WEB DESK: The most famous tea seller in the Indian capital, Delhi, Laxman Rao, is also a prolific Hindi-language author whose novels are now available on online platforms like Amazon. Anasuya Basu met him recently in central Delhi.
Laxman Rao is not your ordinary chai wallah.Apart from the sweet milky tea his customers love, he also sells 24 Hindi-language titles he has authored.
His open air tea shop, registered with the municipality, is essentially a few planks of wood perched on bricks, some buckets of water, ceramic and paper cups, kettles and a gas stove all neatly placed on the pavement.
Born to a farmer in a village in the western state of Maharashtra, Mr Rao left for Delhi – the hub of major Hindi language publishers – in 1975 to fulfil his dream of becoming a writer.
He worked as a construction worker, washed dishes at a restaurant and finally managed to open a shop to sell paan (betel leaves), beedi (hand-rolled cigarettes) and cigarettes a few yards away from his current tea stall. After a few years, he graduated to selling tea as it was more profitable.
Mr Rao has a bachelor’s degree in Hindi and has sat a masters exam through a distance learning programme. He worked hard to publish his books, but all his meetings with publishers ended in disappointment as nobody was willing to bet their money on a book written by a roadside vendor.
Undeterred, he saved up enough to self-publish his first novel in 1979. “Publishers have a highbrow attitude towards people like us and want money to publish our work. I had no money to spare and, therefore, decided to start my own publishing house,” said Mr Rao.
Turbulent lives, the struggle to rise above grinding poverty and the ordinary pleasures of life are the themes on which Mr Rao’s novels, political essays and plays are based.
And he is not without recognition.
His best-selling novel “Ramdas” – published in 1992 – explores the complexities of the teacher-student relationship through the story of a young, wayward student from Mr Rao’s village who drowned in a river.
The book, now in its third edition, has sold more than 4,000 copies.
In 1984, a senior Congress party member spoke to then prime minister Indira Gandhi about Mr Rao’s books. Within a few days, he received an invitation to meet her and present his books to her.
“I met Mrs Gandhi in May 1984 with two of my books. She really appreciated my work and encouraged me to write more. I expressed my wish to write a book on her but she insisted that the book should be on her work rather than a commentary on her life. Enthused by this meeting, I wrote an essay on her tenure from 1969-1972 titled ‘Pradhan Mantri’ (Prime Minister) but she was shot dead before it could be published. After her death, I wrote a play based on her life and used the same title as the essay,” Mr Rao said.
Now, Mr Rao uses online selling platforms like Amazon and Flipkart to hawk his books.
Hitesh, Mr Rao’s elder son, manages online sales coordination and the author’s Facebook page. But despite notching good sales figures on online sites, Mr Rao still cycles to various places to sell his books, a practice of many years.
Outside his stall meanwhile, a light drizzle prompts customers to run for cover under the white fig tree that also shelters Mr Rao and his tea making apparatus.
Unfazed by the shower, he removes the tarpaulin covering the utensils and stove and gets busy boiling water for tea.
Loyal customers are huddled together under the tree waiting for a cuppa and fried snacks.
On an average day, Mr Rao makes 1,200 rupees ($19; £12) by selling 150 cups of tea, enough to keep the kitchen fires in his two-room rented flat burning.
The tea-selling author has won many awards and also received recognition from former president Pratibha Patil. However, he is yet to be invited to any literary festival in the country.
“Authors pull different stunts to market their books, make movies and TV serials out of them. I am a simple man. I get all my mail at this footpath address. My books are available in school, college and university libraries in the city and I am often asked to lecture in various schools and colleges across the country. What more can a writer ask for?” said Mr
Rao as he handed a cup of tea to a homeless woman waiting patiently by the stall.