A Life of Curiosity

September 30, 2019 at 9:15 PMSep (Friends, Musings, Slice Of Life)

Venkatesh, as he is known, is popular on the streets of Anantapuramu not just for the health conscious sherbat, shakes and soda that he sells on his push cart, but also for his friendly conversations with customers and the health tips he offers them.

Most of the sherbats and soda available in Venkatesh’s cart are unavailable elsewhere. These are his own discoveries and he prepares the syrup required for these sherbats. Though he has owned this cart since 2008, these varieties that are his own discoveries and these conversations were non-existent till five years ago. Venkatesh used to be a very under-confident, socially awkward person with great inferiority complex who sold the generally available sherbat and soda on his cart.

In the year 2012 realizing his social awkwardness as a hindrance to his business, Venkatesh thought of travelling in order to learn how people interact in social spaces and also, by compelling himself to interact during the travel, overcome his problems. “Travelling makes you a better human,” used to say Balakrishna a teacher who taught Venkatesh in his high school. Venkatesh who till this day follows a piece of advice given by his teacher Balakrishna of maintaining a journal, on remembering the words of his teacher decided to embark on a journey, which was to change his life, by helping him overcome his social awkwardness and also making his discoveries possible!

Balakrishna was a language teacher for Venkatesh in Nandipadu, his maternal village where he studied from class 3 to class 10. Two things in the life of Venkatesh’s family took them to Nandipadu from Anantapuramu where they lived. One, the death of his maternal grandfather which made Venkatesh’s father, the only son in law, the inheritor of the grandfather’s land in Nandipadu. At around the same time the marble-soda (popular as goli soda) cart run by Venkatesh’s father got vandalized, caught between the gang wars of Anantapuramu, causing them around Rs 7,000/- loss.

Rowdism was one of the defining characters of Anantapuramu back in those days. During fights between two gangs, the rowdies preferred places near a marble-soda shop. This, Venkatesh explains, was because the marble-soda bottles are strong to cause deeper cuts and also because the sealed marble-soda bottles causes greater explosion when smashed, thanks to the pressure within. In short, the soda-bottles were best suited to harm and for violence. This had caused many a minor losses for Venkatesh’s father earlier. But the greatest loss, which coincided with the death of grandmother and pushed the family to move to Nandipadu, happened when Venkatesh was in class three.

On the day of Mohorram, processions of Angaara Wali and Maula Ali are taken on the streets of Anantapuramu. It’s a procession where both Hindus and Muslims take part, tells Venkatesh. The old town procession and new town procession used to be in competition with each other and the gang rivalry of Anantapuramu had coloured this competition as well. To the bad luck of Venkatesh’s father, the two processions came face to face or chose to come face to face near Gandhinagar where he was with his cart. A fight erupted between the two parties and the marble-soda bottles became the readily and easily available weapon. Two other carts of marble-soda also got vandalized during that fight, remembers Venkatesh.

Unable to recover from this loss and to try their luck in agriculture, the family of Venkatesh moved to Nandipadu where he studied from class three to class ten and met his teacher Balakrishna. To the bad luck of Venkatesh and his family, in a drought prone area farming was not an easy task, though they belonged to the traditionally agriculturist community, the Kammas. Slowly debt started piling up on the family. As a result, the family had to part with the land and Venkatesh had to discontinue studies and abandon his dream of learning electronics.

Life in Nandipadu had helped Venkatesh by introducing him to Balakrishna teacher. It was during this phase of life that he came in close contact with an old lady who used to give home-made medicines to the villagers. She lived in the neighbourhood of Venkatesh. The old lady, who went on to live for 110 years, would not reveal the source of her medicines or the ingredients that went into it but would just hint at all of them in the form of a puzzle. The curios kid that Venkatesh was, would try and decode them. In this phase Venkatesh also continued to experiment with electronics, his subject of love. “Most of the times it would appear like a waste of time. But it’s only when you arrive at an understanding that you realize the importance of all the failures you have had. Without those failures there couldn’t have been a proper understanding. That understanding that knowledge you discover after a series of failure is the true success,” he says like a prophet.
Leaving Nandipadu and along with it his education and dreams, Venkatesh moved to Hyderabad where he began to work as a stone crusher. Later he also went on to work as a driller in the Mysore-Chennai road. He tried to learn tractor driving there but couldn’t pick up the required skill. Asthma wouldn’t let Venkatesh continue for a long time and brought him back to Nandipadu.

