Off-Centre Society

Laxman Rao, novelist and playwright, sold chai from his stall in Delhi until the lockdown

Laxman Rao at his tea-cum-bookstall.   | Photo Credit: Md Imran Raza

India’s capital is home to a famous chaiwala. A darling of the press, fêted by numerous organisations and no stranger to the highest echelons of political office, Laxman Rao has led a storied life. It wasn’t his brews but his books that catapulted him into the public eye, and even into Teen Murti House, where Indira Gandhi hosted him in 1984. A few decades down the line, then President Pratibha Patil also had the honour. Now the author of 25 Hindi books, he’s received awards from NGOs and literary associations and been covered more than 100 times in print, broadcast and digital media. All the while, until Delhi went into lockdown last year, you could still walk right up to a tea stall on Vishnu Digambar Marg and treat yourself to a cuppa from this celebrated author.

The pandemic brought change and, in its own way, peace. Rao’s sons were doing well, so he could quite happily wrap up the tea business and focus on writing and promoting his works. Several are now available on online shopping sites and Kindle. And currently in the works is a Mahabharata-based play called Hastinapur. It’s an epilogue to the epic that aims for contemporary relevance, with an emphasis on “diagnosing and redressing the moral dilemmas of our times,” he says. It has a focus on Karna, a “great warrior, a great human being and a great friend” who Rao feels has been given short shrift by recent adaptations.

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The tea stall is still there — it’s his correspondence address and office space-cum-bookshop. “Literature needs time to flourish; that’s why I needed to sell tea.” he says. And time it took. Rao started his rags-to-writer journey in 1975, when he left his village with ₹40 in his pocket — borrowed from his father — and a dream to make it big as an author in Delhi. He opened a paan shop on Vishnu Digambar Marg in 1977, and later diversified into tea.

Leisure reading

The shop was near Delhi’s old book market, and he used to grab books by authors ranging from Lenin to Shakespeare to read when there was a lull in business. This was also when he encountered the works of one of his inspirations, the novelist and Bollywood scripwriter Gulshan Nanda. Next year, Rao was ready to try his luck. He approached publishers with two manuscripts and met rejection after rejection. “One publisher said, ‘get out’, and that day I decided I would publish on my own. I thank him for rejecting me.” He worked hard at the shop, saved up ₹7,000, and in 1979 launched his first novel, Nai Duniya Ki Nai Kahani, through his own self-publishing line. Of course, it wasn’t just a question of publishing; at first he had to go around on his bicycle delivering copies to schools, libraries and railway stations. He had little success initially, but Pradhanmantri, the play he wrote after meeting Indira Gandhi, brought him instant fame.

With a copy of his play ‘Pradhanmantri’.

With a copy of his play ‘Pradhanmantri’.   | Photo Credit: Md Imran Raza

Origin story

For Rao’s literary origin story, we have to flash back even further to a little village called Talegaon Dashasar in Maharashtra’s Amravati district, where he was born in 1952. His senior at school, a reformed ruffian named Ramdas, dived into a river to bathe and never came up again. The memory would gestate in Rao’s mind until 1992, when Ramdas became the novel Ramdas — his third and most successful book, with more than 5,000 copies sold to date. “My writing is not protest at all against any incident, but it must be inspiring. It is mostly my imagination on the basis of some fact that passes by me. I always live in present and write fictional literature,” he says.

Rao feels it’s been smooth sailing since 2000, when he was given an award by the Bhartiya Anuvad Parishad and his career really took off. Recently, he has widened his scope to write about subjects like politics and economics; his last published book was Bhartiya Arthashastra Aev Maulik Sidhant in 2018. Over the years, he’s worked on other things too; he completed his Class XII in Delhi aged 37, got a degree from Delhi University at 50 and an M.A. in Hindi literature from IGNOU at 63 — and is still planning to do a Ph.D. What does the future hold? “I’ve become a Gulshan Nanda as I wished, and now I want to be Shakespeare. I don’t want to sell tea anymore — I only wish to write and promote my works,” he says.

The writer is a research scholar at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia.

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 1:19:42 AM |

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