One of the one per cent in 13 million.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The tea is coming to a boil. He lifts the pan off the stove but not his eyes. Muhammad Waseem, a helper at a tea stall in the commercial district of Connaught Place, is very shy. He isn’t telling The Delhi Walla about his favourite Bollywood heroine. Responding in hmmms and hooons, he tries to hide his smile by bending his head so much that his chin touches his chest. “Speak up, this is Delhi,” a customer says. “You can’t act like a villager.”
Mr Waseem, 14, has the trappings of a city slicker. He is wearing cream-colored trousers, a leather belt and a silver-coloured necklace. He has a cell phone, the in-built radio of which is playing the latest chartbusters. His smile suggests that he may not be missing village life. It’s two years since he left his home in the flood-prone region of Bihar to join Iqbal Bhai, his elder brother, who has been running this tea stall in Delhi for 10 years.
Located on a stretch between Curzon Road and Barakhamba Road, the stall leans against the back wall of Antriksh Bhawan, a commerical complex that is topped with Delhi’s first revolving restaurant. Standing adjacent to an open drain, the tea stall faces a cluster of skyscrapers – Statesman House, Birla Tower, Narayan Building, Indraprastha Building, Arunachal Building, Vijay Building and Ansal Building. Despite surrounded by office buildings, Iqbal Bhai’s business is currently down. The empty ground between the skyscrapers and the stall is being turned into a multi-floor parking complex in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The area has been barricaded and not many people come for chai. It doesn’t help that summers have started.
“But we manage to make Rs 6,000 monthly,” says the 28-year-old stall owner. He complains that his brother isn’t of much help. “Waseem’s a harami (bastard). He did not study at school, which was right in front of the house. I got him to Delhi but he doesn’t want to learn anything. A few months ago, I fixed up a job for him in a mechanic’s workshop, but he didn’t go after the first day.”
While the older brother lashes out rather affectionately at him, Mr Waseem continues to smile in embarrassment. I turn to him and ask, “Do you like films?” No answer. Just a smile. “Do you miss your village?” No reply still. “You’ve parents?” No smile. “Mummy, papa, three sisters,” the boy finally opens his mouth. His teeth are stained with tobacco. “But why you don’t want to go to a school?” Smile again.
A customer joins our one-sided conversation. “If parents are tight (sic), the child will study,” he says. Identifying himself as Kamlesh Kumar, he says he is also from Bihar. “But sometimes, I know, there could be problems at home.”
Mr Waseem and his brother live in a rented one-room apartment in Mandavli, a neighbourhood across the Yamuna. Everyday they wake up at 6 am, get ready and reach the Mother Dairy milk factory near Noida Modh, where they buy 7 litres of milk. Then, they board the No. 340 Blueline bus and reach Connaught Place one hour later. Only then does Mr Waseem have his breakfast: two aloo parathas, costing Rs 20, from a street stall. Lunch is a Rs 20 plate of rajma-chawal. The brothers cook dinner at home.
An order for five glasses of chai comes from an office in Antriskh Bhawan. Iqbal Bhai gets busy with his stove. His seat comprises of three blocks of cement topped with a tattered cushion. After the tea is poured into a blackened kettle, Mr Waseem is asked to deliver it to the office. He goes off with his eyes down. There are no customers now, but a police constable approaches us. He looks friendly. Exchanging greetings with Iqbal Bhai, the constable asks him to come for a meeting that the police department is holding with street hawkers. After he leaves, Iqbal Bhai says, “It must be about the Commonwealth Games. They will say that the stalls don’t leave a good impression with foreigners and that we’ll have to remove them. What will we do then?”
We stay silent. There is no knowing what will happen. A few minutes pass and Mr Waseem returns – still looking shy, eyes still lowered, and still smiling. He will survive. Perhaps.
[This is the 17th portrait of the Mission Delhi project]
The shy and smiling Mr Waseem
Elder brother, Iqbal Bhai
Mr Waseem on an errand
Look up, Mr Waseem
The skyline view from the tea stall
Mr Waseem with the area’s other boys
Hey, eyes up!
You’re happy, you’ll survive