Some years back, he got all of them to the shop. But it led to a lot of fights and choices, and in trying to placate each of them, he ended up spending more than he had planned. So now, for the past few years, he doesn’t get them. 
He pulls out a few sheets of paper from his pocket. Those sheets have the footprints of his children. He doesn’t need to remember sizes. Sizes change every year. All of them are growing children. The youngest must be six or seven now, and the oldest must now be thirteen or fourteen. I am not sure.
So, for the past many years, on the day before Diwali, he traces their footprints out on the sheets of paper. Each child stands on the sheet, and he traces out the outline. Then he gets me the sheet. Till a few years back, every second or third year, the number of sheets increased. He had become a friend. So I used to joke about it, and he used to blush. Now they are constant at four.
I look at the traces and get a chappal for the first sheet. 
He doesn’t match it with the tracing like every year. He doesn’t ask me for any style or colour options too. He hands me over the second sheet. This time I have to stand up. 
It’s a girl’s footprint. The girl’s chappals are on the other side. I get him a pair of chappals I know his girls like. I get three pieces in different colours and styles. He simply picks one, puts it aside and neglects the others.
Number three is a sandal for the second girl. He doesn’t twist the sandals for strength or check the quality like every year. Nor does he check the price or ask for a different colour. It is black and cream. He pockets it and puts it aside.
“130 and 170 for the chappals, 230 for this sandal,” I say. Like every year, the fourth one is always free for him. I total it up and give him a further 30-rupee discount. 
“500,” I say.
He doesn’t say anything.
“Ok?” I ask. He nods, looking at the floor. I had put a buffer of another twenty rupees like every year. He puts his hand in his pocket and removes a crisp note. He hands me over the note without any haggling. I stand up to prepare the bill, albeit surprised. 
He puts the three pairs in the bag he has got and starts walking in a hurry.
I watch him limp fast to his three-wheeler and tie the bag to the handle, while I am still preparing the bill. I want to stop him. He didn’t give me the fourth footprint. I shout out his name. I need to give him the free fourth pair, like every year. 
But this year is different. This year Diwali is not normal. He doesn’t stop.
***

About the Author: Ranjit Kulkarni is a writer of short stories, articles, and novels. His work has appeared in Literary Yard, Indian Periodical, Academy of the Heart and Mind, Potato Soup Journal, Setu Journal, CC&D Scars, Ariel Chart, Active Muse, Anti-Heroin Chic, Grey Thoughts, Kathmandu Tribune, Café Lit, Muse India, and Misery Tourism. More details about his work can be accessed at https://www.ranjitkulkarni.com. He lives in Bangalore India and is reachable at ranjit@ranjitkulkarni.com.

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