From Rags to Inner Riches - Our Shoeshining Friends

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In America, we love a good “rags to riches” story. We love it when we hear of poor but clever people who work hard and ascend out of their impoverishment to power, prestige, and wealth. It doesn’t happen very often: for the most part, poverty is a difficult thing to escape, even in America. But it does happen frequently enough that we can believe in the stories. We point to them and say, “This is what America is about. We reward people for who they are, and what they accomplish, not where they come from.”

India has imported some of this cultural mythology, particularly in the last decade with its explosive economic growth. But for the most part, social mobility is still a very foreign concept. For better and for worse, the caste system still has a strong, invisible hold on the cultural consciousness.

Still, some of the stories that we have encountered along the streets of Paharganj are as powerful as our grand American tales of social advancement. There are people in India for whom poverty has been the furnace that has refined their character, and the challenges of survival has sharpened their mind as much as any schooling might have. While they have not attained offices of high social stature, achieved great recognition, or accumulated wealth of any sort, their interior riches of character, virtue, and spirit are unsurpassed amongst all the people I have met in my journeys.


I met Amar one afternoon when I went out for a stroll. I had just fought off a rickshaw driver (who was very eager to take me somewhere I didn’t want to go for far more money than it was worth) when Amar called out his greeting.

“I sorry,” he told me, “Main Bazaar no good place. Everyone here is asking for money. You like sit, talk, have chai?”

Taking chai is a wonderful Indian custom. Even if the person you are drinking with ultimately wants to sell you something, taking chai slows the process down, and makes the interaction more about the relationship than about the sale. I try to make a point of never refusing a chai.

Nathaniel and Amar in Sketchy Chai Alley.
Nathaniel and Amar in Sketchy Chai Alley.

Amar led me down a sketchy-looking alley to a small corner shop, where an elderly man had a large pot of chai brewing over an open flame. He ordered two chais and invited me to sit down in the entryway of a closed shop.

Amar is smaller than his seventeen years, but such is perhaps to be expected, since he has spent six of those years shining shoes on Main Bazaar. He is clearly quite brilliant. His English is clear and comprehensible, he also speaks a little French and German and Japanese. He picked up these languages with no formal schooling, simply by shining shoes on Main Bazaar.

After we had chatted for a while, Amar pointed to my shoes. “Can I see your slippers?” he asked me.

I was a little surprised at this, but I let him take a look.

“These are good slippers,” he told me. He tugged on the straps, and caressed the soles. “Leather is very strong. You get in America? They are not so good in India.”

Amar showed me all the places where the glue on my sandals was disintegrating. “This is not good,” he told me, “even if leather is strong, glue comes off, and shoes finish. If you want, I can make stitches here, then shoes strong again, last long time. You want I show you?”

“Sure,” I told him. I didn’t feel bad about giving a little work to a poor kid who had just taken such time to get to know me.

He repaired my shoes right before me. He made fast work of it, but it was clearly a hard task.

I didn’t have any money with me, so I invited Amar to have dinner with us. He was very happy to accept this offer. We talked with Amar about his life and about his family, his religion and his abbreviated growing up years in a village in Uttar Pradesh.

Amar’s father was a bicycle rickshaw driver who died a few years back, leaving Amar the primary breadwinner of the household. Amar at that time was already doing alright in his shoe shining work in Delhi, so he continued in it, sending back whatever he could for the maintenance of the household and his sister’s education.

In the course of our conversation, Amar revealed to us that a large portion of his income is eaten up by renting his shoe shining box. He suggested what a blessing it would be to have his own new box. He asked us if that was something we might be willing to help him purchase.

After praying and talking about it, Sarah and I both felt like it was something we were being called to, so we gave Amar the money he would need to buy his new shoeshining box. We have since seen him again, and have had a chance to see his new possession, and how glad he is to have it.

Unfortunately, Amar is no longer in town. The report we have heard from his friends say that his mother is ill, and he has gone to be with her. We ask your prayers for Amar: for the health of his family, the blessing of the work of his hands, and the continued sufficiency of their income.


Our connection with Amar also led us to meeting Nicky. Nicky is another shoe shining boy, four years Amar’s senior. As soon as he saw us, he started beaming. “You know Amar?” he asked us. “He looking for you. Say you have tie like this and bag like this.”

“I am very glad meeting you,” he told us. “You very good people. You have some chai?”

Nathaniel and Nicky sip chai in an alley off Main Bazaar
Nathaniel and Nicky sip chai in an alley off Main Bazaar

Like Amar, Nicky prefers the chai that is brewed in sketchy side alleys to the restaurant fare. We’ve had two or three chances to have chai with Nicky.

Nicky is strangely generous. Even though he has next to nothing, he insists on paying whenever we go out. He has only once allowed us to pay for the chai. When we saw a movie with him, Sarah and I bought the tickets, but he insisted on buying us a bottle of water and coffee at intermission. “You are my guests here,” he says. “Let me pay. I insist.” And, “I only like the talking. Money not important.”

Nicky’s English isn’t quite as clean as Amar’s, but he is much more comfortable using it. He loves to chat and meet new people. In our first meeting, he showed us the contents of his wallet: twenty or thirty business cards, old receipts, and scraps of paper that contained the names, emails, and phone numbers of some of the foreign people he has befriended in his ten years on Main Bazaar.

“Be very careful, my friends,” Nicky told us. “You see the beggar, you walks straight. Not left, not right. You give money, and they come come. Your money, finish. But the beggar, they not finish. You stay one year India. One year very long time. You watch the monies.”

“I tell you because you straight people. You very good people. Myself, I am a poor person, live very hard life. I have only love to give.”

Nicky is an incredibly sweet kid. “You need anything, you tell me,” he says. “I know the people around here, and the business—who want money, and who is good.”

His theological instincts are also very sound: “God watches for me,” he told us. “He provide the customers, all the good people talking to, all the good things. Sometime, God give good days. Sometime, he give bad days. But always I thank him: life, even a hard life, it is good. Understand?”

What will become of these intrepid young men remains to be seen. But having just a glimpse into the vast storehouse of their inner treasure, seeing their hospitality and kindness and cleverness, I am sure that whatever chances they encounter they will overcome beautifully for the depth and content of their character.

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