Shail profiles modest and unassuming, Ashokan, a tea seller with a pushcart outside Shastri Bhavan. He began work early, at the age of 12, as a child labour, in a village departmental store. His small pay was insufficient to raise a family. He came to Chennai to better his prospects. A god fearing family man, he speaks in a measured voice. A face in the crowd on the streets of Chennai, there is a certain invisibility about him. He blends in the crowd. Here’s a glimpse of his life, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.
Having picked some tea, he drank it,
Then he sprouted wings,
And flew to a fairy mansion,
To escape the emptiness of the world…
~Chiao Jen, Chinese revolutionary
Leo Ashokan stands outside Shastri Bhavan with his pushcart. It is about twilight and people are trickling out of the government building ready to call it a day. Tired, exhausted they all want to rush home but not before they have a sip of Ashokan’s special ginger tea. Only after the crowd has left and the street lights brighten the fast approaching darkness will it be pack-up time for Ashokan.
He is a native of Virudhunagar district of Tamil Nadu, around 500kms from Chennai.
“I came here to Chennai only to earn a living. Had I not been married I would have continued living in my native place,” he says with a lot of longing.
Do you get time to go to your village?
“Yes, sometimes I do go since my mother is still there and many other relatives also reside there. We have our own house but I cannot stay there for long since I need to come back to Chennai to work.”
A very unassuming person, Ashokan quietly takes orders from people asking for tea or biscuits. Maybe, it was the time of the day that determined his behaviour or maybe he was basically quiet by nature. I did not see him indulge in meaningless conversation with anyone.
So, how long had he been here?
“Four years. My Anna (big brother) worked here first and then when I was in need of work he asked me to take over this job.”
So, is it better than the job he did earlier?
“Not exactly. I used to work in my brother’s shop earlier and much before that I used to work in my village in a departmental shop for almost 20 years. That was nice.”
When did he begin working? How old was he then?
“I studied till class 7. After that, when I was around 12 years old, I began working in a small departmental shop at my native place.”
Then, why did he leave the place?
“I got married and the small pay that I got in the village was not sufficient to raise a family.”
With a pushcart outside Shastri Bhavan, what are its advantages and disadvantages?
“Advantage is that because it is a government building there is no lull in business as there is always someone or the other who wants a cup of tea. The disadvantage is that I have to close shop early, by 7pm, since it is closing time for the offices here and I have no work on Saturdays and Sundays as it is a holiday here.”
Does he take the weekend off then?
He says, “No, I cannot afford to do that. I move my pushcart away to the malls and offices down the road. So, I work on weekends too but not here.”
What about his siblings?
“I have four older sisters and one big brother. I am the youngest. All my sisters are married.”
So, does his brother earn more than him?
He hesitates, tries to smile but fails. Maybe, I touched a raw nerve. But, he manages to mumble, “We all manage.”
I persist. But, you would have preferred it if you would have had a big job?
“Yes, yes. I would have loved to have a shop of my own. Having worked in shops all my life, I am more comfortable in that set-up but what to do?”
I see him pour the tea from a height that I cannot even imagine doing at home. But, for him, it is just a part of his job. I observe his pushcart. Not much to speak off. Glasses arranged neatly. Paper cups kept aside. I drink special tea in one of those cups.
What about his family? His children?
“My wife used to work in a small school earlier but then, it closed up so now, she sits at home only. I have a son, Snegham, he is 3-year- old and a daughter, Asantha. She is 5-year-old. They go to school.”
The names sounded different. I noticed two pictures of gods placed on the boundary wall of Shastri Bhavan just behind him. One was that of Lord Ganesh and Mata Saraswati and the other was that of Mother Mary and Infant Jesus.
He saw me looking at the pictures and said, “I am a Christian and we go to the Mata Koil (church) every Sunday. I used to go to Velankanni Church (Church of Lady of Good Health situated in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu and deeply revered by Christians and non-Christians alike in South India) every year. But off late, I am unable to go.”
When I began talking, there were very few people around but by the time I left, the place was crowded. This quiet man measured every word he spoke. I thanked him and prayed that he is able to realise his dream soon. Until then, I hope Velankanni Mata takes care of him and his family.
Pix by Vinod Naraen
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