The Great Brooklyn Mojari Hunt

“Nobody wears those, so it’s kind of funny that you do,” she said, blowing swirls of smoke out of the corner of her mouth…

By Chaya Babu
May 12, 2015 | , , , , , ,

“How much to fix these?” I asked, handing the flattened leather slippers to my Brooklyn cobbler. He took them, lightly pulled the flimsy flap of one sole from the upper, and thumbed the frayed string coming apart at each loop of stitching.

“These will be tough,” he said, his brow furrowed. “I think… $50.”

He had resoled boots, capped the heel of stilettos, and replaced zippers for me, never for more than $25. And these, a pair of shoes that cost me ₹750 off a roadside in Mumbai–or the equivalent of about $12– were going to cost double that to repair.

“Hm,” I stared at him. “I’ll do it!”

I had to. They were my final pair of mojaris bought while living in India three years ago. That fix carried my last pair — a curly-toed cognac version with brown, orange, and gold details — through the summer of 2013, and I admit they saw the cobbler the following summer too. As the weather warmed this year, it was clear I needed a better strategy: I vowed to find new ones in my new neighborhood.

Last December, I moved from Prospect Heights to Kensington. Here, more than any other place I’ve lived in New York, I’m around “my people.” My parents immigrated from India, from Mysore, in the 1970s. My neighbors are mostly new arrivals from Pakistan and Bangladesh, but these distinctions feel small in the big city. Here, desi grocery stores sell sacks of lentils and cafes serve sugary pink Kashmiri chai for $1. A natural foods store I stepped into on hip Courtelyou Road last week had little boxes of Mysore Sandal Soap next to the Dr. Bronner’s. Still, the area doesn’t quite feel like home. Ironically, it’s this “being out of place” that is most nostalgic.

Here, desi grocery stores sell sacks of lentils and cafes serve sugary pink Kashmiri chai for $1.

Early in 2011, I traveled to Mumbai for my first job out of graduate school, a temporary position at a magazine. It was during this time that the whole mojari thing began.

My first days in the city were illuminating. Children on the street took photos of me with their mobile phones. Passersby pointed and whispered firangi, a slang term meaning “foreigner” or “outsider,” often with a derogatory connotation. On my second day in the city, a woman on Colaba Causeway offered to let me take a picture with her leashed monkey and then insisted I buy her a 500 rupee tin of condensed milk.

I was a prime target for absurd scams.

Moments like these helped me realize how alone I was, how much, despite my Indian roots, I could not blend into the scenery.

However, it was there on Colaba Causeway that I spotted my first mojaris. A style of traditional South Asian footwear, mojaris — or juttis as I sometimes heard them called in Mumbai — called to me. I was drawn to the rows of them in a tiny shop tucked between stalls selling electronics and other trinkets. In the entrance, the pairs on display were tacked up by a pin punctured through the sole, a piece of leather so thin that wearing mojaris to a public toilet was probably a bad idea, forget in the monsoons.

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The Causeway shop, scene of my first mojari sighting. Photo by Chandni Sehgal

I was no stranger to style. In fact, I had come to Mumbai to work at Vogue India, and mojaris, with their sleek silhouette and meticulous construction, are exquisite. Adopting them into my day-to-day repertoire was simple. Over time, they also grew to stand for something else — perhaps a way to wear my relationship to my new home without being the Westerner who dons a bindi and gets an “om” tattoo.

The shoes are handcrafted by individual artisans mostly in Northern India and Pakistan and made of tanned and cured leather. They’re typically embellished in some way, with floral designs, beading, mirrors, or colorful embroidery. Some curl up at the toe; others come to a less dramatic point. The history of this shoe dates back centuries. Simple styles were first worn among the lower and middle classes, but Mughal Emperor Jehangir introduced the more ornate kind, with gemstones and real gold and silver thread. Over time, they evolved back to an item worn by all levels of society…in theory at least.

Over time, they also grew to stand for something —
perhaps a way to wear my relationship to my new home without being the Westerner who dons a bindi and gets an “om” tattoo.

As far as I could tell, I was the only person who rocked this look. They’re slip-on, unlined, and without distinction between right and left, thus horrendously uncomfortable at first. I’d sometimes shower with them on before a day of running around the pocked and potted streets to mold them to my feet. I was devoted.

Shorts and mojaris were my go-to ensemble. Most people didn’t wear shorts, mojaris aside.

My go-to ensemble in Mumbai’s heat. Most people didn’t wear shorts there, let alone mojaris.

I soon found that mojaris weren’t considered cool. At work, women wore shoes they bought in Dubai or London or, if shopping local, Palladium Mall: expensive looking ballet flats that would have cut into the backs of their ankles (if they didn’t have drivers to tote them around), peep-toe platform sandals, and even the occasional stiletto. As a junior staff member, I went mostly unnoticed by my colleagues, but judging from the glances I got, street goods seemed a no-go with Mumbai’s fashionistas.

My friend Gunjan, who was equally low on the staff totem pole, found my taste for the shoes “adorable” — but the sentiment was similar to how she playfully mocked my accent and marveled at my other “idiosyncrasies”: who is this strange brown American girl with an Indian name?

“Nobody wears those, so it’s kind of funny that you do,” she said, blowing swirls of smoke out of the corner of her mouth as we stood in a mosaic of sun and shade on the bird-shit-and-paan-stained sidewalk outside of the office. “Do you wear them in the US or something?”

…here in Mumbai, I was determined to create a style that was my own, an amalgamation of the New Yorker in me and bits of desi fashion.

