When she first began selling homemade masalas door to door, Hemlata Mehta, 64, would cry every time people slammed their doors in her face.
“Now, customers come looking for me,” she says, smiling.
The wife of a wealthy machine spare parts businessman, Mehta, who has studied till Class 10, spent the first half of her married life running a well-stocked home with the help of cooks, servants and a driver. Then, 25 years ago, heavy losses forced the couple to lay off the staff and liquidate most of their assets.
By 1991, all that was left of their former life was their 1,800-sq-ft flat in Sion. The following year, Mehta decided to start a spices business out of this flat to help support her son, two daughters and husband.
“My daughters are now married and my son is a successful businessman and would never refuse me anything,” she says. “But I have given my sweat, tears and blood for the business and I will run it as long as I can.”
Mehta’s day begins at 7 am. After two cups of tea, she begins by taking stock of her spices, which are delivered to her house from Warangal in Andhra Pradesh. Then she begins grinding spices and mixing powders and oils to create her special blends.
“The oil must be in the right proportion or the masalas will get rancid,” she says. This is the toughest part of her job. Her hands burn from the spices, especially the chilli powder; her back aches from sitting hunched over the grinding stone all day.
At 10 am, Mehta starts packing the spices into bags of different sizes.
At each stage, she sweeps her entire five-bedroom home to clear it of scattered powder and other debris. “I sweep the house at least four times a day,” she says. “I am a neat freak. A guest would never guess that I run a masala business from this house.”
At 3.30 pm, Mehta takes a half-hour break for a lunch of roti, dal, vegetable, rice and buttermilk cooked by her daughter-in-law. Then it’s back to grinding, sorting, mixing and packaging.
Through the day, she is interrupted by calls from customers, most of whom book orders four months in advance.
“I now sell 6,000 kilos of spices a year, priced at Rs 90 to Rs 350 per kg,” Mehta says proudly. “They are in demand not just in Mumbai but also in the UK and US, where relatives of my clients ask for their favourite masalas to be delivered to them.”
Her most popular mixes are her special chilli powder, and dhanajeeru, a curry powder that is a mix of cumin, coriander and black pepper.
“Good customer relations are the key and I work extra hard to satisfy my customers,” says Mehta. “If I ever get a complaint about bad spices, I send fresh stock immediately, no questions asked. I would rather suffer a loss than tarnish my reputation.”
By 6.30 pm it’s time to write out her bills and line up the packets of masala scheduled for delivery the next day, by an old taxi driver who has worked with Mehta for 15 years.
At 7.30 pm, it’s time to shut up shop. “I have realised that the work will go on and on if you don’t set a time to just stop,” says Mehta. For dinner, her daughter-in-law makes theplas and khichdi or pav-bhaji and parathas, which Mehta eats while watching Hindi soap operas on TV. At 10 pm, it’s time for bed.
In her free time, Mehta loves to travel. “My husband and I take at least five vacations a year, usually to religious places such as Mathura and Rajasthan,” she says. “We just got back from a holiday in Dubai.”
(This weekly feature explores the lives of those unseen Mumbaiites essential to your day)