A tête-à-tête with Manoj, an enterprising tea vendor!

Referred to as ‘Lala’ by his customers, Manoj runs a tea stall adjacent to one of the thousands construction sites in the city growing at maddening pace.

He had just been back after a two weeks stay at his village in the Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan. Jhunjhunu lies in a semi-arid climatic region of the country and remains dry for most part of the year. Agriculture is largely dependent on monsoon, which is getting more and more erratic as the years pass by. The “land of kings and queens” has now transitioned into a region, which supplies labour force to cities like Delhi. Having seen his father toiling hard at the neighboring copper mines and then at brick kilns in Delhi, Manoj decided never to become a laborer. He realized at an early age that there is very little income in the occupation and the family has to be on the move always. Family being a unit of labor, everybody had to travel along with his father wherever he could find job. “This ruined my life. I could not continue my education and had to drop out after class 3. Even before my marriage, I took the decision that I will not let this happen to my children”, Manoj says with pride.

With this thought, he made friends with a barber in the nearby town and learnt hair-cutting and shaving from him. The shop had just started to pick up, but destiny had something else in store. His father, while working on a site, fell ill and could not continue with the contract. He had taken a loan of thirty thousand rupees to work on the site, which is a standard practice in the Brick Kiln Industry. He was left with no option but to replace his father on the site until the contract was over.

It was a jolt to the new venture. However, Manoj’s entrepreneurial spirit didn’t perish. While working at the site, he always thought of ideas for becoming “Zero to Hero”. The most obvious idea that can come to anybody’s mind in such a context is to become a labor contractor. Manoj, too, took the plunge and signed his first contract. First few projects went fine and he decided to get married. But, later he suffered a huge loss because a group of laborer, after taking the advance, ran without informing and never returned. Once he went to their village, but he was stoned and beaten up by them and their family members. “I never wanted such a tensed life. So, I decided to quit this profession. Only a stone-hearted person can become a labor contractor. I am not that kind”. Thus, he quit.

However the enterprising acumen still persisted. While he was pursing a contract at a construction site, he observed that the workers frequently go for extended tea-breaks and there is always a tussle between them and the contractors. He convinced the contractor to allocate some space and invest in setting up a teashop for him to run. Manoj promised to supply tea to the laborers on the site itself, besides the general public he would be serving. This way, they won’t have an excuse to take extended breaks.

Manoj, 34, is now running the teashop in Gurgaon for last two years. The building is still under construction and just half-completed. Unlike his counterparts on the main road, he doesn’t get harassed by the police and the municipality, as his shop lies in the private premises with doors opening to the outer public. He has got a room to stay as well. Everybody around knows him well as he is the only tea vendor inside the colony. He is able to sell around hundred cups every day on an average. He has now diversified to other items like cigarette, sweets, wafers, candies etc. With this, he is able to earn around twelve to fifteen thousand rupees per month. “What else does one want in life!” Manoj exults.

His family is in village and he visits them during every festival and other such occasions, as it is not more than six hours of journey. He considers himself luckier than the laborers from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, who are unable to go to their villages frequently due to distance. He has made it a habit of visiting his home whenever his saving kitty goes higher than five thousand. He doesn’t put it into a bank account as he perceives it to be a hassle. He tried transferring the money through an acquaintance but he had always been worried. “I trust my friends but in case the money is stolen in the way, there is a chance of relationships being spoilt. For me, relationship is much more important than money. So, I don’t take any such risk.”

While spending nearly half a day at Manoj’s shop, I realized that people are very fond of him! They always address him as Lala and crack jokes with him. Lala, however, is a professional to the core. “Lala will climb the building and threaten to jump off, in case we don’t pay him on time. He is too stingy!” Ravi, a rag picker, who stays nearby and is a good friend of Manoj, complained jokingly! I didn’t see him maintaining any account for the debtors. Upon being enquired, Manoj proudly states that he trusts his memory. Moreover, as per him, he is too poor to “have a heart attack in case of any loss.” He avoids the “tension” of maintaining accounts as he believes in God. “I will get whatever is written in my destiny, neither a single penny more nor less”, he proclaims.

People from nearby residential places never come to his teashop. “Why will they come to my shop? They cannot sit and have tea with labor class. It is not their fault. These people are too dirty and smell of alcohol even during the day time”. The auto-drivers, who are generally the locals from neighboring villages, come to the shop quite often. However, they don’t pay. “They are locals and are always high on drugs. Their families have sold their lands because of which these youngsters have got an easy access to money. They can do anything and the police are always with them.”  Ravi, the rag-picker, who by now had developed a keen interest in the conversation, fumed with anger with the mention of locals. “These boys behave like goons. They don’t consider people from other states as humans. They would slap us and tease our girls just for fun. However, not everyone is like that. Many a time, we were saved by locals only, when somebody misbehaved. The educated ones always speak to us with respect,” he added.

It takes a little time to uncover the jovial fellow in an otherwise professional Lala. He is happy in whatever circumstance he is in and never complains about lack of resources. He never felt the need to have a TV or to go to the cinemas. Moreover, the shop runs from 7:30 in the morning till 9 in the night. He could hardly get any time left for himself. He goes to the nearby uptown shopping complex whenever he is astoundingly bored. “I see real life cinema in the galleria shopping centre as the people there look no lesser than hero and heroines,” Manoj says with a wink.

While returning home after meeting Manoj, I was thinking what would happen to Manoj once the construction project is over. Will he go to the next project along with the contractor? Or will his entrepreneurial spirit lead him to something totally different? When will he finally go home, if ever?

By Prerit Rana