The expat’s new shoes: Bata Hawaii chappals

Jil Wheeler’s Letter from Mumbai isn’t offensive  this time around, just poorly informed. In “The Expat’s New Clothes”, she writes:

If there is one overarching, overwhelming “plus” to living in Mumbai, it is the ability to wear sandals at any time, to any event, no exceptions. At some point in the West, it became cool to hate your feet—to be icked out by toe hair and to insist on wearing socks for sex. We’ve made sandals on men something of a running a joke [sic], and women are warned about the dangers of too much toe cleavage in the workplace.

In India, however, the foot is just fine. Sandals, or chappals, are not only de facto footgear, they’re intimately tied up with national identity. When Gandhi’s pair went up for auction a few months ago, the controversy wasn’t over selling his personal items, it was over selling his sandals. Gandhi made them himself—no musty British footgear for him—and when they sold for over a million dollars, they went to an Indian entrepreneur. India equals sandals, at least in a few minds.

Make that a few half-baked minds. Could Indians prefer sandals to shoes because the climate is so hot and humid?  And maybe lace up boots aren’t popular because the country’s cultural norms require the frequent removal of footwear? And perhaps  sandals are worn anytime, anywhere, because many Indians don’t own multiple pairs of shoes? No, Indians like sandals because we have these quaint ways.

The rest of Wheeler’s piece isn’t half-bad–there’s a nice bit about learning to tie a sari by watching YouTube–but dear Morning News: please won’t you reconsider Wheeler’s assignment? Or at least halve her per diem till she decides to research her subject before hitting send?

I’d argue that the representative national footwear of India (if there is such a  thing) is the flip-flop. Specifically, the rubber Bata Hawaii chappal with blue straps and a white inner sole which, over time, wears away to reveal the blue impressions of  big toe and heel.  When the straps give up the fight, you can mend the piece at the cobbler’s for a  nominal sum.

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(Picture from www.bata.in. The pair will set you back by 79 rupees, less than 2USD.)

In The Namesake, when Gogol and his sister visit India, upon reaching the family house, they “have their feet traced onto pieces of paper, and a servant is sent to Bata to bring back rubber slippers for them to wear indoors.” I rest my case.

These slippers were meant to be worn indoors, but you saw them everywhere.  When I was a student in India, I had them on every single day, as did everyone; we swapped them for shoes only for job interviews. I wore them like moccasins over my sock-clad feet in the cold Ahmedabad winters.  During weighty lectures, we’d surreptiously slide someone’s pair along the room, and it was lovely to watch the victim hunt for the missing slipper at the end of class, unless you were the victim, in which case the whole thing became a malicious act by a bum-faced misogynist.

As a child, I always though Bata was an Indian brand name, like Tata.  No, Tomas Bata was Czech, and it’s a Canadian company; the Bata Shoe Museum is near where I now live. Who’d have thought?

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11 responses to “The expat’s new shoes: Bata Hawaii chappals

  1. I always thought Bata was an Indian company! And yes, the bata hawaii were/are totally indispensable – they were also prescribed lab chappals for the biotech folks. Nice post!

  2. Where I live, not only are these the preferred footwear amongst students, but its even fine to wear mismatches; blue in one foot, red in the other. Your intrinsic potential for brilliance blinds everyone to such singularities in footwear….and of course Bata doesnt have the monopoly anymore…

  3. And Bata no longer owns the Hawaii brand, though the term is generic to the category now.
    Bata sold the brand to Alpragatas,a Brazilian company some time back.
    -Nikhil

  4. @ Vig: Thanks!
    Lab chappals. Everyday I learn something new…

  5. “the rubber Bata Hawaii chappal with blue straps and a white inner sole which, over time, wears away to reveal the blue impressions of big toe and heel”

    Evokes such fond memories of my pair, that line. Sigh.

  6. @ Suranga: Mismatched flip-flops as fashion trend? Hmmm…maybe not. But there’s something about being a student that gives one the cojones to try these things.

  7. @ Nikhil: Thanks, I didn’t know that. If you google Bata Hawaii chappal, the first hit is the bata.in page featuring these flipflops, so I assumed the brand was still current in India. Plus, I’m in the usual desi-who-left time warp when it comes to brands.

    @ Sujatha: Yes! I was awash in nostalgia when I wrote that line. Old Navy just does not cut it, eh?

  8. Sandals, yes. But I do not see too many people wearing chappals about, at least not where I’ve been travelling. It must have to do with wanting to protect their feet better, and still be able to slip them off umpteen times.

    And, the Bata years. Aha. Almost an identity.

  9. @ Anil: Thanks for visiting.
    Yes, always dangerous to use the label “representative national _________” when writing about India–there are so many variations, all legitimate. But I would guess it breaks down primarily by economic class, so I’d probably go with slippers in a pan-Indian context.
    And yes, I hear you about the identity.

  10. Looking in vain in northwest New Mexico this past summer for a pair of plain, unadorned flip-flops (no rhinestones, no fabric cover, no smiley-faces, just the footwear, please) I was thinking grumpily of how common they used to be in my long-ago youth. It made me feel like an OLD timewarped desi–the kind of old you get when things you used to take for granted are now impossible to find. Next time I go to India I’m stocking up. I hope by then they’re not all studded with rhinestones!

  11. @ Uma: Had to laugh at the image of you searching for plain flip-flops amidst a mountain of glitter!
    The time warp thing has really gotten to me–despite knowing better, I’m always clucking over how things are so expensive in India now.

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