Pawan and his “Madam”
I first met Pawan when I moved into our new office in NOIDA. Just a short walk away, under a makeshift tarpaulin cover as protection against the elements, Pawan sells tea, paan masala and cigarettes.
Actually Pawan does some other things besides. He also plies a cycle-rickshaw- rented for Rs 100 a day- does odd jobs in the neighbourhood and is always “available” for a chat with all the auto drivers, gatekeepers who drop in for a chai. He even tried to sell me a used Nokia once- for all of Rs 900/- – his profit from the deal would only have been Rs 100/-, he assured me. I refused to bite, but someone must have done so, because I did not see the phone again.
Have I given the impression that Pawan is very enterprising and active? If so, let me correct it right away. Pawan’s main activity is slacking off- in summer, you can spot him doubled up inside a stationary auto-rickshaw, snoring away. In winter, he is usually dozing off on his cycle rickshaw. When he is not around, sleeping or otherwise slacking off or on the rare occasion plying his cycle-rickshaw, his “Madam” takes over the tea-stall.
In all the time I have known them, I have never heard Pawan address her as anything other than “Madam”. On her part, she is less respectful; does not hesitate in raising her voice and letting him have a piece of her mind when he is not pulling his weight.
Pawan is a farmer back “home”; somewhere in M.P. It takes a train journey, then a bus journey and then some kilometers by foot to get to his village. They have a daughter and a son; back in the village. They are studying in the village school. Pawan and his “madam” are illiterate.
When their various suppliers come with provisions, Pawan or Madam look for someone around to help read out the bill and tally the receipts. On one such occasion I was the “interpreter”. It took almost 10 minutes of my time; the bill was a list of scrawls, in Hindi- a language I am really not comfortable in. I decided, after that encounter to evangelize the virtues of education to Pawan. Pawan shook his head in extreme skepticism.
“It’s too difficult”, Pawan told me. “I was in the village school once, when I was young. I stayed there for 4 years without understanding a word. Finally, the teacher gave me a sound thrashing and told me not to come again”. Now, I am too old to learn.
Plus, what’s the use? “Hamein kaunsa kitab padhni hai?”
I persevered and got him an alphabet book and a book of numerals. I asked around and sure enough, near where he stays, there is a adult literacy centre. I urged him to join up for evening classes. No.
About six months back, Pawan was in huge distress. He had been promised by the gatekeeper of a bank nearby that he will help him open an account. He took Rs 500 from Pawan and for good measure another Rs 500 from his Madam and that’s the last they saw of the money or indeed, the man. More than the loss of money, what stung were the words his Madam directed at him. “Saale, nikamme”, she told him, in my presence- for it was she who told me the story- “Zaroor dono milke daru piya hoga”. Pawan’s protestations of non-collusion in drinking the money away with the gatekeeper cut no ice. One Thousand rupees was a lot of money; more than they saved every month- and she was not letting Pawan get away with an act so stupid, lightly.
A couple of times a month, Pawan’s “shop” would vanish- when the NOIDA authorities would come to inspect the illegal encroachments on the pavements. Most of the times, Pawan would be lucky or forewarned and he would pack up his stuff and go away. A few times, he would have his “samaan” confiscated, including the little gas burner for making tea- there would be a price to pay, for getting that released, a few doors to knock and one suspects palms to grease. Then, Pawan would be back.
Pawan and wife left for home couple of months back; only Madam came back a couple of weeks later and set up stall. In the meantime, I had shifted my custom to another stall closer to my office. Curious, I asked her about Pawan. “He is staying back and tending to the fields”, she told me curtly, her natural reserve now accentuated by the fact that her “aadmi” is no longer by her side. Since then, she has been the sole person at the makeshift tea stall.
I no longer go to her stall for tea- more than the tea, I enjoyed our light banter and innocent chatter with Pawan- with that gone, it is just another cup of sugary hot solution. But, I often see her, when I park my car and start my small walk towards the office. And, it strikes me that here’s a woman with extraordinary guts.
With no education, no existing network in a strange city, with no savings worth the name- surviving and earning a living selling tea on the pavement. Saving up money, little by little, for educating her children, generating cash and saving most of it for the day when she can’t work any more. Call me a sentimental fool, but I see a new India in her.