Sunday, September 21, 2008
Layman brothers (and sons) लेहमन बंधू अणि भाजीवाले
There are the Lehman Brothers. Or should I say "were" ?
And then there are the Layman brothers.
I am one of those people who start getting restless with impatient boredom, when the news folks on TV get started on the Sensex, Nifty, Nasdaq and similar stuff that is supposed to throw everyone into a depression, every time some cheating company is identified, a well known company splits into n pieces and the owners fight over them, or, someone in power, utters, (sometimes knowingly and sometimes pretending not to be so), something that depresses those, who should know better than to speculate with their hard earned greens.
Lehman Brothers and their ilk promulgated a certain culture that implied there was no upper limit to what your earnings could be. Add one more zero and you are a hero. Be seen in the most swanky places. Change cars every 3 months. Light up 5 star hotels as you flash your cards. Get club memberships. Join the Champagne set. Send your children to private schools.
You can aspire to go higher and higher. The more incredible the rise, the more hurtful the Fall (pun intended). But if uncontrolled rising is not your destiny, you sink. You hit the bottom with a thud. There isn't any place further down to sink. And so, as they say, bloody but unbowed, you struggle, and learn to stand again. You need to define where the sky is.
And so we come to the Layman brothers. Otherwise known as Siva.
I stay on a campus that was considered way out of town. Small shopkeepers, low on fashionable exteriors and high on ideas , entrepreneurship, and plain good sense, started these mom-and-pop stores across the road. Selling provisions, vegetables, regional specialities in the appropriate seasons, pooja(worship) paraphernalia and so on. They even started home delivery after they got their own telephones, which was, at that time a huge achievement in Mumbai.
Siva was the son of a family from the south, who decided to make his home near our campus. Living in a space with a lot of personal inconvenience, and a lack of privacy, endemic to certain types of localities in Mumbai, he would assist his father in the shop, and do home deliveries balancing his huge bags on a bicycle. You paid him on delivery. By and by he came to know all our families, and saw our children grow up. He jumped on the eco-green bandwagon, long before it became a buzzword, and made the bags for his shop from old newspapers. Here in India, we sell our old newspapers to certain people who then do the bag business with others. Some of our friends and we decided to simply let Siva have our unused papers , old books, notebooks etc, for free.
Turns out that someone had included an old , now useless chemistry journal from their freshman year in the junk paper stock that he got. For a person, who never saw the portals of a college and had to leave school for financial reasons to chip in at work , he treated this old journal with such respect, he thought he shouldn't tear this to make the paper bags that he needed. One fine day, while I was deciding between aubergines and french beans at his tiny shop, I almost dropped the tomatoes, when he suddenly asked me if my son did Chemistry in college.He carefully showed me the book, told me who it belonged to, and asked if I had any use for it. I was totally impressed by his awareness, respect for knowledge he had no access to, and ability to prioritize things, in the face of business, savings, possible expenditure and what have you.
Very soon , the road outside our campus was declared arterial, and qualified for widening. Siva's shop, along with a lot of places we took for granted , was in the way, scheduled for demolition. Bulldozers appeared on the horizon.
In the meanwhile, Siva had got married, and his wife marketed some of her ready to use traditional South Indian food preparations at the shop. Demolition compensations were declared by the authorities, refused, discussed, subjected to a committee, and alternate premises were offered . The only crunch was, that the minimum size of those premises was bigger than Siva's tiny shop, and he needed to make an extra payment for a size he did not want!
Life teaches you better, than what you learn at all the management schools combined.
Just after he got married, Siva got interested in , of all things, cutting hair. His vegetable shop didn't open till 10 am and so he interned with a friendly barber friend , mornings, to learn the skill. He took a risky loan to be able to take over the offered premises, and then , sold it off at a decent profit to an upmarket type of business. Immediately paid off his loan. He then got himself a smaller place, and used some resources to get a brother to come over and join him as well as run the vegetable business on a on-the-phone-order-direct-to-home basis. The new place was in a more people-friendly, semi-residential neighborhood, and he set up a barbershop with the brother occasionally assisting.
It had occurred to him that the vegetable business was getting crowded, and he needed to diversify.
That was the start of our local Layman Brothers.
The vegetable business still operates on a trust, pay-at-the-end-of-the-month basis. There are now two telephones, one at the shop, and one a cell phone with the brother managing the vegetable business. Siva has a son now, who goes to school. And a daughter, who will also go to school once she is a bit older. They all are from the south, but have learned the local language and speak it very well (Folks from outside India might be horrified to know that the Indian Constitution recognizes 22 major languages, and we have one National language, Hindi. Like any group with diverse language requirements, folks get into fights over language and prominence, but as a nice side effect everyone ends up being more or less multi lingual, and the languages enter each other's vocabulary very often. )
His older customers are his friends, and he gets invited to wedding receptions , including that of the girl whose Chemistry journal he saved with much reverence.
His old father lives with him and his family, a contented smile on his face. It is still a two room tenement, he shares with his extended family. He paid off his unofficial-word-of-mouth-house -loan long ago. He isn't looking for a bigger place. He looks ahead to the day his son will write in his own Chemistry journal. He is currently thinking about his brothers marriage. One more person to help in the business gives him ideas, and would probably make his brother happy.
He knows that no government or bank will come rushing to help him in times of trouble. What will help him is the trust people have in him. And something his late mother told him before she passed away when he was young : You are poorer for losing the trust of those around you. Money is not the only thing that enriches you.....
Don't know about the Lehmans. But our Layman brothers are here to stay .....