In a town where it is impossible to find a detractor, one chaiwallah questions whether Modi actually ever sold tea on trains.
Around 30 feet from the tiny Vadnagar railway station in western Gujarat stands a small handcart belonging to 47-year-old Devji Manaji Thakore. It is located directly opposite a string of shops once owned by a man by the name of Damodardas Modi.
The locals here, in this hometown of Gujarat Chief Minister and the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, know him better now as Narendra Modi’s late father. It was here that Modi claims to have carried tea in a kettle from his father’s shop to customers waiting for trains as a boy, as per him, and as per a book titled Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times authored by Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.
Hidden behind several daily-wage labourers drinking their morning cup stands Thakore, who has been selling tea at the now “famous” spot for over six years. With Modi’s chaiwallah story engulfed in much smoke and gathering enough fire ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, the town is even more important in the CM’s story-telling exercise.
Thakore points to the tea shops dotting the street and says, ‘Damodardas Modi’ or ‘Damoba’ used to run tea canteens here with his two brothers. His business acumen is legendary”.
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However, he has his doubts whether Modi actually helped his father sell tea at the railway station or on trains. Particularly, as Thakore says, there are not many trains that stop here, except the Mehsana-Taranga Hill which comes in twice daily. “The hustle and bustle is not at the station, but here on the road,” he says.
Thakore sets up his stall at 7 am each day, putting the kettle to boil, and keeping the tea and cups ready for customers. He and his wife, sons Nikul (21) and Dinesh (20), their wives and a granddaughter live together in a small two-room shanty in a slum nearby. Adjacent to the stall is a farsan (savouries) stall, also owned by Thakore and run by Nikul.
With no hired help, Thakore gently grinds aadu (ginger) to add to the tea, as is customary in Gujarat during the winter. Pinned on his cart are some papers, recording the number of cups his customers drink on credit. Thakore avers that unlike in cities, credit here is settled quickly.
Around noon, Nikul takes over the stall for a few hours while Thakore takes his regular afternoon siesta in an unoccupied building across the road.
Business is usually brisk and on a regular day, the duo manage to sell around 200 cups. On an exceptional day, such as when a news channel shot scenes involving actors dressed up chaiwallahs, they sell over 500 cups. “They even had a Modi lookalike and borrowed my handcart to enact the scene. We thought it was very well done,” recounts Thakore.
The story of the “shooting” draws laughs from his customers, many of them labourers working at construction sites nearby. Shopkeepers send young boys to buy tea every few hours. Talk at the stall mostly surrounds Modi and the prospect of him becoming PM, and it is hard to find a single detractor.
Vadnagar is a BJP bastion, and Modi last came here in 2012 for a gurukul utsav at the Swaminarayan temple. Nobody here recalls him talking of his chaiwallah connect earlier — something that holds true for the rest of Gujurat as well.
Since last year, the Thakores have doubled the price of their tea. Earlier, a full cup was for Rs 5. “A cutting (small cup) which earlier cost Rs 2 is now sold for Rs 5,” Nikul says.
Thakore only studied till Class IV and became a diamond polisher at a young age. “As the polishing industry dwindled in Vadnagar, I turned to the tea business around 12 years ago and sold tea in different areas before settling here, “ he says.
On the other hand, 21-year-old Nikul completed his studies at B N Vidyalaya, the same school where Modi studied. Besides running the snack store and helping his father sell tea, he also doubles up as a home guard for 15 days a month, bringing home Rs 204 a day. He has a wife and a two-year-old daughter to support.
“Right from my grandfather’s time, our family has been selling tea. I earn Rs 200 a day from my shops and my younger brother Dinesh sells tea in another part of town,” he adds.
The three men share one mobile phone and two are BPL card holders. He says, “We get eight litres of kerosene, some rice and wheat and also 3 kg of sugar from the government for free. My dream is to buy a pucca house and a pucca stall.” Buying a house is an expensive prospect and would require at least Rs 5 lakh, Nikul adds. “Even the handcarts came for Rs 25,000.”
As the streets begin to empty, the father-son duo shut shop at 7.30 pm. Talk returns again to the chances of Modi becoming the PM. “Although I am with no party, I would let the BJP put up a poster at my tea stall if they wanted. If Modi wins the election, it’s great news because then a chaiwallah would have become the PM,” laughs Nikul.