On returning to Nandipadu, to make a living Venkatesh joined his father in construction work. Along with it Venkatesh started doing small electrician work. As a child curious about electronics, Venkatesh used to experiment a lot and this had taught him few basics. What helped him more in learning the job of an electrician was a friend of his who had gone to learn electronics in the IT. This friend who had not scored well in his class ten, for the admission at IT had used the name and certificates of Reddycherla Vengala Rao, the official and birth name of Venkatesh. For a friend and a friend’s desire to learn electronics, which was his dream too, Venkatesh sacrificed his name and certificate for a small amount of money, something he badly needed back then. When Venkatesh returned to Nandipadu, he went to his friend who had borrowed his name and his certificate, and learnt from him what he had learnt at the IT. That helped him to perform more than just manual labour in construction sites. But to see his father and himself work as labourers in the land which they once owned did not go well with Venkatesh. Also the way people treated them, he felt it to be extremely humiliating. That is when he decided to get back to Anantapuramu and to the soda-sherbat business with which he hadn’t entirely lost touch with. Every summer during his school days, he would go to Ananthapuramu and help his uncle in his marble-soda sherbat cart. Venkatesh decided to get back to it and left Nandipadu for Ananthapuramu, the town where he was born.

After a month’s stay in Anantapuramu and buying a soda maker machine and a cart from Bangalore, Venkatesh went to Nandipadu and got his family to Ananthapuramu. It was the year 2008. The following year Venkatesh and his father both got a soda/ sherbat cart each, thanks to YSR. The kind of carts used by the father before their days of Nandipadu were simple and wooden made. The style now had changed and the carts had become fancier. The business went well and Venkatesh’s brother could continue his education.

Things were fine but Venkatesh was unhappy with himself. His low morale and his social awkwardness bothered him and he desired to overcome it. But how, he did not know. That is when the words of his teacher Balakrishna came back to him. Venkatesh decided to travel.
Where to travel? How to travel? Venkatesh had no concrete answers for these questions. That is when he learnt from a friend that a bunch of men were embarking on a pilgrimage to Shabarimale and there was one vacant seat in the bus they had booked. Venkatesh decided to go with the pilgrims, but not as a pilgrim. But for this he had to fight two small battles, one with his own family and the other was with the majority of the pilgrims in that group of pilgrims. His family was against him going to Shabarimale because it is believed inauspicious to wear complete black dress and also because he was unable to explain, to his family, why exactly he wanted to go on this trip. The majority of the pilgrims were suspicious of taking Venkatesh along because him not being a pilgrim and not following the codes of conduct compulsory for the pilgrims might distract them and also spoil the sanctity of their pilgrimage. Venkatesh convinced the pilgrims by saying he is willing to get down from the bus then and there if any pilgrim at any point finds his behaviour or his conduct objectionable. “I fell at every pilgrim’s feet before boarding the bus and requested them to let me travel with them,” says Venkatesh and smiles remembering how he was allowed to travel with the pilgrims as a civilian and not a pilgrim. About convincing his family he says, “I have always been someone who questions everything and seeks answer. That is what had taught me some amount of electronics too. That quality of mine made me ask them what was wrong about wearing black and what would happen if one wears black. The family could not answer me in clear words and I went on the trip.”

The same curiosity which made Venkatesh question and seek answer introduced him to a new world during the journey to Shabarimale. Apart from learning how to interact freely with people Venkatesh during this journey cutting through Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala learnt about several herbs and medicinal plants which later went on to become syrups for sherbats in his cart. “I am gifted with this ability to detect all the ingredients that has gone into the making of the food or sherbat while I consume them. I am able to decipher the recipe with my taste buds,” tells Venkatesh. He credits his sense of curiosity, which has been an undercurrent of his life, which made him go taste different herbs, leaves, medicinal plants and also learn about it from people he met. “Having to behave myself in a way which would be acceptable to the pilgrims and be in good terms with them and having to interact with new people in every new place helped me overcome my low morale, social awkwardness and made me a person who can interact freely and in a friendly manner,” he says before explaining, with a broad smile on his face, how all the pilgrims were more than happy to have him with them during their pilgrimage.

But the major “turning point” of Venkatesh’s life, as he explains it, was when he volunteered to carry the heavy bag of a pilgrim from Pamba to the temple of Shabarimale. “That particular pilgrim was feeling a bit weak. So I offered to carry his bag,” Venkatesh begins to narrate and continues to say how he carried the bag and kept walking though feeling hungry. Being young Venkatesh walked ahead of every other pilgrim and reached the temple premises before everyone. There he waited for everyone to arrive and when they did, he said he has been hungry for a long time and requested to be offered some food. “That is when the pilgrims told me that I was carrying the food bag and I could have eaten as soon as I reached the destination,” Venkatesh says. That is when, he says, he realized two important things which marked a turning point for him. “I was able to walk so far in a hungry stomach. I realized I was capable of more than what I thought I knew about myself. Also I realized that I have a lot (potential) with me but haven’t realized that I have so much (potential) with me. It takes for someone else to tell me about what I have,” elaborates Venkatesh his “turning point.”

