Mission Delhi – Devendra Kumar, Jacobpura
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The family is cutting costs wherever it can. Devendra Kumar no longer “drinks a peg or two” and his school-going sons have stopped demanding treats of samosas and burgers. “As for my Mrs, she rarely spent any money on herself, even during the good times,” he says, looking moved. Also, the thoughtful management at the kids’ private school hasn’t been insisting on the fee payment.
For more than twenty years, Mr Kumar had been running a chai stall on Gurgaon’s Gurudwara Road near Sadar Bazar, in the Graeter Delhi Region. The stall lies under a gigantic tree by the edge of the road. He had diligently built up a base of hundreds of customers, a lot many of whom happened to be the area’s shopkeepers, to whom he personally would go to deliver chai. The tea seller earned enough to smoothly support his wife, Vandana, and two sons. Deepansh, who is in 11th standard, is concentrating all his energies in becoming a Chartered Accountant. Dixit, at 4th standard, is too young to think of a career but currently daydreams of being a fauji.
And then Mr Kumar’s world shook up drastically due to the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown that followed from late March to May.
“I learned one very important thing in this entire episode,” says the tea man. He is speaking this late evening on WhatsApp video from the roof of his home in Jacobpura. “I discovered that it is necessary to have enough money in your bank account to enable your family to eat and wear well for at least six months of absolutely no earnings.”
Mr Kumar learned the lesson the hard way. His reserves almost got over during the lockdown. “It was lifted just as I was reaching the last of my savings.”
He reopened the stall in May but things aren’t going very well. “Earlier I would serve 300 glasses of chai a day, now it is 100.”
Even his regular clients are wary of his chai for the time. Mr Kumar understands the hesitation. “Most people are scared of catching the coronavirus, so they avoid consuming food or drinks from outside, including street stalls like mine,” he says without any hint of reproach or bitterness in his voice. In fact, he goes on to give excuses on their behalf. “After all, one doesn’t know how hygienic the chai or chaat walla might be… if he cleans his dishes properly…. nobody wants to get the infection.”
Even so, Mr Kumar is hopeful. He notes that the business is very low compared to the pre-pandemic days, but that lately things have been slightly brightening up—“people are getting bolder and less fearful, I think I will be in a much better position in another two months.”
Looking intently towards the phone screen, the way a person looks at the horizon when in deep thought, Mr Kumar declares: “I’m 49. I just need seven more years of earning decently and as soon as my sons are set on the direction of their careers, my Mrs and I would be ok with whatever I might earn.”
Since his wife has gone to get vegetables from the market, and his elder son is away for his tuition, the tea seller poses for a portrait with his younger one. “Anything can happen anytime, so be always ready,” he warns in a friendly tone.
[This is the 351st portrait of Mission Delhi project]