20 December 2012

Journey-prints are found in feet, did you know?

This was written almost 3 years ago.  Feet, though, are timeless.  Journeys seldom end and seldom in ways anticipated.  'Feet' almost all of us have.  We use them but don't seem to appreciate them.  Others have them, but our eyes don't stray down to feet as often as they graze on eye, for example.  This is a 'feet story'.  An old one.  Perhaps that's why it remains 'new'.
Interesting, isn’t it? We talk of journeys, we talk of footprints, but who ever thinks of or writes about feet? Until about four years ago I didn’t know there was a word called pedicure, didn’t know about foot massages or Podiatry.
I find it strange. We all have teeth and we all know about dentists. We all have eyes and at some time in our lives we check them out. We never go to a podiatrist, though. What is it with feet? Lesser organs? Too far away from eyes, ears, tongue and nose to get noticed, unless a toe is stubbed? Is it because feet are too close to the earth, that they get dirtied faster?

I was introduced to feet, so to speak, by my friend Kanishka Gunawardena. This was in the year 1995. Ithaca, New York. He wanted me to watch Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Little Buddha with him. He said he had seen it before with Geoffrey Waiter, a member of his PhD committee and a professor in the Department of German Studies at Cornell University. Geoff was a film buff.
He was a great teacher. He could see films frame-by-frame and made a point to note detail and comment. It was obviously an exercise that fractured the entertainment; one had to first watch the movie as though in a theatre, that is, without a remote control and later watch it on video and try to harvest the richness of detail.

That’s another story. My story is about feet. Kaniya (as we called him) told me how important ‘feet’ were in that movie. There were many ‘feet-moments’ that I would have completely missed had he not pointed them to me (Geoff had alerter him to them, he said). There were so many shots that focused on feet that it is possible to read the entire movie as a narrative of feet or to understand the story through the conversation of feet.
I have, since then, paid more attention to feet than I have before. I came to understand that feet are marked by the journey’s they’ve taken, the paths they’ve walked. I came to understand that just as feet leave footprints, so too do journeys leave their print on their feet-companions. On Saturday, I was to be on a panel at the Galle Literary Festival. I wasn’t adequately ‘wardrobed’.

The trousers didn’t match the shirt and I had only a pair of rubber slippers. My sister ironed the shirt and said ‘if you are shaved and your shirt is clean and ironed, no one notices anything else’. I remembered something that Voltaire is supposed to have said, ‘Give me five minutes to talk away my face and I will bed the Queen of England’. I felt ok after I digested these two statements, and not because I was interested in bedding anyone.
I thought of what my sister said and the feet-issue came to mind. Why don’t people care about feet, I wondered, not least of all because I had heard a ‘feet-story’ that very morning.

That morning I had run into Rohan Edirisinghe, who was a participant in a session with Gillian Slovo, a South Arica born novelist. He had to interview her and moderate a discussion. He was focusing on her biography, ‘Every secret thing: my family, my country’.
I had attended a panel discussion on Friday where Gillian spoke about writing and until Rohan told me I didn’t know that she was the daughter of Joe Slovo (leader of the South African Communist Party).

Rohan spoke briefly about the session and mentioned how her mother Ruth First, as much a political activist as her husband, had been killed in a parcel bomb blast in Mozambique.
‘She was blown to pieces; the only thing they found of her were her feet,’’ he said. Maybe I was imagining things or inscribing on his face something I felt in my heart, but I thought his eyes got a bit red and teary.

I’ve spent a lot of time since then, thinking of feet. I remembered that one of the common methods of torture during the terrible days at the end of the eighties was hanging people by their feet. I had heard that torturers took special pleasure in hitting the victims’ soles with an s-lon pipe. I’ve heard that every point in a person’s sole is linked in some way to some important organ and that this was the ‘logic’ of foot-massages. I have wondered what organ was got twisted around, punched, squeezed etc. when pipe met sole.
Since watching The Little Buddha I’ve noticed feel-things. I learn to read class, work, leisure, pleasure, tenderness and love in a person’s feet. I learnt that feet are like faces; time carves the signatures of its passing on both. There are beautiful women wearing beautiful clothes that we see everywhere we go, but the depth or shallowness of beauty is easily and quickly ascertained if we spent a few seconds looking at the person’s feet, I have noticed.

My father, like most fathers, has feet. My father has corns which I am periodically required to carry out surgery on. It’s a delicate operation. I have to shave off the dead skin with a blade, clean up the wound, put some medication and bandage it all up. He has a hereditary foot disease which has twisted all his toes. It is not easy for him. Attending to his feet is a thanksgiving as well as worship.
My mother had feet. She never asked for much, for she was a giving person, but she liked having her feet massaged. We used to do this, myself, my brother and sister, taking turns as kids and as adults whenever we were around. Thanksgiving. Worship. I noticed during those few minutes of hand-foot encounter how much she has walked and worked. The next day I would quarrel with her, but still I could never forget her feet.

Here’s the final foot story and I hope it will make you think a little differently about feet. My mother passed away a few months ago. I had to attend to the initial rituals pertaining to death such as getting a death certificate, contacting an undertaker, informing friends and relatives and making funeral arrangements. One of the ‘musts’ was to get her body released from the hospital mortuary.
A hospital official took me in, along with two men from the funeral parlous. She was kept in one of those long drawers. I had to identify her body and sign papers. As they brought her out, the first thing I noticed were her feet, her toes tied together with a strip of cloth. Cold. Dead. Her entire life story was written in those feet and I read it all in a matter of seconds.

I am thinking of her now. And I am thinking of Ruth First. I am thinking of feet.



h. said...

There's still no 'Beautiful' check-box to check. It is much needed for some of your articles. This is one. None of the other categories would do.

You have done one of the best things one could do for a mother - massaging her feet. No amount of gifts or Mother's day cards can compare with that.

I too used to massage my mother's feet and legs most nights as a child. She worked a lot, walked a lot and that massage at night was probably the only pampering she got those days though I didn't think of it that way then. She preferred my hands saying I did it best with my small hands.

Thank you for this article.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful as always