A very unusual broad smile appeared on his face as I held his hand to thank him. Rough hands. Hard work turned them rough. The unusual broad smile had appeared just a few minutes ago when I asked him if I could get myself photographed with him. That was the first time I saw that broad smile on his face.
For long I thought he was a very rough man, like his hands. Yes, I had thought that he was a serious and rough person. Those were initial days. Regular visits made me realize that he was not as rough as I thought he was. Though he and his eyes never smiled he was not a hot iron rod. There was warmth in him, I learnt soon, like there was warmth in that final shake hand, today.
Today I travelled for over 40 minutes just to meet him and have the tea that he prepares. Never had I forgotten the tea that I had in his stall nor can I ever forget. So, when my days in Delhi are coming to an end, I had to go meet him and have the tea that he prepares. Today was the day.
Its not my greatness that I went all the way to meet Verma Ji. It is the greatness of Verma Ji and his chai which pulled me all the way from Jamia Nagar, where we stay now, to Patparganj, where we stayed earlier.
In the Patparganj area of Delhi if you get down at Balco stop, right next to the Balco market right in front of the Mother Diary milk booth, across the road, sits Verma Ji, in white kurta and payjama. He works from 7:00 to 20:00 hrs, which is almost 13 hours a day. He sits with a hand pump kerosene stove, some utensils, sugar can, milk can, water can and a box of tea powder other than two tin boxes containing some fried items. No shelter. The branches of the tree make the roof for his shop. But still one would always feel at home there.
For long I did not know what his name was. Once I overheard someone referring to him as Sharma ji. But later I realized that I had heard it wrong. He was not Sharma Ji but Verma Ji.
Verma Ji, a man of less words hardly smiled, though he was warm to all his customers. This I realized when I saw him give tea to some rickshaw fellows, who he was familiar with, for free when they did not have money in their pockets (In all possibilities they paid him once they had money in their pocket) My talks with him were restricted to “Ek Chai, bade cup mein” (one tea, in a big cup) and “Kitna hua?” (How much?) and his talks with me nothing beyond “Chaar” or whatever the cost was and “Kulle nahi hai kya?” (Don’t you have change on you?)
As I got familiar with him, slowly, it appears he too got familiar with me. Since then the moment I went and stood near his stall he would serve me with a cup of tea and there was no need for me to place an order. Once he stopped while pouring tea into a cup for me. I did not realize why he stopped. Then I saw him stretch his hand for a big cup. That is when I realized that he was pouring tea into a small cup, which would never be sufficient for a tea addict like me. He too had realized it after he poured half of the small cup. But he had realized without me telling him. An unspoken understanding and bonding had woven us together by then, though we never exchanged much words.
Yes, for reasons unknown I had an emotional bonding with him. Once, I remember, he was not to be seen for a few days. those days more than the tea I was missing Verma Ji. His absence was felt. Very much.
Verma Ji would utter unforgettable words whenever he spoke. Shaaz, my friend, once narrated one of his experience with Verma Ji, when he was in Delhi. Then, the cost of one tea was four rupees. Having a cup of tea Shaaz took out a five rupee coin from his pocket gave it to Verma Ji, who gave him a fried item, costing one rupee, in place of one rupee, as he did not have a one rupee coin, at that point of time. Shaaz was in no mood for a fried item. Refusing to take the fried item Shaaz said, “aap rakh lijiye ek rupai.” (You keep the one rupee with you). “Verrma Ji got annoyed when I said that,” Shaaz explained and recollected Verma Ji saying, “Dekho hum mehanat se kamaatey hai. Muft mein kisi se paisa nahi letey.” (Listen, I work hard to earn. I do not take money from anyone for which I have not toiled) Remembering this episode Shaaz had told me, “Sam Sir, I like Verma Ji a lot.” Undoubtedly Verma Ji is a very lovable man.
The most memorable moment with Verma Ji was during the winter of 2010. A man came to him and asked for water. Pointing the water can kept on his left side Verma Ji suggested, through his gesture- drink from it. As the man was drinking water Verma Ji said, “Main do cheezein kabhi nahi bechunga. Paani aur roti. Zindagi banti hai inn do cheezon se.” (I will never sell two things. Water and Roti for life stands on these two things) Faizan and I had our jaws dropped and eyebrows rose when Verma Ji uttered those words.
Verma Ji was an unusual business man. He, as he himself said, would never make money by selling the two most essential elements of life- water and roti. He would also add some ingredient with medicinal quality, during winters, which would help his customers sustain health in the extreme cold. As said earlier, he would serve free tea to some of his rickshaw friends in case they did not have money. He would shout at them saying how one should live with self respect without asking anyone for anything but would make sure they would not just have lectures from him but also a cup of tea, served with love.
Today when we went to Verma Ji almost after a year, nothing had changed. He was washing the utensil, before going to prepare the next round of tea, wearing his white kurta and payjaama. The moment we asked for tea, he took out big cups and served us with tea. When I extended my cup asking for more tea he said, while pouring tea to the cup, “Bade dino baad aaye” (I am seeing you after a long time) We explained that we do not stay in Patparganj these days and told him that we had come all the way just to have tea at his stall. There was no reaction on his face. No shine in his eyes no sense of pride. He remained calm, composed and serious, as always.
But when I asked him if I could get myself photographed with him there appeared a broad smile on his face and his eyes smiled too. He asked me to sit on the small chair on which he sits while preparing tea. We both shared that small chair. I felt proud, for some unknown reason, when I shared the chair with him. He smiled again, when I shook hands with him.
I may or may not remember Delhi with all my heart. But whenever I remember Delhi I will remember Verma Ji with all my heart.