A tale of
The city of Chennai takes a lot of pride in its rich heritage and inbred punctuality, and with it comes an aura of easygoingness. On a sultry afternoon, the painstaking array of little tiny shops lining the dusty pavements of Ranganathan Street is a hard sight to miss. A regular person wandering the street would look down and immediately move his head in displeasure, sighing at the disparity between his economic status and that of the fruit sellers. One could notice the arduous efforts they go through, just to make a living to merely make ends meet. The humidity takes little strain to make itself visible; the cooing and the scorching sun does little to ease the situation. In all, it was not a pretty picture; lest one that shows the hardships of a toiling afternoon.
Contrasting to the mood in the afternoon, the day of Selvadurai the tea-seller begins on a joyous note. He begins his day with a walk to the cow farm in the neighbouring Dasan Street, with a first purchase of milk and tea to set shop early in the morning. His is a tiresome ordeal which requires a lot of composure to put up with the hardships, day in and day out. He recalls his early days with a glistening smile that evokes memories of his childhood. It was a story of humble beginnings, striving in a family of seven to make ends meet. His first customer Ramu,who has been a regular for thirty years, is a daily wage labourer at a busy textile shop. Selvadurai normally gives Ramu a 10 Rupee discount on his tea, a big chunk of the total fee.
The essence of Selvadurai’s life is that his stage is at the center of change. Located barely a few meters away from the busy Mambalam railway station, his little tea stall abridges the gap between a common man and his quench for thirst. Every day thousands of people walk across the busy Duraiswamy Subway along the narrow bylanes of T Nagar to get to the train station. The Mambalam station is at the hub of the sub-urban train route which connects the areas of the Airport, Chennai Central and the railway lines that embark from Tambaram. His customers are a wide variety, ranging from the neighbouring textile shop workforce to college kids. The aura of continuous movement and the hustling of people between the always-crowded textile and jewelry shops have changed this area into the commercial hub that it is today. The years of living amidst the noise has changed his view of life.
“It is always the floor-mat that truly makes my day complete”
His daily quota of 75 litres of milk is almost always sold and this was the only source of income for his family of three. The newspapers are a fragment of his daily sales. It was Thangappan, a school teacher of the 1980s, who gave him the idea of including the newspapers both at dusk and dawn; the quintessential English practice that the cuppa goes well with news in print. His log book includes the list of items that is necessary for the next day and a gentle reminder for the aging salesman to donate a portion of his earnings to the Siva Vishnu temple. His beliefs align with his actions- an interesting salesman, an ardent believer of change. He even has a glass of tea and biscuits that he gives away to the lucky person who could solve the day’s crossword puzzle in The Hindu.
The essence of this story is how a self-made man lives and stays satisfied with his meagre earnings from selling tea. As I chat him up, Selvadurai talks about the one time where actor Superstar Rajinikanth had tea from his stall. As he narrated that story, a smile arose from around his wrinkled face, showing how he adored the star. He continued his talk about the various hardships he has faced, the continuous stream of money that he owed the local moneylenders, for just two reasons: to safeguard his business and to educate his kid. It was eight years back that Kumar, his son, graduated from the Indian School of Business with a MBA degree. Always amongst the top of his class, his son did not have a problem in getting into Goldman Sachs, and with that came his marriage. Selvadurai felt his life complete at that point. I ask him why he continues to work in spite of his son earning now, and he replies with a stern face that his job is what made him, and is a source of his identity. He insists on maintaining his family’s monetary requirements. Not once did he take a single penny from his son or move in with him. He insists that he merely did the duty of a father to his son. He also adds with certainty that he would never find his beauty sleep in a luxurious house nor in a comfortable 12-inch mattress. “It is always the floor-mat that truly makes my day complete”, he remarks.
While the conversation flowed, I found him engrossed with the evening menu on a chalk board that hangs from his cart. The writing comprises of an assortment of butter cookies, quick eats like Pakodas, Potato Bonda, chips and chilled buttermilk. He typically alternates the items of his menu. During the evenings, he forms a team of two with his wife, who chips in with the cooking and washing the used plates, to preparing lassi for the weary customers who are at dismal lengths from the day’s close. He introduces his wife, “Meet Kamala, the biscuit for the tea that I am”. A cheesy line that makes his better-half smile. His life feels complete, there is no other purpose but love for his wife and for the fresh brew that was sown in Darjeeling but sold, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
The buzz at twilight is from the office-goers who constantly chip in with their busy day at work, the annoying managers, the ladies who disembark from the trains to the temples or from the elderly who have an advice or two about the current political situation in the state. The stall remains open till the dreary hours of the night, the time when the vegetable markets take away the remaining of their stock in pick-up trucks and when lovers walk hand-in-hand around the dimly lit streets of the conservative Chennai, kindled by their sudden courage in themselves and their loved ones. Selvadurai doesn’t own a motorcycle, his legs carry him to where he started.
A stringent workaholic who remarks that the clunking of the tea glasses is what gave him life, for without his cradle of 8 glasses that he started out with, there would be no hue in it.
While the city sleeps at 4 o’ clock, Selvadurai and the lights in his blue tea stall are up once again.