Surmounting many odds, 40-year- old Lakshmi, helped her husband manage the wayside tea kiosk. Two helper boys were fudging accounts. They were thrown out and she put her shoulder to the wheel to help her husband run it efficiently. The couple slogged. The kiosk would open at 4.30am and would remain open till 10.30pm. They take turns to manage the small business. She says that they educated their ‘good children’ and also managed to buy two modest dwellings which fetches them rent. Shail profiles Lakshmi, in her weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.
“There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea.” ~ Bernard-Paul Heroux, a Basque philosopher.
She was manning the tin box alone. Just big enough to hold herself, a gas stove, two cylinders, a little stool that took her weight with courage every time she sat upon it and all the little things that were needed to sell to the passing public.
Forty-year- old Lakshmi looked older than her years, yet, there was a kind of confidence in her that made you want to admire her.
Twenty-three years ago, after having married Subramani from her native Aranthangi taluk, in Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu, Lakshmi came to the city of Chennai with dreams of a new life with her husband. Her husband was already running this tea kadai (tea kiosk) in Chennai with the help of two boys. But, the boys were always mismanaging the accounts. And, there was no way he could supervise them all the time. Lakshmi first began selling the rice she used to get from the ration shop, then, even tried her hand at supplying the gas cylinder she had in her husband’s shop to people in urgent need of them. But, it only brought her misery as there were many who wanted to take advantage of a young uneducated village woman.
Finally, she began helping her husband at the tea shop. The boys were sacked and she took over the reins. It wasn’t easy but it gave a kind of credibility.
“What will you take Amma?” she asked of me.
“One cup of tea will do” I answered back, reminding myself to give her the money for it before I left.
The metal foldable shop had little space for anyone except Lakshmi but I was touched when she pulled me inside literally and made me sit on the stool while she tended to her customers and talked to me in between.
“You know what Ma?” she asked of me as she poured out a cup of tea to a customer even as she took the currency note from him and gave back the right change, “there is a gap of 10 years between me and my husband but because I handle the shop well, take care of my family and am the mother of his two children he gives me the respect I deserve.”
“What do your children do?” I asked.
“My son has completed his civil engineering (and yes, she said the term ‘civil engineering’ correctly and proudly) and is working as a trainee in a company. My daughter is doing her B.Com in a college. Both are good children. God has been kind.”
“Have you found it difficult to run the shop?” I asked her. “I mean, you sell cigarettes, beedis and tobacco too, so have there been occasions when people have misbehaved with you?”
“Amma, when I first started coming to this shop I never came alone. I always needed somebody to come with me to the shop and back home. I used to be so scared. Now, I have no fear. But, yes, there have been people who have tried to pass lewd comments or tried to hold my palm whenever I have had to take or give money. Those times, I used to get so scared. But, over the years, I learnt how to behave – not to chat too much with anyone, be careful while smiling and keep one’s distance. Even today, I come across people like these.
But I know how to handle them now. ”
“Your husband, has he never doubted you?”
Lakshmi immediately folded her hands and looked towards the picture of the deity hung in her shop, “God has been kind. So many of my friends are still unhappy because their husbands are forever suspecting them of having affairs but my husband very early understood that I was not that kind of woman. And, he has seen how I have taken care to run the family well, save enough to send my children to school and college too.”
“Don’t you visit your native village?”
“I do Amma, but then, somebody has to be here to take care of the shop. So, either I go with the children or my husband does. The times it is compulsory that we all have to go then we close shop for a day or two. When we all are around here, then, my husband comes to the shop around 4.30am, while I prepare tiffin and lunch at home. Then, I come to the shop at around 9.00 am and my husband goes back home to rest and later drop my daughter for her afternoon college. Depending upon who is free at what time, we exchange places and by the time we wind up shop it is already 10.30 pm.”
Lakshmi impressed me completely with her dynamic personality. She lives in her own house, has been able to purchase two other tiny dwellings, which she has let out on rent.
“When my son gets married I will give one to him,” she smiles and says.
I get up ready to go. I had approached Lakshmi sometime back not sure whether she would be willing to talk to me. But, when I left her tea shop it was with a kind of joy that filled my heart. She gave me a big hug and warmly said, “anytime, you pass by do stop to say ‘hello’ and have a cup of tea. Okay Amma?”
Pix by author.