I do not remember wearing shoes or slippers until I finished high school, though my parents said that they bought me shoes when I was a baby. Rainy season used to be a problem with mud and hidden thorns until we moved to sandy village where summers were difficult. I remember running from one patch of grass to another while going to school. The first pair I got was when I went to University and those days they were called 'belt boots'. It was painful wearing shoes for the first time. Since then I guess that I got used to shoes and slippers, though a few years ago arthritis and corns made both walking and wearing shoes painful. Then I found Roebuck walking shoes and life has been reasonably pleasnt since then. But now the particular brand is no longer imported by Australia but they are still available in some US stores and I have been managing through relatives and friends visiting from US. So, what all I know about shoes is the pain or comfort of wearing shoes. A comment in a recent post in Blogbharti hints that there may be more to wearing shoes than just comfort. This made me go back to Bernard Cohn's Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India , one of the very few history type books that I have read. I tried to see whether there is any special significance to Indians of wearing shoes. There are several passages scattered throughout the book and I could not understand some of them. Here are some of the passages.
On page 43, after quoting from J.B. Gilchrist's 'East India Guide' (1825) Cohn says " The wearing of shoes by Indians in the houses of Europeans was seen as a part of a larger effort on the part of some Indians to establish equality or even superiority-not only in relation to Europeans but also with respect other Indians, by appearing to be on a footing of equality with Europeans".
From page 133: "In the 1830's, F.J. Shore, a judge in upper India .... explained to his European readers they should not allow Indians in their presence with shoes. If Indians did so, the sahib should explain to them that:
"Nations have different customs; ours is to uncover head-yous to uncover feet, as a token of respect. You should not presume to walk into the sitting-room of another native with your shoes on; why do you treat me with disrespect you would not show to one of your countrymen? I am not prejudiced, and it is quite immaterial to me whether you take off your shoes or turban, but I must insist on one or other mark of civility if you wish me to receive your visits." This is unanswerable by the native and those English who have acted in this manner, have been decidedly more respected by the people"
By 1854, so many Indians in Bengal, particularly in Calcutta,had taken to wearing European shoes and stockings that the Governor_General in Council passed a resolution allowing native gentlemen" on official and semi-official occasions... to appear in the presence of the servants of the British government" wearing European boots and shoes".
On page 161, the discussion is abstract and not very clear to me: " As the head is the locus of power and superior forms of knowledge the feet become the opposite. The feet are "sources of downward and outward currents of inferior matter"...Shoes and slippers were dirty, not just from being used to walk around in, but as the repositories of base substances flowing from weare's body...".
Coming back to Blogbharti post, may be there are some technical reasons for asking people to leave shoes outside some of these places or may be some of the old concepts of purity, respect are adopted by the new professionals. In any case, Cohn's is an interesting book which indicates how some institutions, however vague or prevalent they might have been, tranformed during the British rule, sometimes with active or covert participation from Indians.
Since I read very few history type books, I do not know how authoritative Cohn's account is or whether there are any authoritative accounts. Partha Chatterjee has interesting things to say about what makes particular explanations persuasive.