The area outside PVR Rivoli as well as the A and F blocks in the inner circle are always abuzz with shoulder-rubbing crowd and are easily the busiest parts of Connaught Place.
It is no wonder then that several young boot polish-walas (shoe-shiners) can be found there on any given day, trying to woo their prospective customers.
As you cross them, they ask you, “Boot Polish kar doon sahib? (May I polish your shoes).”
They look energetic, not weak and meek like Bhola and his sister Belu in Raj Kapoor’s landmark film Boot Polish, which was released in 1954.
More often than not, you would see them in the inner circle of the Robert Tor Russel-designed landmark business and shopping centre. They are hardly visible in the outer circle perhaps due to the fact that footfall there is not as good.
Carrying their kit box, they generally sit at places people throng for shopping or other purposes.
Unlike Bhola in the Raj Kapoor film, you would not see any shoe-shiner with his sister in Connaught Place.
They all sit together but don’t grudge any colleague who attracts more customers. They are real comrades. Wearing jeans and a black sweater, 55-year-old Sunder has been coming to Connaught Place from Tank Road since he was 14.
“My father also did the same job. I could not study beyond class 10, so started working as a shoe-shiner. I am happy, no regrets in life,” says Sunder before snapping the conversation as a customer approaches him.
Those who have been visiting Connaught Place and taking their service would tell you that they tend to become very friendly, asking the customers’ names, professions and even visiting cards. They request their customers to call them during wedding or any other function.
JK Jain, a senior manager with Union Bank of India branch in F block, became friendly with many shoe-shiners while he was posted there.
Recalls Jain, “They are masters in their field. I always took their service before going to any wedding or important official meeting. They spent extra effort in shining my shoes. I have also lent money to at least two guys who still sit outside my bank. The good thing is that they always repaid the money in instalments.”
Mam Chand is a veteran among the CP shoe-shiners with over 35 years’ experience in his trade.
He informs, “We ask for visiting cards because we also give our service during wedding and other functions. That is the time when we make a killing. In every wedding, we earn up to Rs 5,000 and sometimes even more. Those who know us, call us to their family functions. I have attended weddings with another friend at Western Extension Area and Defence Colony this season. Apart from mithai ka dibba (box of sweets), our sahib gave each of us Rs 5,000. We polished shoes of around 50 people there.”
Nanhe, another shoe-shiner in CP, said that Covid was a nightmare.
“We had no work for almost two years. We were in really bad shape. Of course, that was a very bad time for all of us,” Nanhe informs while casually smoking a cigarette.
Nanhe has seen the likes of former Prime Ministers Chandrasekhar, IK Gujral, cricketer Bishan Singh Bedi and master painter MF Hussain roaming in CP with friends. The shoe-shiner has seen CP change over the years.
“I think Indira Gandhi’s killing and the subsequent riots changed the character of CP greatly. Big personalities stopped roaming here freely out of fear,” informs Nanhe before adding, “I even asked MF Hussain sahab to wear shoes so I could polish them. He used to roam around barefoot. He smiled and gave me Rs 500. This was in 1987, I think. Of course, it was a big catch for me.”
Monsoon is a bad time as their income takes a big hit. They barely manage to attract a couple of customers daily.
Interestingly, Nanhe is even aware of the fact that Lula da Silva, President of Brazil, once used to work as shoe-shiner in early part of his life. He read about Lula’s story when he was here during the G-20 summit a couple of months ago.
Says Mam Chand, “When I came to know that the President of Pele’s country was like us, I became very happy. Hamara bhai president hi ban gaya. Yeh to bahut badi baat hai (Our brother has become President. It is a big deal for us).”
Yes, the charismatic leader of Brazil had very humble beginnings. He was a shoe-shiner in early part of his life. A film, “Lula, The Son of Brazil” will be released soon across Latin America’s biggest nation.
Sunder wanted to hear about Lula’s past which was duly narrated to him.
“Lula grew up in poor circumstances. His father moved to the industrial belt of Sao Paulo for work while he was still a child. His mother followed her husband a few years later with Lula and his seven siblings. By then, however, Lula’s father already had a new wife and broke off contact with his family. This worsened the family’s economic situation. Because the family could not afford school fees, Lula attended school for only a few years. At the age of 12, he started working as a shoe-shiner.”
After hearing Lula’s story, Sunder requested for a meeting with the leader of Brazil!
Earnings of shoe-shiners
The shoe-shiners can earn up to Rs 500-600 daily. They charge Rs 60 for a single effort. Service at functions and marriages give them extra earnings.
Nanhe confesses that youngsters don’t bargain with us, but people in middle and old age bargain endlessly for even Rs 5. Almost all of them come here from Karol Bagh and nearby areas. Some even come from far-flung areas of east and west Delhi.
The good thing is that they are full of hope. Bharat met us near Regal, which had screened the film Boot Polish 60 years ago, but is now shut. He says, “Our kids are going to schools. Hopefully, they will do better in their lives. They won’t become like us.”
Asked why there are no shoe-shiners in other markets, Mam Chand says, “We work only in the best place of Delhi. We can work in other areas if we get a dedicated space.”