The elder Sabharwal offers up a charming origin myth for leather work in Agra. The wholesale market for shoes, Heeng ki Mandi, where his shop is, was once the Mughal market for asafoetida. Heengarrived from Iran, on camel-back, having been pounded and packed in calf-leather pouches. When the heeng was unpacked, the leather was discarded. Slowly, shoes began to be made from it. This narrative may have some truth to it. And one can see the appeal of tracing a grubby business like leatherwork back to the time of Akbar, with all the romance of camel caravans, Iranian heeng and handmade shoes that took a kaarigar (artisan) a week to make. But for me, it also points to the biggest absence in the film: the making of leather.
There is one fleeting mention of tanneries, in the context of a ban on them for polluting the Yamuna. Else, the 90-minute film stays away from any reference to leather production. It is as if the filmmaker sat down and decided that anything to do with cattle, animal skins, Muslims and Dalits might be too controversial, or need viewers with strong stomachs.
Perhaps he’s right. Certainly, it would seem so from Vikram Seth’s memorable fictional guided tour of the Brahmpur shoe trade in A Suitable Boy. Whether it is the desperate poverty and insanitary working conditions of Ravidaspur’s Jatav shoe-makers, or the posher CLFC (Cawnpore Leather and Footwear Company) tannery where the genteel Lata Mehra and her mother nearly choke from the smell, Seth makes it clear this is not an easy milieu. Even though Haresh Khanna is “quick to explain to Lata’s mother” that the hides were from ‘fallen animals’, not slaughtered ones, and also that “they did not accept hides from Muslim slaughterhouses”, the stench of ‘dirty work’ seems to hang in the air. I wish Sabharwal had taken on some of that undeserved, lingering disdain.
Published in the Hindu Business Line.