Since March 25, 2020 subsequent lockdowns have imperiled millions of Indian families who rely on daily and monthly earnings to make ends meet. Work in the informal sector vanished overnight as no one was allowed on the streets and the fear of the virus kept people at home. With Covid surging through the country, expenditure on healthcare ate into savings, and there were mounting bills for internet connectivity just to remain in school.
The students of St Xavier’s College (Autonomous) Mumbai spent the early months of the semester (2021-22) working with PARI Education to record the stories of everyday Indians who had weathered the lockdowns. The outcome of this collaboration is a series of articles – Benaulim’s Crasto family: living by bread alone by Zara Dias is about a family-run bakery in Goa; A damaged boat; a red card by Shristi Murli and Rutuja Gaidhani, about a football coach and fisherman Oniel, in Mumbai Suburban and Bamboo futures in Kuttichira by Dawn Philip about craftsperson Ajitha from Kerala who struggled to sell during the pandemic.
The two stories in this set:
In Laariwalas washed out at Tithal beach we hear Bachubhai Patel speak about the impact of the lockdown on his community – owners of over 80 stalls on Tithal beach, Gujarat
In The bookseller of Mahakali we discover Nadeem’s love and his shop, stacked with books across genres that he sources directly from distributors and publishers. How has he kept his small pavement bookshop business running during these unsteady times?
Laariwalas washed out at Tithal beach
Location: Tithal beach, Valsad, Gujarat
“We lost our only source of livelihood,” says Bachubhai Patel, speaking about the impact of the lockdown on laariwalas like him – owners of over 80 stalls on Tithal beach. Business first shut down on March 24, 2020 and the subsequent lockdowns over the next 20 months, including those on weekends, have forced this beach-side vendor into debt.
“My wife and I run the stalls together and my children help too,” he said referring to the rides for children such as trampolines and ferris wheel that he offers on this beach with brownish-black sand facing the Arabian Sea.
Tithal Beach is a popular recreational spot located around four kilometres from Valsad town – district headquarters of Valsad district in Gujarat. Here, laariwalas sell local snacks such as bhajiya, dabeli, bhel chaat and sweet corn grilled over charcoal, as well as fresh sugarcane juice, coconut water, toys and souvenirs.
“A pandemic of this scale was [not] something we had expected,” says Bachubhai. The laariwalas do not own agricultural land or ancestral property and rely on their daily earnings from sales at Tithal beach. Some stall owners have been running stalls here for the last 40 years – a time, they say, when the beach wasn’t developed in terms of infrastructure and was primarily used by locals from the villages around.
When I met Kashmira it was December 2021 and the beach was once again open for tourists. Slicing open a green coconut as she tells us: “Because of the Omicron variant, we might have another lockdown. We elect the authorities and they should think about what [hardships] we go through as well.”
Bachubhai is worried about the fees for his children’s education. “My daughter is finishing her M.Sc. from the local college and even though the classes were online, the fees had to be paid in full,” he said. He had to take a few loans for the fees and other expenses, and is worried that their small savings will soon be spent.
But Bachubhai is also counting his blessings when he says, “Even after a deadly second wave, none of my family members succumbed to Covid and are healthy and alive.”
Student reporter: Khushi Desai
The bookseller of Mahakali
Location: Mahakali Caves Road, Mumbai
Nadeem’s love affair began in college and has continued since then. He remembers missing class to pursue his passion in the small library across the street. Now a working man, his passion is also his profession and he has a spot on the pavement on Mahakali Caves Road, Mumbai, under a blue tarpaulin sheet to prove it.
In Tolani college in Andheri where he studied, Nadeem would often step across the street to a small book store on the footpath. “I would get a cup of tea from nearby, and then sit here and read. I started liking it, getting to know the kinds of books the public reads and what they feel on reading it. That aspect attracted me to this [selling books].” That bookshop shut down by the time he graduated.
So in 2018, with a B. Com. degree under his belt, he set up a bookshop on the same pavement, complete with shelves and a blue tarpaulin sheet as cover against the sun and rain. Soon, he had a steady clientele of people who would browse and shop on the pavement. He kept it open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and customers would come from as far as Thane and Pune and include both older people and young children from nearby housing societies, schools and colleges.
“If someone is reading a book, they should profit from it. If they are reading a self-help book and they are feeling low, they should come out of it [after reading]. Reading the book should not make it worse,” said Nadeem. He says of his own reading that he likes non-fiction books more and his personal favourite is Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.
When the lockdown was imposed in March, 2020, 26-year-old Nadeem knew that his business would also take a hit. Before the pandemic he could sell an average of 10 to 15 books a day, but as traffic on the roads and footpaths dwindled, his sales soon fell to roughly five at best.
Quick to improvise, Nadeem began offering home deliveries of books and he created a social media presence to move things along. Using WhatsApp and Instagram (@mind_gym_booklibrary) he began actively pushing out his online presence.
In October when we met him, Nadeem said he had garnered over a 1,000 members who reached out to him. “Many online distributors sell pirated copies, and those who buy online get them. My customers are connected and tied to me, so they only come to me.”
Nadeem offers monthly memberships to his customers and they can borrow two books at a time after paying a monthly fee of Rs. 400 and an initial deposit of Rs. 1,000 which is returned to them after six months. An added bonus to the above deal is unlimited exchanges and sale, exchange or rent of both first and second-hand books.
He remembers a customer from Pune very fondly. The man would arrive at Nadeem’s store every six months and fill up the trunk of his car with books – running up a bill of around Rs. 20,000 to 30,000 each trip. Since the pandemic struck, he hasn’t visited the shop. Even though not many frequent the store today, there are still many loyal customers who keep in touch and inquire about his well-being and financial situation.
Today Nadeem feels despite the lockdown having lifted, people are still afraid and unwilling to step out of home so the number of customers who physically visit has reduced. Now while he sits idle, he spends his time watching web series or playing PUBG on his mobile phone.
Nadeem has expanded his business and has six branches – including one each in Powai Galleria, Thane and Goregaon. “I’m very fond of this [Mahakali] store. I don’t feel the same [in other stores] as I do here. Even if I am alone here, I have fun.”
Student reporters: Bhavya Raj and Catherine Jayakumar
Students of St Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Mumbai spent the early months of the semester (2021-22) working with PARI Education to record the stories of daily and monthly wage earners, across occupations, who had weathered the lockdowns.