It’s nearly dusk as I enter the small shop with a sign ‘Roy Copier’. The shop is about 6 by 4 feet on a narrow street in Kolkata. It’s dim, with dark blue walls — paint peeling off in too many places. It has an old, sticky-looking desktop, a basic photocopier and a lamination machine crammed tightly together. There are stacks of copier sheets everywhere, many seem forgotten by their owners. I am greeted by a half smile and a nod from a short, medium-set man. He has a round face, tiny eyes, and tanned skin. He gets up from a small stool from behind the counter and asks me what is it that I want. This is Girish Roy, 42, owner of ‘Roy Copier’, where he runs a small photocopying business.
Girish was born in Kolkata to a Bengali Hindu family. Married for over 17 years, Girish has two sons aged 15 and 7. He talks to me; his arms crossed on his chest. He speaks slowly, halting at every few words — as if fearing that he would say too much. He tells me his father had a ‘service’ job and his mother was a homemaker. Girish was one of four children and their financial condition was strained. I sympathise with his parents and the challenge of raising four children. Girish confesses that he hadn’t known comfort for a long while. ‘Amra tokhon thekei gorib chilam’ (We have been chronically poor.)
Girish started the photocopying work when he was just 23 years old. Due to family hardships he had to quit his studies after completing elementary school and juggle with odd jobs. He learnt photocopying while working for someone. ‘Mathaae eshchilo ei kaaj ta korar bhabna’ (This work came to me as an idea — as a thought.) He borrowed some money from his parents and started up.
Girish’s charges Rs. 1 per sheet for photocopying; lamination rates depend on the size of the document. Spiral binding fetches Rs. 25 to Rs. 30. His revenues are about Rs. 22,000 a month and he spends Rs. 16–17,000 in monthly investments towards paper and ink. He looks at me and adds that the profit isn’t much — only Rs. 5–6000. He spends most of it towards household expenses leaving hardly anything for savings. His wife works with an international smartphone company as a customer care executive and earns a salary of Rs. 20,000. Girish’s household spends Rs. 9000 towards groceries and Rs. 6000 towards school/tuition fees. He has recently bought a motorbike for which he took a loan of Rs. 90,000. He makes monthly payments of Rs. 2500 towards loan premiums. The household’s savings all go into a fixed deposit account.
I ask Girish to tell me more about his customers. ‘Shob rokom er manush aashe’ (All sorts of people come here), he says. He goes on to elaborate how different people treat him differently. Some are kind or courteous; others are rude or dismissive. ‘Whatever be their approach towards me; I behave the same way with everyone’, he says. I wonder if this detachment helps Girish cope with his everyday life and its struggles, better. Girish asserts ‘Amar kono target customer nei, jaader dorkar pore tara aashe’ (I don’t have any target customers; whoever needs my services, comes.) Girish procures his raw materials from retailers at the Gariahat market every two to three days.
I ask him about his future plans for his shop. Girish feels limited while thinking about expansion possibilities. He confesses about having limited idea of other technology which he could use to upgrade his existing business. I also sense his pessimism about doing so. ‘Shob cheshta britha hoe geche’ (All efforts are in vain) he says, hinting at unsuccessful attempts in the past. He tells me the existing market appears to be too volatile to operate a new business and that he cannot take a risk at this stage of his life. He tells me to calculate his income and expenses and asserts that there is nothing left for ‘making plans’. Pointing at a shanty across the road, Girish states, ‘I live there’. I ask him if that’s his home. ‘No, my home is far away. I stay here to look after the shop and replenish its stores. My wife and children live further away. My wife visits me a few times during the week. I don’t work on Sundays.’ He has a cot and a few clothes to get through the week.
Girish recently purchased his second smartphone for Rs. 5000. In addition to making calls, he bought it to stay in touch with social media, particularly WhatsApp and Facebook. He also uses his phone to make online payments for electricity bills through PhonePe. Girish tells me that he struggles with using the smartphone; he learnt most of what he knows today from his wife. She owns one too and uses a lot more features on it. Girish says, almost as a matter of fact, that she had to learn how to use a smartphone as part of her job.
Girish’s sons are in school. He admits feeling stressed and anxious about their education expenses in the future. He aspires to buy a bigger house and reveals that without any savings/funds, even the thought of is intimidating. He shares his need ‘Our current house has only one room; not enough space for breathing.’ All of 42 years, Girish feels his age is working against him. Yet again, he laments about the unpredictability of business and how he fears that the market for photocopying is dying due to technology changes. But, he quickly polishes it off with a whiff of optimism says ‘Bepsha kono din bhalo; kono din kharap’ (Some days are good, some are bad).
In the end, all of us fall back on our secret stash of optimism. I think about mine as I thank Girish for his time. It’s time to go back to life-as-usual outside ‘Roy Copier’.
About the Author:
Valerie Mendonca is a Research Associate at CIIE.CO, India’s foremost entrepreneurship centre housed at IIM Ahmedabad. Her research interests are women, entrepreneurs, society and storytelling. She tweets @ValerieHood17.
Rahul Datta is currently pursuing his Bachelors in Management Studies from St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata. He is an alumnus of La Martiniere for Boys, Kolkata. Over the years; Rahul has developed a growing passion for debating & content writing and is an avid debater having participated in national level debates. Apart from being a foodie; he makes it a point to keep himself updated with all the happenings in the world. He tweets @RahulDatta2.
About Bharat Inclusion Initiative (BII):
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The program focuses on solutions leveraging technology, especially the India Stack. It integrates financial inclusion research with entrepreneurship and training to transform these solutions into scalable, viable and high impact businesses. We are keen on partnering with entrepreneurs who are driven by building next-generation digital services for India. Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or ask your questions in the comments section below.