By Shalini Mukerji
Sense and sensibility – I grew up thinking it was either-or.
I’ve never been more wrong. There is a sublime dovetailing of function and beauty, at once fluid and stable, playful and prosaic, and that is the Perfect Heel.
Indulge me if you will, by indulging in Shoe Fleur, a 2007 book of stunning photographs by Michel Tcherevkoff, in which leaf, flower, and vine are transformed into shoes and bags to suit all moods of witching – fairy, tramp, Jezebel, Amazon, Lolita, Lady Macbeth, Audrey Hepburn. A book about being well-heeled, sure, but also an ode to imagination and inspired experiments and our natural affinity to pretty things. Page upon page of extraordinary design drawn from nature, an eye that sees the potential in even palm fronds and autumn leaves to become things of beauty, underlining how invaluable fantasies are to life.
Let me begin at the beginning.
Under increasing pressure to honour a dress of butterfly kisses in snow-white lace flitting across inked crepe (and because the dressmaker only let me have that piece of loveliness when I promised to slip on kitten heels at least), I’ve spent the better part of last year desperately sole searching.
And it’s been intimidating, this search – nay, quest – for the right heel.
Till date, a pair of Merrill hiking shoes remains my most satisfying shoe-splurge; it took an ungainly tumble down Mt. Bromo to convince me. My friend, who navigated Bromo sure-footed, described succinctly if inelegantly their “lizard’s grip on any surface”. Sneakers are practical I rationalised as my phone registered the considerable debit. I was finally able to enjoy them as a guiltless indulgence about three years ago when leeches didn’t slime their way inside my shoes during a stake-out for frogmouths in Thattekad Bird Sanctuary in Kerala. And I’ve never fallen down ridges and boulders since, despite my best efforts.
It’s a family habit this – a tumble to convince us of anything that’s good for us. It took a stumble on her high heels to convince Mum that the tennis-honed fore-arms that held her fast were compelling enough to pack away her red lipstick and stilettos and follow Dad to the boondocks posting which didn’t even have a rundown local cinema playing Bhojpuri sleeper hits to map it. (My mum was like that – outrageously glam when everyone around was psychedelic or grunge.)
I, on the other hand, queasy about Cinderella’s glass slippers and lacking the guts to strut in Dorothy’s silver shoes, met my boy firmly grounded in Kohlapuris for coffee and books. My mother, who once got me Dorothy’s MGM ruby slippers, all velvet and witchy and golden studded from an export house in Agra, wouldn’t have approved of these… err, flat dates. She believed in arch-angels that tease out the measure of a man, have him walk at heel. I could hear her I-Told-You-So when on the two occasions that I flirted with heels – on a breezy evening, and for a ballet that decreed ‘dress-up’ – the strappy struts were unkind, the boy was even more of a heel – he refused the mantle of hero who sweeps me off my feet, and I walked barefoot over grimy cobblestoned streets. I should have followed the head-over-heels example of my mom and not let feminism get in the way. (Or those delicious foot massages the boy is so good at, distract me from Mum’s tenets… Vincent Vega ballparked it right. And in my book, the subtext of the foot massage is in the same league as Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe. Sigh, the treachery of images and notions, and of the unschooled heart!)
See, while I was trying to grow up, shoes somehow got co-opted into a feminist credo of sorts. I could feel that postcard – Dali’s painting of the architecture of a kiss-me red heel, titled, ‘Scatological Object Functioning Symbolically’ – jeering me each time I inched towards a red heel. Sexy stilettos that branded me a babe? Sent me teetering into a man’s arms? Let guys check out how my butt swung (oh never mind that I scouted cute male ass)? They were struck off… Off with their heads, err heels! Keds, Kohlapuris, sneakers, Osho chappals, Roman sandals and juttis were part of the distressed college chic I carried into my early working years. Besides, these were way more affordable than the glittering, whimsical candy at the M-block and South Ex shoe shops which made me feel like an urchin at a feast. And they were great aids to student life in Delhi where one routinely jumps off moving DTC buses and hits the ground running! And since even decadent night-outs always ended with walking the dog (still do) I had to have shoes that straddled my multiple worlds. And trust in a Darcy who’d notice not the muddied fraying hem of my jeans, not the dust lining my feet like alta, but appreciate how my eyes were bright from all the walking.
