Reaching him in the bustling ITO area isn’t tough. Everyone seems to know this ‘chaiwalah’ cum ‘lekhak’, who makes delicious, milky tea and has 24 books to his credit. Laxman Rao
is one of the most popular tea vendors in the capital, who enjoys a huge fan following – not just because he brews amazing tea but also because his writing has earned him much fanfare.
There’s no dearth of information about Rao on the internet, but meeting him in person is an experience that is completely worth the effort. In simple attire, he is the epitome of humility. Meanwhile, his 24 published books, that lie next to his tea-stall stand testimony to his unflinching determination and ambition.
Here are excerpts from our tête-à-tête with the man who offered us many a frothy cup of his signature chai:
Q. Tell us a little something about yourself.
A. “I’m a ‘chaiwalah’ who makes a living by selling tea. Writing is my hobby and my dream. I love to write. I am also a post graduate in Hindi Literature. (Rao got his degree last year from Indira Gandhi National Open University and now wishes to pursue a Doctorate in the same subject.)”
Q. How did this tea-shop have its beginnings?
A. “I left my village in Maharashtra in 1975 and came to Delhi in search of work. I only had 40 rupees in my pocket at that time. I worked as a construction laborer, washed dishes at a restaurant and then opened up a ‘paan shop’ there. (Pointing, just a few yards away from where we were sitting)
After a few years , I switched to this tea-stall; it helped me save more for my family and my dreams. Unlike, paan and cigarettes, people who drink tea come from all walks of life. I love to interact with them. Sometimes, they also serve as inspiration for my writing which I do after going back home at night.”
Q. What makes your tea so special?
A. “(laughing) There is no secret ingredient. It’s how everyone else makes it. It’s love I suppose, that makes it special.
Yes, some people prefer it with ginger, some with more water or more milk but for me it’s something that gave me strength and resources to pursue my dream of becoming a writer.”
Q. People here call you ‘lekhak ji’. How does it feel? Tell us about your journey as a writer.
A. “Hearing this word makes it all worth it. I feel like all my hard work has paid off.
When I took my first book to a publishing house, I was asked to leave; told that a chaiwalah cannot write. Though it did dishearten me, I never gave up. Because I didn’t have money to get my work published, I chose to start my own publishing house - Bhartiya Sahitya Kala Publications.”
Q. So why do you still sell tea?
A. “Because, tea is my real source of livelihood and not books. Whatever, I earn from selling one book goes into publishing the next one and I still have unpublished books left. Tea provides the flame to keep my dreams alive.”
Q. Your novel, Ramdas won the ‘Indraprastha Sahitya Bharti’ Award in 2003. Tell us more about this novel.
A. “Bhartiya Sahitya Kala Prakashan published Ramdas in 1992. Since then, it has been re-published four times, selling more than 4,000 copies.
It is based on a real-life story of a boy called Ramdas in my native village actually. Ramdas was a wayward school going teenager whose life completely changed after meeting one particular teacher in his school. His accidental death caused the entire school and village to be left in a state of shock.”
Q7. How do you manage your popularity and fame? You’ve met India’s former Prime Minister, Srimati Indira Gandhi and as well as our former President Srimati Pratibha Patil. How was the experience?
A. “Life has been kind and I thank God every day for it.
I met Mrs Indira Gandhi in May 1984. She appreciated my work and also encouraged me to write more. When I told her that I would like to write a book on her; she asked me to write a book on her work rather than her life. I wrote a play on her, which was also published but could not present it to her as she was shot dead before that.
In 2009, I also received recognition from former president Pratibha Patil. As a writer, there isn’t more one can ask for.”
Q. What drives you to wake up every morning and cycle many kilometers to this small shop of yours?
A. “(Offering us our fourth cup of the day) I still have 13 unpublished works that I would like to publish. With a Master’s degree in hand, I now plan to pursue a PHD in Hindi Literature.”