Spring is here and soon it will be summer. In local communities, little kids will set up lemonade stands and sell a glass of lemonade for a Quarter. It’s not about the lemonade so much as it’s about introducing the kids to how businesses function – the advertising, the setting up of the stand, the selling process, collecting money, counting the earnings of the day, customer service etc.- all, important and valuable lessons as the child steps into the adult world. I remember me and my younger brother had our own experiences of running “businesses” in the summer and Diwali breaks while growing up in Nagpur.
This was probably my 7th or 8th grade (that would be around 1987-1988). It was our indigenous idea. We had a respectable collection of comics, story books, novellas, magazines. Sample these:
Comics: Chacha Choudhary, Rajan Iqbal, Phantom, Lamboo Motu, Many titles of Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle
Story books: Autobiography series from VidyaBharati of a diverse group of individuals such as Aurobindo Ghosh, Vinoba Bhave, Sarojini Naidu, Chandrasekhar Bose, Motilal Nehru, Swami Vivekananda, C V Raman and many more. There were also large volumes of stories of Akbar and Birbal and stories from Panchtantra.
Magazines: Mostly a stock pile of a Russian Magazine named Misha
We would store this potpourri of books in an old wooden cupboard in the mid-landing of the stairwell leading to the terrace of our house. Many of our neighborhood friends would envy our collection and would occasionally borrow books from us. So, one hot summer me and my brother came up with a plan: Why not charge them for each time they take these books from us? Right there the details of the plan were hashed out:
Name of the library: Om Library (that’s the name of my parent’s house)
Working hours: 9AM to 2PM (I think), Open daily unless the owners are out of town or are busy in some other summer vacation enjoyments
Charges: 10 paisa per rental, regardless of the size of the book, can borrow a maximum of 5 books per person.
Return rules: Books can be checked out for 5 days, 10 paisa per day late fees thereafter
We opened an old unused notebook and started a log. Advertising was all word of mouth. The word spread and slowly we had a steady flow of customers (some kids came from neighboring communities, kids we did not know prior to opening the library). The log was meticulously maintained and moneys were diligently collected. It wasn’t a well-oiled operation, there were a few defaulters and we lost some books. We also found that kids had started exchanging comics books rented out from us, amongst themselves prior to returning them. There was nothing we could do about it. At the end of the summer we closed the library. We had lost a few books, had gotten sloppy with maintaining the logs, but nevertheless had learnt a lot about operating a business. I think we had collected about fifty rupees and probably bought more comics from those earnings.
The Phataka Shop
We used to live in a joint family where my uncles (younger brothers of my father) lived with us. The younger of the two uncles had just started a new job but also wanted to make some extra buck on the side. He had acquaintances/friends who worked or owned wholesale firecracker shops in a part of Nagpur called Itwari. So one fine September, a month before Diwali, he decides that he will buy a stockpile of firecrackers from these wholesalers and sell them to families in our neighborhood at a slight premium which will be lesser than the shops nearby. He recruited me and my brother as his “Happy Helpers” and boy were we happy or what? It’s what every boy looks forward to in Diwali – the immensely satisfying experience of lighting fireworks each night of Diwali. This is the singular goal of the two weeks of the Diwali school break – which the vastly insensitive and we-have-no-life-so-you-should’t-either teachers of our school would like to ruin by assigning ‘Diwali Homework’ prior to the break. Anyway, the thought that we will have a room full of fireworks in our own house was beyond our wildest imagination. We were ready to do anything to be near those magical boxes of – Sutali bombs (green colored little explosives which make an awful lot of noise), Laxmi bombs (long tubular explosives which have a picture of the goddess Laxmi), ladees (long strings of explosives), fuljhadees (sparklers), anaars, chakras, rockets, and many more.
So one glorious October morning a delivery van arrived at our house with many wooden boxes full of fireworks. The smell of barood (silvery powder that is the essential ingredient of the explosives) tingled and titillated our nostrils as the delivery guy unloaded these boxes. While we stood there on our verandah watching this spectacle with a look of such pride on our faces that we were the kings of the world, we secretly imagined our neighborhood friends were watching us from the slits of their windows and envying us for our good fortune. My uncle had already prepared the order lists using his typewriter and made many copies. Off we went from door to door handing out copies of these lists. Back at home we helped my uncle sort the goods in neat piles. Our eyes and open jaws were evidence of the pleasure we were deriving from that exercise: some of the boxes had colorful pictures of curiously voluptuous actresses of the Hindi Cinema: Jaya Prada, Sridevi, Rekha, Hema Malini, Mandakini and some others we couldn’t recognize but curiously had the same body structures. Once all the boxes were arranged, we looked at the stock like parents look at their new born child for the first time. People started bringing in their orders from the next day, and while my uncle would do the calculations of the bill, me and my brother would pick out the items from the list and hand it to the customers. It was beyond magical – doing the whole dance of walking amongst those boxes, selecting the products for them with the occasional “only two of the plain sparklers, you should also try these colorful ones….they are new this year”. We must have sounded like professional fireworks sellers; it was all an unbelievable dream that had come true.As the first day of Diwali dawned on us, we were still left with many unsold items and it as expected they were all for the Happy Helpers. It was the best Diwali ever, and in our opinion was the best business in the world.
Next year, we waited impatiently for our uncle to ask us again for our help, and when he did not bring the topic up; we indicated that we are ready for helping him out this year too. He said, he was too busy at work this year and will not be setting up the shop. We think he probably had made a loss last year, but nevertheless it was all well worth it for us kids. . Of course, we were disappointed, but with any childhood disappointments it lasted only a day or two. I still remember that Diwali of the “Phataka Shop”: me and my brother would wake up late at night and walk to that room full of fireworks, turn on the light, look at them for a few minutes as if to reassure ourselves that it’s not all a dream and go back to bed.