Oh, I wanted to find my way sure-footed, not teetering around, a precarious foothold in the world. I wanted freedom, the path less travelled, no one ever telling me to stop. Assured strides, taking on come what may. My own vocabulary of fashion that wasn’t heeled-in and bound by a sexualised, fetishised idea of femininity or beauty. In the thrall of big ideas, inside the museum shop in Amsterdam, while my sister debated cherry blossoms over burnished wheat fields memorabilia, I bought a postcard with van Gogh’s portrait of a peasant’s shoe to frame. (The screech Mum let out, when I unpacked the spoils from this Europe backpacking adventure, startled the bat out of the cooler we didn’t know it had made its nest in!)
But sometimes, a girl just wants to have fun. I have OD-ed on Travolta ever since Tony tight-ass strutted into my life on that summer afternoon of holiday nothingness under the ceiling fan that creaked with the weight of air and time so still, and low voltage electricity supply. And I have searched in vain for those gleaming-tipped booties ever since Madonna celebrated my Louis L’Amour and Sudden and checked shirts obsession, showing me how cowgirls rock heels and rhinestones.
Hell, sometimes, a girl just wants to strike a pose. All those surasundaris in stony animation, time arrested in that perfect pose… Once upon a time, before they got all tangled up in gendered politics of ‘performing sexuality’ and got sidelined in my story of self-fashioning, heels were part of my blockbuster, glamorous, schizophrenic and totally rocking shringar rasa fantasy of Holly Golightly mixed up with a little bit of Ziggy Stardust, drinking martinis without getting my lips wet, breaking into a Wilbury Twist at a glittering Gatsby party. Wild and elegant. Sequined nails peeking out of heels that made me feel like I was floating on crisp Himalayan air.
It happened one night…
I met my solemate.
It was so unexpected it was like fate in a crazy fortune cookie equivocation. It was so scripted it could have been a movie. As stories go, it was a detective noir in a trench coat and fedora turned into a velvet and riding stirrups Georgette Heyer masque. A sudden downpour. A mall strip at closing time. Lights on the blink. A nondescript shop front I ducked into because it was the closest to me, and still open. A diminutive lady with wizened eyes in sensible wedges asking me if I was lost.
And there he was, a vision in ecru and burnt wood tints, delicate leaf shapes pressed into leather. A dandy an unkind critic might quibble, but if a dandy, then of the Black Moth vintage. It was like discovering in real life the wish-fulfillment I breathed in fiction. An easy, elegant sexiness, which Warhol would have been honoured to draw even though they aren’t made of diamond dust. Slipping into their cushioned comfort, adjusting to their lift, flexing my toes around their pointed witchiness, walking the tiny mirrored length and breadth of the shop which transformed into a ramp, watching multiple reflections of myself just glide, I knew exactly what Mum had been trying to tell me all those years ago: Don’t let them make up your mind. Way before Madonna. Everybody must have a fantasy. Way before Warhol.
I didn’t exactly mambo or walk like an Egyptian right away, and I may have teetered a bit, but isn’t all that first-steps territory? Being unsteady comes with the headiness of falling in love, doesn’t it? And what’s the big deal about balance anyway, when you can have a little bendiness, some flow?
Indulging in art more freely, I now have added to my portraits of shoes, an oil on canvas that imagines the Spanish Steps as a high heel – an elevated audaciousness firmly propped on a Tuscan column. I’m still not sure whether I was persuaded into the canvas purchase by the playfulness of the art or of the artist in the plaza. See, heels, they make you susceptible to the world, they have you live on the threshold – and perhaps that’s not so bad after all!
Besides, for every unkind heel, every brutal crushing, every archenemy, there’s a foot massage!
Shalini Mukerji is an independent writer and editor who blogs about the odd she sees, and her dog’s adventures, albeit erratically, at fisheyedlens.wordpress.com