I have come across different types of people in my life belonging to different social strata and memories about quite a few of them have remained close to my mind even today.
Umesh Kumar who lived in a slum area of East Delhi, during the late 1980s, was one such person whom I knew very closely. He worked as an Attendant in our office located at an area popularly known as “ITO” – an area surrounding the Income Tax Office; distance from his dwelling to ITO being about 11 Kms.
Umesh Kumar –a school drop-out, had his wife (Parvati, who never went to school) and a son (Rahul) studying in class VIII with reasonably good academic performance – securing on an average above seventy percent marks despite all odds.
Umesh Kumar and Parvati’s lives used to start at 3.00 a.m. After morning rituals, they prepared morning and afternoon meals (mostly Roti and Sabji) for all, and Tiffin for Rahul – who habitually followed a solitary life-pattern after departure of his parents for earning livelihoods. While afternoon meals for Umesh Kumar and Parvati were taken in small lunch boxes separately, the same for Rahul was left covered at home to be taken by him after returning from school.
Summer or Winter, starting at 4.00 a.m., with a medium-size aluminium box tightly roped to the carrier and a nearly worn-out bag (containing a kerosene hand pump-stove and kerosene in a small container) hanging on the tiny hanger in front their bicycle, Umesh Kumar and his wife (she seating on the round hollow steel bar in the space between the saddle and handle), used to reach ITO every day by around 5.00 a.m.
After cleaning a particular spot on pavement areas of ITO, they used to set things in order for starting their make-shift tea-stall where with tea the pedestrians could buy and eat some not-so-unhygienic cheaper varieties of bakery stuff. For Umesh Kumar, this part of their daily work did not take more than half an hour. For Parvati, however, the rest part of the activities – being fully exposed to severe heat in summer and extreme cold in winter, used to be a long process till late in the evening.
After setting their make-shift tea-stall on the pavement area, Umesh Kumar used to report by 5.30 a.m. to a household in the ITO area for carrying out works (cleaning floors, washing utensils and clothes etc.) as a part-time domestic help for about an hour. And like this, between 5.30 a.m. to 8.30 a.m. every day, he used to work as a part-time domestic help in a total of three households and, in every household, he however could have a cup of tea with some snacks.
By 8.45 a.m., Umesh Kuamr reached our office and started attending his assigned duties. This ever-smiling and soft-spoken Office Attendant, did not have any record of bickering or breach of confidence with anyone; and so, for any work outside – especially withdrawal of money from bank against bearer’s cheque that was very common in those days or sending money order, Umesh Kumar used to be our first choice. The only highly negligible pinch from his side was that, after handing over the withdrawn money or receipt counterfoil of the Money Order etc., he in a very polite and sweeter tone used to ask for a rupee for buying a cup of tea or some snacks for himself – which no one ever thought of refusing. In this way, on an average, Umesh Kumar used to earn about Rs.5/- to Rs.7/- per day without pinching anyone much, at a time when he used to earn a salary of about Rs.600/- per month.
After closure of office at 5.30 p.m. in the evening, between 5.45 p.m. to 8.45 p.m., Umesh Kumar again used to work in three more households in ITO area as part-time domestic help; and, could have a cup of tea with some snacks in each of these households.
By 9.00 p.m., with his bicycle, Umesh Kumar reached his wife, Parvati, who by then was ready with her belongings properly packed. They used to load the aluminium box and the bag containing the stove and small kerosene container in the bicycle, and ride back to reach home by 10.00 p.m.
After arriving at home, the duo again prepared dinner for all and after closing the chapter for the day, they used to enjoy sound sleep till 3.00 a.m. next day.
I would not have known some additional details about Umesh Kumar, if incidentally I did not have the opportunity to take lunch with him in our office canteen on my last day in the office as next day I was to leave Delhi for joining a new job at Itanagar – a state capital in the north eastern part of India; which were as under:
– his son that year passed high school leaving certificate examination in first division with star marks in two subjects;
– for the past about 20 years of his service in our office, he never spent a single rupee from his salary which used to get deposited in his Recurring Deposit (RD) account in the bank;
– his wife Parvati was also maintaining an RD account in the bank over the past 10 years, depositing Rs.250/- per month which she was intending to enhance to Rs.400/- per month;
– their household expenditures, including some cash in hand for rainy days, were managed out of what he earned by doing part-time domestic help in a total of six households before and after office hours plus whatever he earned as tips from others in the office, and of course profit earned by Parvati ‘s 16-hour long daily make-shift tea stall business on pavement area of ITO; and
– that, now his son Rahul was also contemplating to undertake a one-hour daily tuition class in a middle-class household for supplementing their family income.
Looking back now after about thirty-one years, I am wondering as to whether I should consider the case of Umesh Kumar’s family as an instance of “Struggle for Living” or “Entrepreneurship”!
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