Friday, 10 January 2014

The tea stall

By Rupinder Kaur, IDS alumni MA Poverty and Development

It’s funny how easily we get into routines. Change an office and suddenly there is a new routine.

So, as part of my new routine in Delhi these days, I walk to a local tea shop just outside my office. Well tea-shop is somewhat exaggerated - it’s basically a guy under a tree making tea on a stove, and yes, he keeps some savoury items in small plastic boxes that you can bite into as well.

So, I see him 5 times a week these days, smiling whilst adding that extra milk and sugar to my tea. Some days my inquisitive nature gets the better of me and I throw these volley of questions at him - how much do you earn, is this even enough to buy you food, do you have a family, what will you do when it gets really hot, etc. etc.

So yesterday, exasperated after my round of questioning he put up his hands and said, "Look, I don’t do this for a living! I am a full time night security guard."

Oh, so then I had to ask this one last question, "Why are you sitting here under this tree day in and day out?"

"For fun" he says, "for a life. I can’t sleep 12 hours, so what do I do when I am not sleeping? I am a migrant, so no family is around. It’s boring, you know."

And there it was, my tea guy reminding me how similar our lives are.

So he puts up a tea stall to meet and see people, have someone stop by and chat with, basically be out of the house. I do the same - join activities and clubs to meet people, some of whom become regulars in my life and border close to the definition of a friend.

He reminded me of Abhijeet Banerjee (of MIT poverty Action Lab), telling a story of a villager in his book Poor Economics. Abhijeet was surprised to discover that a low income farmer in an Indian village had very few material possessions and when he got some money his first investment was a television. "Foolish man" some would say, but as the author probed, the farmer said "I have to make my life fun and enjoyable in whatever circumstances I am in. So I will invest in the things that bring me joy". In his case, the telly.

Human behaviour, the way we choose to live our lives cannot be simply understood by logical interpretations of carefully gathered evidence. It is in fact a chaotic symphony of philosophical bending, personality type and current circumstances. At the end of the day we are all trying to enjoy this creation in the way we know best.

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