The Rhythm of My Safety Shoes
As a dancer in Sri Lanka, Vathsala Aswathaman wears metallic bells on her ankles. Their rhythm is always with her. In Canada, she works at a cookie factory in safety boots. At first, she thinks she can never keep up, but soon the sound of the equipment mixes with her dancing rhythms. Now she teaches classical Indian dance, but she still loves the cookies.
I was looking at myself: my white uniform, hair net, earplugs, blue gloves and safety shoes for my job at the Peek Freans factory. When I walked, my shoes made a sound like “tom-tom,” reminding me of my classical dance rhythm. The cookies came very fast on the conveyor belts. Getting into the rhythm, I picked the cookies up quickly but carefully to fill the big square trays. I had to carry the heavy trays. If one fell on my foot, my safety shoes would protect me.
I am a trained classical Indian dancer from Sri Lanka. When I perform, I wear make-up, and I’m dressed in silk sarees with gold embroidery. I put on shiny earrings, armbands, bangles and other ornaments, as well as a pottu in the middle of my forehead. On my ankles are salangai—metallic bells from my parents and blessed by my guru. When I dance or even walk, they make a rhythm like “taa-taa.” Even thinking about my salangai, I hear that rhythm.
In 2001, when I got married and came to Canada, I did not have many chances to dance. Instead, I worked in a factory in Toronto. First, I registered at Kelly Services. At the orientation, I did a speed test and a mechanical aptitude test. After passing those tests, I learned some workplace safety rules. Then one day, someone from Kelly’s called to say, “Tomorrow, you start at Peek Freans.”
I looked at myself. I was wearing a white uniform like a doctor’s lab coat, a hairnet, earplugs, blue latex gloves and safety shoes. They were a little heavy. Whenever I walked, my shoes made a sound like “tom-tom.” I smiled. The sound reminded me of my dancing rhythm, “taa taa.” On my first day, I was on the Oreo assembly line. The smell was yummy. Cookies were coming very fast along the chain like army ants. Quickly but carefully, I picked up rows of cookies and placed them into waiting boxes.
I experienced all the shifts: the morning shift from 7:00 until 3:00, the afternoon shift from 3:30 until 11:30, and the midnight shift from 11:30 until 7:00 a.m. I worked a 12-hour shift on the Oreo line. We lifted the big trays of cookies onto the moving conveyor belts. The machines made loud noises like “taka-taka, taka-taka”. My fingers seemed to be dancing as they lifted the cookies. The sound of the machines mixed with my dancing rhythm made a sound like “takita takita takita.”
Another day, I worked on the Digestive cookie line. The cookies came in four fast lines. After filling the trays, we had to carry them to the other side of the floor. If a heavy tray fell, it could hurt my feet. I often looked down at my safety shoes. They seemed to be smiling at me.
When I checked for my name on the notice board, I was always happy to see my name on the
Fruit Creme cookies list. I loved the sweet smell and cheerfulness of those cookies—with the big circle of strawberry jam in the centre.
At the end of each shift, I used to sit down in the locker room and remove my safety shoes. They always smelled like cookies. I’d clean off the crumbs that stuck to the leather surface.
During my first week, I was stressed out. I didn’t get the factory life. It was very different from my normal dance life. When I first saw all the huge, noisy machines and the bright lights, I felt scared. My arms became very tired after a day of packing cookies. I was surprised to see how my co-workers were packing the cookies very quickly. I thought I could never pack them so fast, but I got used to the speed after a few shifts. I caught the rhythm. And I felt proud of myself.
Finally, when I said goodbye to Peek Freans forever, I felt like I was saying a namaskaram (a customary farewell gesture with hands pressed together) at the end of a dance performance.
VATHSALA ASWATHAMAN was a trained Classical Bharatanatyam dancer in Sri Lanka. She holds a diploma in Computer Studies from IDM. Vasthsala got married and immigrated to Canada in 2001.