Learning through the soles of the feet

Sadruddin Kapadia at home in Lincolnwood, a Chicago suburb (Photo by Zul Kapadia)

My hands twist and squeeze in a therapeutic massage, as I tend to my homebound grandfather. He has spinal stenosis so walking has become nearly impossible. I quietly protest in my head that these are old customs. My hands are tired, and I am becoming impatient. At 11 years old, I want to watch TV or relax. My mind wraps itself in anything and everything except this massage that I mechanically perform. We have Medicare here. Why do I need to tend to my grandfather day in and day out? I’m not angry; I’m frustrated – eager to move on to something more interesting.  Most of my friends don’t even live with their grandparents.

As I sit at the foot of his bed, I notice faint scars and skin discoloration on his feet. My thoughts drift to my family’s origins in Gujarat, India. Knowing that my grandfather grew up in a poor village in India, it doesn’t take me long to deduce that he probably didn’t have shoes.

As I sit there, I ask him about growing up. He starts with an old story that I’ve heard many times before. He and his father used to sell cloth on the streets.“I would walk around for hours, from village to village from town to town, and I would just sell,” he remembers. I’ve never really walked without shoes, so I ask him about it.

I try to picture it, but the agony of the action doesn’t quite resonate with me. “The soles of my feet hurt at first when I was younger than you are now, but they calloused,” my grandfather explains. “As I got older that wasn’t so bad. It was the sun that was torturous. It burns the tops of your feet when you walk, and I couldn’t do anything.”

That thought hasn’t left me. I return to India years later to take my grandfather on his last trip home with my family before his condition deteriorated. My morning routine here, like at home, is to help him. As I massage his legs in India, I remember the scars I had noticed years earlier back in Chicago. As the morning passes, I walk out to see the village, taking a walk that day in his shoes, as the saying goes. Even in the mild December winters of India, I begin to see the struggle.

I step outside my grandfather’s bungalow. There is a lot of dust. I’ve spent the entire morning complaining that there is no air-conditioning. I see vendors walking barefoot selling fruit, juice, vegetables, and all kinds of goods. I leave the compound as I trek across the uneven dirt ground. There are sharp rocks and heavy street traffic. The town is bustling with life. I can’t stand the heat and congestion and run into to a convenience store to buy a cold coke.

As I sit there, I think about home back in Chicago where I walk on paved roads. At home, I get to return to my air-conditioning to escape the heat. Everything from the skyscrapers I grow up looking at everyday to the clothes people wear contrasts starkly with my grandfather’s youth. Under the same sun, this pain so real to him was not even an idea to me.

I wait till the sun goes down and the streets clear a bit before I make my way back to my grandfather. That night as my hands massage his legs, I realize how different our countries are. And although I never really felt what walking was like for hours throughout the day, as the ground cut my feet and burned my skin just so I could make a living for my family, I could envision it. I could sense it. The “old” custom I was following, caring for my grandfather, is a way for me to learn from his wisdom.

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