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 .....


  1. Thats cool ! The Sivas of the world survive the best of downturns. For with ingenuity, pluck and a whole lot of resourcefulness.

    To their credit, i have always found them to be empathetic. Thinking from the customer's point of view. Always sensitive !

    now, are these not must haves in the modern time ?!?!

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Such an innovative title for this post! Our local layman brothers (from the south, west, north and east) go a long way to making Mumbai the most convenient, people-friendly city in India. May their tribe increase.

  3. Ugich,
    This was an absolutely wonderful post. Kept me reading and engaged to the end.
    What a mastery of the English language you have - would put many American college students to shame.
    I know because I've taught college journalism.
    Your analogy comparing the two Laymans/Lehmans was great.
    I will definitely return to read more of your interesting posts.
    And learn about your country.
    Your story makes me want to live in your neighborhood and shop at the Layman brothers' shop.

  4. Your story puts the American counterpart to shame. This was a beautiful post and much like the other readers, I was captivated to the end.

    I work for my father. It's a small business, locally owned and operated. Life isn't easy in the American culture and climate of business, dog eat dog world.

    Enriching post and loved the quote at the end from his Mom.

  5. May there be more Laymans in this world - and less Lehmans Ugich.
    Beautifully told piece.

  6. Dear Madam,

    I stumbled upon your blog today and have been through at least 3-4 pages of your postings.

    I must say that the way you present your observations and feelings is unparalleled. I truly believe that if your postings were published in book form, it would be a successful book.

    Would like to meet you some day personally to pick that brain of yours for more interesting observations and anecdotes.


  7. Kavi : Thank you. (I actually saw Siva last evening in the market. He now also sells eggs (home delivery), and the latest is he is into running a kind of house agency.....(Ambani, here I come. Morgan Stanley, shame on you)

    Sucharita : Where would us working women be without the Laymanbrothers?

    Judi Moran : I am totally overcome with all these kind words. Never had so many nice words about my post in a SINGLE post . Thank you, and welcome to my part of the world and the world of Layman Brothers :-)

    Aleta Thank you. And much success to you in your family business.

    June I guess the world needs both Lehmans and Laymans. Someone needs to make the mistakes from which someone else can learn....

    Ganesh Thank you for the kind words. And you are approximately the 4th person who has mentioned putting stuff into a book. I will wait for at least 9,996 more folks to start clamouring for the book before thinking about it. Dont want the Layman Brothers to use it to make paper bags .....

    Do you blog ?

  8. Dear Madam,

    I don't blog. I was introduced to the blogging business by Kavi. Seems a very nice way to put your thoughts on paper (cyberspace).

    I'm not confident enough whether I will be able to put my thoughts in a coherent and simple manner which you and Kavi do. Also there is always the question of hold of the language. I don't think I can match the mastery of language in the way which you have done. never knows......

  9. Ganesh : I used to think like you do. Then I just sort of crashed into the blogosphere so to speak, and began writing. The secret is to write what you feel, and not worry about who is going to sit in judgement. Blogging is also actually also something that relieves stress and anger , as has been clear to me, and will be clear to you Here ....

  10. Wow! You linked them so well :) I am sure tghe "Laymen" brothers are here to stay.It just re-iterates the fact that it is the perseverence and the spirit that counts....

  11. Thank you for your comments on my blog and for becoming a follower. I enjoyed reading about the Laymen Bros. so much. How wonderful it would be to have eggs delivered to your door. I would give all my business to someone like this instead of some big conglomeration.
    I intend to read a lot more posts on your blog. I loved this one!

  12. Such a thought provoking post ..loved this .We need more Sivas in this world

  13. Hello again Ugich, You have an award at my place, should you wish to participate. Thanks, Judy

  14. Ugich, I found my way to your blog from Judy's Living on the Other Side of the Hill. I am so happy to be here, reading about your life on the other side of the world.

    Isn't the Internet amazing? Here we have an incredible opportunity to learn about each other's lives and thoughts. I'll be back often.

    Loved this post. Thank you.

  15. beautiful post, and yes life teaches u much more than these management schools.We need more Sivas .

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