Pre-dawn quiet envelopes this road in an old part of Chennai that I discovered on my morning walk. The only sounds are of birds greeting the day or the rumble of an occasional car or auto. One such auto stops and the passenger alights and unloads a few boxes. The passenger opens his boxes and within a few moments a primus stove comes aflame. Water bottles are set up, milk packets opened and arranged. The tea stall is readying for the day. Even as the brew is boiling, the manager sets out the other tools of his trade. Small disposable paper cups are laid out with military precision. Two empty boxes are placed on the pavement — a neat and mobile grave for used cups. Large tins are opened and biscuits and buns unpacked. A stainless steel can is filled with water.
Soon the chai wallah is stirring his brew. Once it is ready a strange ceremony follows. When the tea is ready, it is poured into a brass or copper vessel . After it is stirred and sugar added, the chai wallah walks to the centre of the road and pours the contents of the first glass onto the ground. He pauses for a moment and then returns to his stall.
All his regular customers start gathering – they all know the signs – the shop is open for business. Gates of houses and offices are left unguarded as security men gather for their morning cup of tea.
Almost as if it has been orchestrated, the sun comes up. It is as if the day has officially begun. Many start on their biscuits or buns. Something unusual happens now. The stall keeper hands out some biscuits to his customers. The customers take the biscuits and walks up to street dogs on the road. The dogs receive their biscuits in a matter-of-fact way — as if it is their due. The stall owner watches intently, and relaxes only when the canines have had their fill. By this time, my morning walk would be over. The chai wallah’s customers come and go, but he is never alone. He is always surrounded by a small crowd. It is clear that every customer looks forward to meeting him every day. Through some odd alchemy of human interaction, a make-shift stall has been converted into a social hub.
Watching this for a few days, my mind went back some 17 years to a factory outlet in another city. A friend and I calling on the factory to purchase some branded shirts were greeted by a watchman at the gate with a broad welcoming smile and the words — “ Welcome to our factory!” As he saw us in through the gate, the watchman said, “You will find a wide variety of excellent shirts. Please take your time, but please don’t leave till you have bought something.”
A little later, our purchases completed, we were met by the same security guard. Once more, a broad smile appeared on his face. “There is one more small thing to do. I have to stamp your bills.” We willingly handed over our shopping bags to him and he stamped the invoices and handed them back saying, “Thank you, please come again, soon.”
We were struck by the young man’s behaviour. Something extra ordinary – a security guard as salesman! “Who trained you to do this?” we asked him. “Nobody sir. This is my first job. My manager told me I am the first person the customer sees. And I thought why should I not welcome them when I open the gate?” he said. Standing there, I was reminded of the old parable of the labourer who excelled at his work because he realised he was not just breaking stones, but building a cathedral.
Both these people have something in common. They have taken humdrum, unspectacular livelihoods and transformed them into something meaningful through concern and care. As I reflect on them, I remember a truism. Mankind makes true progress when ordinary people do ordinary tasks in an extraordinary way. email@example.com