Three years ago I got married to my wife Bidisha in a traditional Bengali ceremony in Kolkata and spent three weeks touring the country. I bought a pair of sandals there which I wore throughout my trip and back home here in the States. This December my wife, our young son and I went back to India for a month to visit relatives. I brought my well-worn “India sandals” with me. A week into the visit they broke irreparably and I tossed them. The location of their demise seemed appropriate — from India they had come and to India they would return. The next day while we were out sightseeing we stumbled upon a tiny shoe store, one of a zillion in Kolkata, where I found the perfect pair of replacement sandals. They were simple but unique enough that they suited me as a souvenir.
A few days later I struck out on my own to visit Nakhoda Masjid, the largest mosque in Kolkata, built in 1926. A billboard told me with no intended irony that this was Road Safety Week in India. Still the taxis, auto-rickshaws and pedestrians were up to their usual danse macabre.
After a requisite insane cab ride and a short walk down a crowded, narrow street full of screaming sidewalk merchants selling Muslim prayer rugs and other Islam-themed souvenirs I found the mosque. It was sparsely populated at that late morning hour. The mosque is a well-known tourist destination and major pilgrimage site in India so I expected a ticket booth or at least a donation box typical of a Hindu temple, or at least a priest hustling me for a few rupees, but everyone seemed unfazed by my presence even though I was the only infidel saheb in sight. I stopped one worshipper on his way out and asked if it was okay for me to walk around. He smiled, said yes, feel free and gestured up the stairs.
Before going further I took off my sandals as is customary in houses of worship here. Mine were brand new sandals I had just bought in Kolkata the week before. I shoved them onto a shelf on the old wooden shoe rack near the front door and wandered about barefoot the same as everyone else. The mosque has several floors, each one a vast, arched, open air pavilion looking out onto Zakaria Street, Kolkata’s main “Muslim street,” below. Most of the expansive, inlaid marble floors were completely empty and I had free reign of the place, feeling like a ghost quietly drifting about the serene building. At one point a neighbor on a balcony next door to the mosque smiled and waved. I waved back and he came closer to ask me the usual questions here. “Where from?”
I told him, “Amar nam Jeff,” and added, “Apnar nam?” He told me his name but I couldn’t make it out over the din of the traffic. I gestured up at the mosque’s green minarets and said “Khub shundor,” very beautiful, and continued on my walk, passing the occasional Mecca-facing worshiper hard at prayer.
Living in New York City and Philadelphia I’ve had Muslim friends and colleagues over the years, and this was not my first time in a mosque. I have also read the Koran cover to cover, and doubtless I missed much of its deeper meaning with a dry English translation but I found it to be a moving, concise text largely misrepresented in the U.S. thanks to our politicians and mainstream media. The Koran didn’t make me a convert. I remain agnostic at best but Nakhoda Masjid has a spiritually inviting, meditative atmosphere and offered a shady sanctuary on this sunny, warm day. I have no clue how to sit or pray properly in a mosque but I found a quiet corner and plopped down, making pretty sure to face Mecca, and closed my eyes, the closest I could come to meditating.
Then I came the closest I can come to praying. “Okay Allah, here’s your chance,” I thought. “My receiver’s wide open so hit me. If you’re present I’m willing to receive a communication from you.” My mind went back to wandering and I tried to calm it, breathing deeply and unavoidably chanting mentally a Hindu-influenced mantra I had learned long ago in synchronization with my deep breaths. A few moments later, I kid you not, a question intruded and flashed through my mind like a neon sign in a dark ally. “What would you do if you went downstairs and found that your sandals had been stolen?”
I answered to myself, “Well, what could I do but walk the filthy streets barefoot until I could hail a cab and head for home with blackened soles?” My mind wandered along, I sat there peacefully for a few more minutes and then got up to leave. Downstairs by the front door I was shocked to see that the shoe rack was completely empty. Yep, someone had stolen my brand new sandals. It could have been a worshiper or a beggar who darted in from the street as soon as I had turned my back.
Instead of feeling enraged which would be my usual reaction, I felt resigned to it and even amused. A typical day in Kolkata, what can you do? I looked around, wanting to file a complaint with someone on duty but there was no one around. I was about to hit the filthy streets barefoot as I’d told myself I’d do, but then I saw atop the shoe rack shoved into a far corner an old pair of sandals; dusty, upside down with soles exposed. They’d been there for a while and didn’t seem to belong to anyone presently in the mosque.
I took them down and tried them on figuring I could scrunch my toes into them long enough to shuffle into a cab. To my surprise they fit me perfectly. They were exactly my size and felt form-fitted to my foot as though custom made for me. They were old, cheaply made, and didn’t look like they’d last much longer but they’d do the job. I walked out into the streets in complete comfort. This is what the Arabs call kismet.
Still, I wanted my spiffy new souvenir sandals back to last me through a few years in the States. Besides, they had cost extremely little by U.S. standards. I decided to seek out the shoe store where I’d bought them the week before and get an identical pair. Flying on a wing and a prayer I started walking, feeling pretty sure I could sniff it out. As I walked down Zakaria Street, the only nonbeliever in sight among a primarily Muslim population, I was guessing at every left and right turn down strange, narrow streets and finally out onto the wider, busier avenues.
The day was getting hotter and my steps slower. I stared down at the old sandals clopping along and thought of the old song, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.” I wondered whose simple sandals these had been, and which person at the mosque had stolen mine, and how much they’d get for them on the street. I hoped the thief was one of the poorest souls I had seen napping in there or washing up in the pools. I had gone to the mosque expecting to make some kind of charitable donation anyway, so I decided that with my sandals I had made my contribution after all.
I trudged along up one overcrowded avenue and down another for what seemed like an eternity and was about to throw in the towel when I heard the Namaz, or Muslim call to prayer–a common but hypnotic sound in this city. If you’ve never heard the Namaz, it’s a haunting solo hymn, usually sung over a tinny loudspeaker, that draws you in like enchanted faerie music. I happily followed the melody to its source and found myself standing before the Tipoo Sultan Mosque built in 1832, one of the oldest mosques in Kolkata. Just as the Namaz stopped I looked up and there was my shoe store directly across the street.
I crossed the busy intersection with the usual daredevil darting and weaving through taxis and auto-rickshaws and stepped into the shop. I walked out two minutes later with new sandals on my feet and the old ones stuffed into my shoulder bag. My first impulse had been to chuck them into the nearest trash can but then I looked up at the mosque and got a better idea. I hopscotched back through the traffic to the other side and walked into the mosque compound.
As the Namaz had just been sung the mosque was full of men praying. All of their shoes sat lined up on the ground near the entrance. I took out the old sandals, lined them up next to the others and walked out. Hopefully they’ll be of use to some other fellow traveler or needy soul one of these days.
My pilgrimage completed, from Kolkata’s largest mosque to one of its oldest, I hopped in a cab and headed for home.
Jeffrey Stanley is a playwriting and screenwriting faculty member at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, as well as at Drexel University in Philadelphia.