Rain-bearing clouds hang heavy over the skies of New Delhi as an avuncular portly man alights from his bicycle outside the Hindi Bhavan near the popular Pragati Maidan and begins setting up a makeshift tea stall on the footpath.
In a few minutes Laxman Rao’s stall – a rudimentary plank to hold his stove and tea making paraphernalia under a large umbrella – is up after which he opens a large bag of books and spreads the novels on a plastic sheet in front of the stall.
In no time people stop by and order tea. One of them picks up a book, flips through it and purchases it. Laxman smiles as he accepts the money for the book. ‘That’s a novel I wrote last year,’ says the 62-year-old man. ‘It has already sold over 5,000 copies.’
The tea vendor is a hugely popular award-winning writer and has already got 12 published books to his credit, several of them selling like hot cakes at his tea stall and on online stores such as Flipkart and Amazon.
‘I self publish and on an average sell books worth around Rs10,000 [Dh550] every month,’ says the author.
The figure is impressive considering the fact that Laxman started off life in Delhi working as a construction labourer, then in roadside eateries, cleaning dishes for a living.
‘I arrived in Delhi from Maharashtra in 1975. My dream was to be a writer, but I quickly realised that it wasn’t easy so took up the first job that came my way – as a construction labourer,’ he says. When the project was over, Laxman moved on to other jobs like helping in roadside cafés.
This continued for some years until he saved up enough money to set up a tea shop of his own. ‘For the past 20 years, I have been selling tea, along with my books, on these pavements of Delhi.’
While he is busy all day managing the tea stall, once he shuts shop and returns home, he slips into writer mode penning short stories, essays, plays and novels.
Over the years, Laxman has written 22 books so far; 12 have been published, six have gone into reprints and the rest are due to be published by year end. Along the way, he also picked up a couple of awards and honours for his works.
However, the going has not been easy. ‘I’ve had to overcome several challenges to realise my passion for the published word,’ he says. ‘I belong to a very poor family. My father was a farmer and could barely make ends meet. Desperate to improve our life, and hoping to become a writer having a passion for reading and writing, I came to the national capital after I realised that most of the publishers are based here.’
That was in 1975. Laxman had just Rs40 that he had borrowed from his father. While he would spend all day working as a labourer in the hot sun of Delhi, at night he would retire to his rented small one-room shanty and slip into the world of dreams putting down his thoughts into words.
‘I was determined to become a writer some day,’ he says. But three years later, in 1978 after finishing his first book titled Nai Duniya Ki Nayi Kahani (A new world, a new story) he found there were few takers.
‘Breaking into the club of Hindi writers was frighteningly difficult. Many publication houses refused to meet with me. Some wanted around Rs30,000-40,000 to publish my work,’ he says.
He spent his hard-earned savings travelling every day, meeting publishers and agents. But he wasn’t lucky.
‘My wife Rekha, who I had just married and brought to Delhi, was initially upset that I was spending almost all my earnings on trying to get my book published. She suggested that I stop writing,’ he says. ‘But I would have none of it. I told her “How can I leave my dream half-fulfilled. Nothing can stop me from writing. By killing my writing, you will end up killing me,” I argued.’ Rekha, 50, smiles shyly when reminded about the bygone years. ‘I then told him, “If the distributors or book stores are not willing to sell your book, you publish it and sell the copies from your stall alongside tea.”
That was a turning point in his writing career. ‘I thought that was a good idea and investing all my savings. I self published my book in 1979.’
The book sold a modest 3,000 copies, and Laxman began to be noticed. ‘I got a few reviews in newspapers and magazines and people began to talk about how a tea boy became a writer,’ he says.
But not all of it was positive.
‘Many people felt I’d lifted someone else’s work. Few took me seriously. Some of the people I showed my work to including writers, said: ‘‘You better concentrate on your tea-making skills, you cannot become a writer by lifting other people’s work.’’
‘People used to discourage me. But I never got disheartened. I was determined to make a mark in the world of literature.’
More books followed almost all of them mirroring his life or the lives of people he came across – characters leading turbulent lives and struggling in the midst of grinding poverty but at the same time not forgetting to enjoy the simple pleasures of life.
Since Laxman was close to the centre of government, many of his novels and essays reflected the then political scenario, too.
Soon, word about the budding roadside writer soon reached the ears of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who in 1984, extended an invitation to him to meet her. ‘I was overjoyed,’ says Laxman. ‘I took along a copy each of all the books I’d written and presented them to her.
‘I told her that I wanted to write a book on her life. She however told me, “Don’t write about me. Write about the political leadership of this country. Write about their work.’’’
Laxman took her advice and wrote an essay titled Pradhan Mantri (Prime Minister) on part of Indira’s tenure. ‘I also wrote a play based on her life and used the same title as the essay,’ he says.
His hard work and determination began to pay off and more honours came his way.
In 1992 he published Ramdas – a novel that explores the turbulent relationship between a teacher and a student – which went on to win him the Indraprastha Sahitya Bharti Award in 2003. It also earned him an invitation from the former President of India Pratibha Patil to visit her at her official residence the Rashtrapati Bhawan.
‘It was another red letter day for me,’ says Laxman, who prefers writing about social events, literary analysis, social events and political analyses.
An avid reader, Laxman says he enjoys the works of famous Indian writers Munshi Premchand, Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay and Osho Rajneesh. ‘I also make it a point to read the editorials of all the major newspapers that I subscribe at home,’ he says.
Although his first book came out nearly four decades ago, Laxman admits he is still struggling. ‘At times, I feel that I came to Delhi to become a writer and ended up becoming a tea-vendor. I haven’t still got the place and recognition I deserve in the Hindi literary world. But when I look at it from another perspective, I realise that I have come a long way from where I started. I have written so many books. I have been published in several national and international media, people have read and relished my stories worldwide.
‘What else can a tea seller ask for?’
Although in his sixties, Laxman has no qualms loading his books on his bike, taking them to schools and pitching them to students.
‘I’ve learnt writing a book is not the end, you need to market them too.’ In 2000, Laxman’s fourth book Narmada saw the light of the day. Inspired by a real-life character called Narmada.
‘When I came to Delhi, I used work at a construction site. While there, I observed a girl named Narmada. I used to see her walk her dog every morning and initially I thought she belonged to a well to do family. But over time, I found out that she was actually the daughter of their maid. Both her parents had died and she was now working in a house. Her story intrigued me and from her sprang my novel Narmada.’
His bestselling work, though, is Ramdas – also inspired from a real-life story. ‘Ramdas, a mischievous, boorish boy, falls in love with an idealistic girl called Ranjana. The story is about how the girl changed the boy and brought him on the right path,’ he says. The book sold over 7,000 copies. Laxman says there have been instances when people ‘look up my books on Amazon or Flipkart, read up about me then come to my shop here to meet me and buy my book from me personally.
‘They have tea at my stall, buy books and praise them. What else do you want as a writer?’ he asks, with smile.
Self publishing, he admits, is expensive. ‘I have to save up for three to four months before I can publish a book, he says. My two sons help, too, by chipping in what they can.
Laxman’s books are also available on Kindle and Paytm. ‘It is overwhelming to know that British and American people too, are buying my books,’ he says. Last year, he earned close to Rs80,000 in royalties.
So does he plan to quit his tea-stall and take up writing full time?
‘The day I start earning enough to take care of my family I would know that the time has come to move on and take up full-time writing. If I dedicate the eight hours to writing that I spend at the tea-stall, all my pending, half-written works would be completed in no time.
‘I want to reach every nook and corner of India through my books. I want to leave a mark on the history of Hindi literature before I die,’ he says.