“I am very grateful to this Shabarimala trip and to my teacher Balakrishna, without these two my life would have been something else,” says Venkatesh with great gratitude.

Venkatesh returned to Anantapuramu from Shabarimale as a changed man and with a changed menu for his soda-sherbat cart, which slowly earned him popularity and friends on the streets of Anantapuramu. “I started interacting more with the customers and started sharing with them what I had learnt about the herbs and medicinal qualities of certain vegetables, leaves etc. Based on their feedback I would improvise the recipe for my syrup. Every item in my cart has gone a long process of improvisation,” tells Venkatesh. Customers, he tells, are his inspiration.

Venkatesh’s life underwent yet another round of fine tuning recently when his wife was in her ninth month of pregnancy. Marriage was not easy to happen for Venkatesh as people in his community looked down upon him because of his profession. “They would call me a man on footpath and man who washes saliva (in the glass) of other people,” says Venkatesh feeling very uncomfortable even when remembering it. “But to my luck, my wife is someone who doesn’t see it that way. She sees it as a job of dignity. She and I both have the same kind of love for life, grit for life,” he says gleefully.

Venkatesh’s wife had urinary infection during the last month of pregnancy. Most of the private hospital doctors said it had triggered some complication in the womb which could be problematic for the child as well as the mother and suggested many a tests and medications. Around the same time Venkatesh met with an accident and fractured his hand. It was difficult for him to arrange money and even his relatives refused to help him financially. Finally he took his wife to a Government hospital where he who was already pushed to a state of fear by the private hospitals was made to sign a paper declaring the hospital wouldn’t be responsible if something went wrong. “That was the loneliest and most painful moment of my life,” tells Venkatesh with tears welling in his eyes. But soon it evaporates as he says, “But thankfully nothing went wrong and my wife had a normal delivery.” All his family members, he tells, including his wife, wanted it to be a boy but he had prayed for a girl child. His prayers were answered. It was a girl child and she has been named Nivedita, who is ten months old now. “That phase made me realize how money has become central to the world. The private hospital doctors were instilling fear in me just because they wanted to make money. My relatives were not willing to help me. I understood how important money is for life. But at the same time I also realized how important human relationships are. My wife was running a risk of life, my relatives were not being relatives, my father was taking care of me as I had broken my hand and finally my daughter was born to redefine my role in this world. I realized the importance of human relations in life,” explains Venkatesh and adds, “So now I make sure I treat my customers well because having a humane relationship is important,” and goes to point how some of the sherbat/soda he serves in the cart and some other branded joints sell in their a/c shops are charged differently and the differences are huge. He says, “I don’t charge that much because I realize one shouldn’t loot people. But I also ensure I earn enough to sustain my family.” That is a realization he had when the private hospitals tried to make business over his moment of vulnerability.

“My family and my customers are everything to me now,” Venkatesh says and the way in which he holds both so close to his heart, it appears like his customers are also like a family to him. “You will remember me if the quality of sherbet/ soda is good. You will remember if I share whatever little I know. In that interaction I will get to learn something new. Profit will happen anyways. But if I get to learn and am able to establish good relationship, that is more valuable,” he adds.

Venkatesh now has enrolled for an electronics course in an IT in Kadapa. “It is just for the joy of learning. I won’t change my profession. I will be running this cart even after my course is done. This is just to satisfy my curiosity,” he says. He likes his job so much that at times in his dreams he sees the lanes in which he take his cart and he meets his customers there. But still he works not on all days. “I go out to work when I think the weather is such that there will be demand for soda or sherbat. The rest of the time I am at home experimenting with new recipe, preparing syrups and spending time with my family,” he explains. When asked if it is sufficient to meet the needs of the family, Venkatesh answers in the positive.

Couple of months ago when a traditional ritual of serving the newly born child with gifts and letting it pick something was conducted, Nivedita went on to pick up a green pen midst a lot of toys, food items, dresses. “That moment was the most joyous moment for me. I can’t express how happy I was,” says Venkatesh and adds, “I was equally happy when someone that day offered her money and she just dropped it.”

(Interview conducted on 22 Nov 2018. Special thanks to Sandeep Nayani)

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