Fiction Mumbai Short Stories Small businesses

The only constant

Around 3.30 am near the Santacruz railway station, amidst the faint sounds of a few auto rickshaws carrying late-night passengers or finishing up their final journeys for the day, a pale coloured truck arrived. The brightness of the lights was enough to blind the person with a tire-shaped belly and a look condescending enough to put to shame any of his workers.

‘Shantibhai,’ as he was called around in the area, began his day. The truck was delayed today considering a delay in getting the consignment at the source. The freshly printed newspapers that the truck brought were still warm enough to Shantibhai’s hands, affirming that the newspapers were perfect for delivery in a few hours’ time. Shantibhai had a responsibility on his shoulders – he had to satisfy the demands of his customers who wanted the newspapers delivered anywhere between 5.00 am to 9.00 am.

It was his twentieth year in the newspaper distribution business, having started by distributing newspapers for his uncle. It took his uncle about five years to be convinced that he could retire from the business and let Shantibhai take over.

And the young man had not disappointed either, having made sure that the business got his primary attention. In the initial years after his uncle’s retirement, the business had grown from serving fifty households to serving a majority of the Santacruz West housing societies, with many people trusting his network of newspaper-boys to deliver the newspapers on time. The business didn’t need ’30-minute delivery guarantee or free’ type deals, as the boys made sure that the newspapers were delivered on time every day.

Apart from delivery to houses, Shantibhai had also bought two stalls at the Santacruz railway station which held newspapers and magazines from all the famous publishers across the city. In the last few years, he had also started to look at opening an academic bookstore; and had started asking lenders for capital. The bookstore business would help him make profits much higher than what he made currently, considering the number of schools in the vicinity.

He turned his eyes to the three delivery boys who had arrived half asleep and were waiting for the truck in the godown. The boys were quick in climbing into the trunk of the truck and began picking out the piles of newspapers waiting to reach the several houses they had to reach. The piles lay in the front half of the truck, as Shantibhai looked at them with a concern. The boys continued with their work, as Shantibhai had a chat with the truck-driver, seeking an explanation for the delayed delivery of the newspapers.

It took almost fifteen minutes for the newspaper bundles to be brought into the godown when Shantibhai nodded the driver to leave. As the sound of the truck’s engine faded away, the owner of the business had clear instructions to the three boys aged between 13 and 18.

“Aaj 30 ghar kam hain,” he announced; and handed a list to one of them. The list contained the houses where newspapers were not to go today. The boys prepared for their deliveries, as they were delayed already.

The sorting of newspapers according to the houses had to be immaculate; the work had to be reduced to just throwing newspapers on the doors of the houses when they went out for deliveries. Many houses got more than one newspapers, in more than one language, so it was to be made sure that the newspapers were aligned together to make sure that all the houses got newspapers of the languages asked for. After all, all the ‘sahabs’ and ‘madams’ were particular of the newspapers they read while sipping their morning teas. A single complaint to Shantibhai would mean making a trip to that house with the correct newspaper in case a wrong newspaper was distributed.

The boys had been trained for high accuracy, and the number of complaints Shantibhai got was about 1-2 per month on an average. A pretty high accuracy for a high-volume, completely human-handled business. Still, the workload was high, as two of their peer had not come for the last three days,  resulting in more workload on these three. But the boys had not dared to complain in front of their shrewd seth-ji who ignored their complaints heedlessly.

Per their training, the boys finished sorting the newspapers according to the housing societies within the next thirty-five minutes. One of them, who was the oldest among the three, took the lead and announced to the boss that they were ready to leave. The boss handed over a few receipts to two of them and explained where they had to reach. He maintained a complete nonchalance as he saw the boys leave for the day’s delivery.

His desk hosted a few papers and a desk phone he had. He came to the desk and picked up a flyer and cello-tape lying and turned back towards the entrance. On the wall by the godown entrance that faced the market, Shantibhai was quick in pasting the flyer using a minimal length of cello-tape. In big letters, it read ‘WANTED delivery boys’ written in English, Hindi and Marathi.

He came back to his desk with a suddenly different-looking fretful face. From a staff of 11 delivery boys just a month ago, the number had dwindled to just 4 now. The fourth one would be here in the afternoon and would go to deliver the mid-day editions preferred by some readers. Shantibhai sat worried, wondering of ways to incentivize the boys to stay. As he was doing this, this morning’s truck’s trunk flashed in front of his eyes. The trunk was less than half full, he clearly remembered. It took his helpless brain no time to go back to the memories when the number of newspapers was high; when the truck used to arrive with its trunk completely full and the driver was always in high spirits; when the sleeping households were eager to get their daily dose of news delivered to their doors.

The deliveries were smaller now and as a result, he didn’t make enough to keep the adequate number of boys employed because of the costs. From the 650 houses and the 120 offices he delivered to earlier, he was now just delivering to about 300 houses and 30 offices. Of course, doing away with newspapers was a way of ‘saving paper’ for the offices.

