At the entrance to Jungpura from Hospital Road, Ram Jagrit Lal stands under a mud coloured tarpaulin behind a red cart. He used to be our neighbourhood’s favourite cigarette-walla. Then the police struck, owing to the Saint Paul school nearby he went out of business. “I will be back Sa’ab, just one or two days’, he assured all his customers those days, six months ago.
He stayed unshaven, unkempt. He did not know what had hit him. He would park his old grey Bajaj Chetak scooter near the stall, its glove compartment shut but not locked. On being asked for a cigarette he would dip his hand in and quickly pass out the pack, pocket the money without counting. All of this sneakily, not wanting the police constable to notice.
‘Why do you not shift 100 meters away?’ I asked him.
‘I have paid for this place.’
‘Government. They gave me this place for bijness.’
‘Yes I paid tax. In the MCD. I make regular payment.’
‘They too.’ He did not pay the government any tax. He paid someone a bribe in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi but he did not care to know the difference. It was money gone.
‘So won’t they give you a new stand?’ He shrugs his tired shoulders. ‘What will you do now?’
‘Kuch karenge Sa’ab. This business was wrong. Even I don’t smoke. How can I sell poison?’
The two days stretched. I stopped going to him. The local, bigger, store started stacking cigarettes. It’s owner remarked, ‘Ram ji’s customers come to us. I feel sorry for him. But my business has picked up.’
Ram ji kept his place but changed his business. He started keeping a stove and a pan. ‘I will make tea,’ he said with a smile. But he still looked haggard. His tea too was no match to Mahender, the guy on the other side on Mosque Road or even the Chottu at the auto-stand. Ram ji’s son too stopped coming to the shop. A few months later, when I passed by his stall I waved to him. He looked much better, a clean shirt, hair combed. That evening I went up to him for a glass of tea. Just for old times sake.
His tea was so different! It smelled of cardamom, tasted of ginger. He looked at me and smiled. ‘Sa’ab, I had never made tea in my home. How could I make it here? But I learnt. Now tell me, how is it?’ It was the best tea on the street. Why? It is one of the finer teas I have tasted.
‘So, do people come now?’
‘Yes, they are coming back. See me in the winters.’
‘What will you do?’
‘Bring in an angeethi (mud fireplace), a mud vessel to boil the milk, even mud cups for tea.’
‘Yes, once one has four people standing near the angeethi in the cold, others will automatically come.’ He says assured. His business is picking up. ‘No wastage of milk now’.