I hadn’t. But here in Mumbai, I was determined to create a style that was my own, an amalgamation of the New Yorker in me and bits of desi fashion. I wore my mojaris until they had holes in the bottoms with silk dresses or denim cutoffs and a little military jacket. I paired plain white cotton tops with churidars, soft drawstring pants that are baggy on top and tapered tight on the calf and ankle, typically meant to be worn under salwar tops. Style was a way in to the city for me, a connection to a place that was familiar yet foreign.

Since I pulled my first red-and-bronze-embroidered pair down from its pinned up position on Colaba Causeway, I’ve gone through numerous sets, wearing them everywhere, with everything, in India and the US when I returned. I eventually came back to New York exhausted from navigating the challenges of finding home in a faraway land, but I still have pangs of longing for little things: heat, chaiwallahs, mojaris.

With that last pair coming apart again at its handsewn seams, the hunt was on in Kensington, where shops with desi accessories abound. I’ve been here less than half a year, and last month, I decided to try my luck. I entered a clothing store on Church Avenue with fuscia, purple, and black anarkalis in the window. They were mesh, a look I’ve learned is on trend. Layers of brightly colored salwar kameezes and saris were folded on shelves.

Shops on Church lend themselves to Kensington’s “Banglatown” nickname

Shops on Church Ave lend themselves to Kensington’s “Banglatown” nickname.

“Excuse me, hi, do you sell mojaris?” I asked the woman in the shop, awkwardly.

Looking up from her lunch, which she was eating while seated on a metal folding chair, she stared at me blankly. I stepped closer and pulled out my phone to show her a photo.

“Ah,” she said, with a look of recognition. “Nagar.”

“Sorry?” I said.

“Nagar,” she pointed to the screen. “Nagar. Name is ‘nagar.’ Maybe next door jewelry store.”

I pointed right as a way of asking that way? Before she nodded yes, the scarf over her head falling back a little. I left, with little faith in the “jewelry store.” Indeed, the shop was no such thing. It had blue bathtub scrubbers for sale, arranged on the floor under a shelf of clothing. Different kinds of footwear were on the ground against the opposite wall, under a mix of western and desi apparel items. Silver hoops and rhinestone-encrusted bracelets hung in small plastic bags stapled shut — the jewelry.

When I asked for them outright, store owners smiled, distantly, but then shook their heads. Some chuckled at my request before turning away.

Among the rubber flip flops and leather chappals, or sandals, for men, and gold open-toed dress shoes with kitten heels for women, no mojaris, juttis, nagars, or khussas (another term I just learned) were to be found. And this continued as I entered each shop along Church Avenue. When I asked for them outright, store owners smiled, distantly, but then shook their heads. Some chuckled at my request before turning away.

At Shah Ghar, a Bangla boutique a bit down the street, I made another hopeful attempt. The owner asked me to wait, went into a back room, came back and set a pair down on the glass display case I was leaning on.

“You mean like this?” Nasim Ahmed, who owns the store, said.

“Yes!” I said, even though they were huge, fancy — cobalt blue, red, and gold jacquard to be specific — and clearly for men.

Mojaris fit for a king.

Mojaris fit for a king.

He told me they import them from India and don’t carry women’s styles. My heart sank. He explained more generally: “Over here, people don’t like these things that much. It’s too cold. In our warmer countries, they always wear them. But usually, people over there also, they use them for the bridal time, parties, like that. Not for regular use. For everyday, they use chappals, like open sandals. These are for, maybe, a groom.”

He said the kind I was searching for, a more casual sort, might be available in India and Bangladesh, but it made no sense to have them in his store.

Through racks of cotton kurtas and beaded bags, I thought I glimpsed, from the corner of my eye, the familiar glint of gold stitching. Could it be?

“Because for this market, you cannot sell them. If I bring 100 pairs, maybe I need 10 years to sell that. You wouldn’t wear them with jeans or something, you know.”

I would. But perhaps Nasim was right. Maybe I was the only person who wore these wedding shoes on the streets. Maybe I just needed to be open to other ways of belonging to my neighborhood — the shoes were, after all, just a proxy. So I stopped searching for them, instead allowing myself to stumble upon bits of Kensington that felt reminiscent: halal sweet shops with gulab jamun, $5 eyebrow threading, bodegas that sell jars of pickled mangoes, people who look like me.

Maybe that was the trick: just living. Maybe, like that first time on the Causeway, the mojaris would find me.

The other day, walking down Coney Island Avenue, I passed a small Pakistani shop called Fashion Paradise. Through racks of cotton kurtas and beaded bags, I thought I glimpsed, from the corner of my eye, the familiar glint of gold stitching. Could it be?

I was in a rush, but ventured a look inside anyway. They were sequined, bedazzled, paisley-ed, and pom-pommed. They came in teal, black, silver, and pink. The shopkeeper began pulling out sizes for me. I fumbled, picking up one style only to get distracted with another. We laughed together at my joy over the shoes.

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“Everything $30,” he said.

But I couldn’t choose. I was too excited. I looked at him wide eyed.

“For you, special,” he said. “$20.”

In India, I always got the other kind of special price: the tourist rate. Here in Kensington, suddenly I felt less of an outsider. As I took that in, the mojaris, finally in front of me, fell back a little in my mind.

“Can I think about it?” I asked, holding a pair in each hand.

“Yes!” he beamed. “Come back when ready! Come back any time.”

 

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Chaya Babu is an Open City fellow covering Kensington and Midwood in Brooklyn.

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