Saturday, March 12, 2011

The big business men of Mumbai

Post-started in Oct- laziness and work meant procrastination

So Barack Obama is visiting India. While people are speaking about the impact of this visit on Indo-US relations , about what previous presidents did, about how Obama answered students of Bombay, there was one news story that caught my eye.

The closing of sections in and around the areas where Obama was visiting (in Mumbai) and how normal people faced harassment. Security for a visiting foreign head of state is one thing, and enforcing curfew (Some residences in South Bombay were advised- come home at 7 pm - or else next morning ). Well, still, I might accept that.

But the worst I felt was for the small business men of Mumbai. Coming from the city, and also being a Gujarati - who are famous (or infamous) to be very great at business , I felt bad for a lot of people who earn their daily bread and butter by putting up stalls/ tapri's / or even doing roadside vending . While some people might term them as a perennial nuisance , I have somehow always been impressed by this class of people.

I have developed this habit of striking conversations with people in India. More often than not, it works wonders, and also gives me an insight that is very rare to achieve. Like that doli-wallah who lifts people across 3800 steps in Palitana for a meager amount. Like that rickshawallah who earns 200 Rs a day, spends rs 20 on himself and sends the rest to his family. And for all the criticism that these people might fact for making Bombay unclean, unhygienic , disorganized, corrupt - my heart still always has a lot of respect for them. All of them have some common points: A simple business idea, innovative techniques for sales and marketing, a lot of hard work and an aim to make it big.

Last year, I was having a 'Dabeli' at a small roadside joint, when I happened to ask the guy, how old was he, and how did he run this business. The conversation was simply mind blowing. He told me about his business- this guy used to sell about 350 Dabelis in a 8-10 hour shift at 8 Rs / piece. On further analysis, I figured out that the cost of materials/ transport / cleaning /miscellaneous came to about a 1000 rupees a day. And wait, this meant that this guy was making a clean profit of Rs.1800 per day!!!! If this wasn't enough, he said that he takes a lot of party orders where the revenue is much higher.

The truth about Bombay (which I know a lot of people might not be very convinced about) is that if you are intelligent, willing to work hard and know to do the simple things correct- it'll never betray you. I had a similar conversation with a Taxi driver. Sometimes, it just helps if you show some respect by sitting on the front seat and referring to people as 'Aap'. They are after all, simple people, who are trying to make their living, working hard. He said he earned about 20,000 rupees a month and though he himself came from a poor family in UP, he had made sure that his son and daughter have the best access to education and they don't have to struggle. He spoke about his early days, when he had to save money, make efforts to go forward in life, and how that period makes him a very satisfied man today. I could see bits of my first day in the US- and was somehow so happy that he was satisfied by his life today.

The third was an interaction with one of my father's friends, who had come to India in the 1950-1960s , and started doing odd jobs. From there, he started selling pens which he would buy from a wholesale market and sell them on the streets of Bombay. From there, to a small shop, from there, to a wholesale business, and finally to become one of the Bombay-made Crorepati.

True, Bombay has the stock market, one of the best natural harbours, some great industries set up by the Parsi businessmen in the early 20th century- but seriously, if there's one point that is a big factor to the development of the city as the commercial capital of India, it's this bit of entrepreneurship that people seem to have learnt from their mother's womb and the willingness to work hard - maybe not just hard, but hard enough to make the impossible possible. Something that involves self-made management skills.

The only sorry thing is that their businesses (as mentioned earlier) are subject to losses when India or in particular Bombay succumbs to one of the many 'business-stopper' events. Be it the Shiv Sena Bandhs, the rains - and really irritating- Obama's visit meant that a good part of Bombay was closed to the general public - and that too on the eve of Diwali/ New Year which are prime holidays and mean a lot of business to these people.

The other interesting angle I see in this- is the commonality I find between my first days in the US - to what they must have had in Bombay. Any city which breeds immigrants (be it domestic or International) has a flavor which is worth an experience. The Bombay that I have seen- is surely different from what they have . A lot of things we took for granted- from having your own home , to having parents with you always , is something, they have fought their way through. That - coupled with the spirit of the entrepreneurs of Bombay- is what makes the city special !