Laxman Rao, 60, runs a tea stall on the footpath in front of Hindi Bhavan near ITO. Besides a stove and a kettle, there are a dozen neatly packed books displayed at the stall with a banner on the wall behind him, saying they are for sale.
Talk to Rao and the tea vendor informs that he is the author of all the titles on display.
Rao, who has been running the tea stall for almost four decades now, has so far written 24 books in Hindi and is now working on his next project — ‘Ahankar’, which is a collection of his ‘reflections on life’.
Rao’s has been a life less ordinary, a fascinating tale of a man’s struggle to become a writer against all odds.
A graduate from Delhi University (distance learning), Rao, who hails from a village in Amravati, Maharashtra, penned his first book — ‘Ramdas’ — at a whim while still in school. “The book was based on the true story of a young man called Ramdas, who had committed suicide in the village. While I could not get it published then, the book created in me a strong desire to become a writer. My mother tongue was Marathi but I wanted to write in Hindi,” he says.
To fulfill his dream, Rao left his village for Bhopal with Rs 40 in pocket, and then in 1975 shifted to Delhi. Just a matriculate then, he knew no one in the Capital and had little money for survival. He stationed himself at a dharamshala (a charitable guest house) and started looking for a suitable job. “To sustain myself, I cleaned utensils at a dhaba and also worked at construction sites,” he says.
However, the menial jobs did not dampen his desire to become a writer. With a strong determination of not going back to his village, he set up a paan shop on the pavement near Hindi Bhavan in 1976, selling paan in morning and writing books at night.
Within two years, he was ready with a couple of manuscripts. However, getting them published was not an easy process as Rao faced instant rejection. “When I tried to convince them (publishers) about the merit of my manuscripts, they rudely asked me to get out. Those who showed some interest asked for money to publish my books, which I did not have,” says Rao as he hands over tea to his customers.
Soon he realised that in order to convert his hefty manuscripts into books, he will have to publish them by himself. He saved money and published his first book — ‘Nai Duniyan ki Nai Kahani’ under the aegis of Bhartiya Sahitya Kala Prakashan (a publishing house he found himself).
He published 1,000 copies and put them for sale at his pan shop. He also went and sold his books to various schools and colleges in Delhi, which began to purchase them for their libraries.“First, out of curiosity, then on the basis of quality,” says Rao, who is a great fan of Hindi writers such as Gulshan Nanda and Munshi Premchand, among others.
‘Ramdas’, which has so far sold 2,500 copies, is his bestselling book. His second bestseller is ‘Renu’, a novel based on the true story of a poor girl who made it big in life. “I met her at my tea shop. Her father used to work as a peon in a nearby building,” he says.
For Rao, it has not been easy being a ‘footpath-based’ writer. The police and the civic authorities have often dismantled his tea shop in the past three decades. However, recently he moved his stall under a tree on the footpath. He reaches there every day at 12 pm with his stove, kettle, glasses and the bags containing the books. In the past few years, he says, many policemen have come to respect him as a writer and now call him ‘Rao Saheb’.
“In fact, for 80 per cent of my customers, I am now Rao Saheb. The rest still treat me like any other roadside chaiwallah,” says Rao.
Rao says that many stalwarts of Hindi literature, including late Kamleshwar and late Bhisham Sahni, have visited him at his tea shop. He has also received various awards from several NGOs. But according to him, his finest moment came in 2009 when President Pratibha Patil invited him and his family to Rashtrapati Bhavan. “She liked my books and asked me how I manage to write so well in Hindi, which is not my mother tongue,” he says.
Rao says he continues to sell tea because the money that comes from the sale of books is not yet enough to support his family of four — wife and two teenaged sons. However, he has not given up. He believes that like his novels, his own life story is poised to take a turn, and he will be able to make a living as a full-time writer soon. So he writes every day without fail. He reaches home in Shakarpur in east Delhi at 11pm, finishes dinner at 11.30pm and starts writing at 12am. “I write till 4am,” he adds.
And what do his sons say when asked about their father’s profession? “They tell the truth that their father is a writer, who also sells tea,” says Rao. “But I am sure that soon they will be able to say their father is a writer. The sale of my books is rising steadily and I believe I will soon be able to give up selling tea and live as a fulltime writer,” he adds while signing a copy of his bestselling book for us.