According to his estimate, he would need at least six boys to fulfill all the deliveries in an organized manner. But he had only four at his disposal, who were handling the load among themselves. He was sure that the number of complaints would rise sooner or later. The boys didn’t utter a word, but he knew that they were already searching for other jobs and would leave as soon as they got better-paying jobs. Even vada pav stalls by the streets would pay more than what he did, which meant they would leave.

At the same time, it was not that the other business was doing great. Newspaper stalls at the railway stations required high costs to be paid to the Railways, which were hardly recovered in the recent months, considering the increase in the mobile apps which delivered news right at the touch of a few buttons. The ‘tailored-for-you’ news that these were delivering was far better than the ‘one-paper-all-news’ delivered by Shantibhai’s papers.

The mobile generation preferred to get everything on their phones, and software developers had made sure that everything was available at a few touches’ distance. As a result, the number of newspaper readers on the local trains had reduced drastically, as more and more people chose to stare at their phone screens, not allowing anyone else to peep into what they were reading.

The book stall now looked like a distant dream. He turned to his calculator to check how much cash flow was expected this month. Devoid of fancy charts, his analysis was calculated with a simple calculator, a pen in his right hand and a notebook in front of him. Rs 13,000 lump sum- the income he would be left with once he was done taking care of all the costs. He would never get to accumulate the initial operational costs for the bookstore if this continued, even after getting a loan. He continued exploiting his brain’s capabilities, thinking of ways to keep the business intact. Within a few minutes, he was assured that investing in a bookstore was a smaller priority, saving the business was more important.

The boys returned to the bookstore at around 9.40 am, having completed all the deliveries as expected. Shantibhai checked with everyone to see if there were any delays or complaints from the customers reported to them. The boys, oddly, mentioned that there were none. But Shantibhai knew very well that another day with no complaints didn’t mean that all was well.

“Seth-ji,” the senior-most boy uttered, disturbing Shantibhai’s thoughts. “Main kal se kaam pe nahi aaunga,” he was quick in uttering the words. Shantibhai didn’t bother to listen to the explanation the boy gave to him. The other two boys looked happily at the senior-most, as if he was freed from a jail after a couple of years of work. Shantibhai realized this without waiting for long but didn’t speak a word.

Once the boys had left, he summoned the two newspaper-stall managers who managed his stalls. The two were prompt in coming to the store. But before talking to them, Shantibhai went for a stroll along the street, assuring the men that he would be back within ten minutes.

As he walked by the street, he was making decisions about what to do. If he gave away one of the stalls for a price, he would be saving roughly Rs 10000 in costs, thus resulting in additional cash flows. If he gave away the lease of the other one as well, he would be saving double the amount. But acquiring a stall on a railway station was a rarity as the demand for these stalls was always high. There would be no coming back to these stalls if he went ahead with this thought.

At the same time, this was not solving the problem, which was that the business was dwindling. The number of customers was going down in any case. To increase customers, he would have to do diversify his business to another area. Which meant he would need more people to take care of his business.

For the first time in his career as a newspaper distributor was he facing a challenge of not knowing what to do.

He passed a school in the vicinity wondering when the books from his bookstore would serve this school. Next, there were several shops that had an assorted range of products and an even better range of customers available to shop. Several mobile phone shops had also bloomed in the area considering the huge demand and the ever-increasing number of products being pushed into the market. The number of people at the eateries he passed was ever-increasing and the number of garment sellers was also increasing. It was a good time to be selling anything except newspapers, Shantibhai was convinced.

“Shantibhai,” one of the customers proceeding towards his godown called. “Kal se paper band karwa dena, sirf raddi ke kaam aata hai, koi padhta toh hai nahin,” the stout lady urged. Shantibhai listened to her and offered her a cheaper deal with a few newspapers, but she was not interested. He finally had to oblige, but this time didn’t look dejected at all.

With a heavy heart, he returned to his godown, having lost another customer. The two managers were still there, staring at their mobile phones. Although Shantibhai was a bit more energetic in his gait as he came back, the two men didn’t feel any excitement blooming in the man.

Thinking about his decision made while on the return journey of the walk, he appeared in front of the two. “Koi dukaan band nahi karenge,” he began his authoritarian talk. He directed the two to reduce the stock of newspapers in the stalls to make way for school books and stationery that would aid the students in the schools nearby.

The distant dream was not so distant always, it was right there. He didn’t have to own a bookstore anywhere. The stalls on railway stations would serve the purpose. In fact, they would serve the purpose better than any bookstore. Kids who took the train would invariably come to his store for books related to their academics.

The two managers left after getting their explanations, thinking that the decision that their boss had announced stoically was a calculated business move he had been thinking for days.

However, he had no intentions of shutting down the newspaper distribution yet, as he wanted to keep satisfied the newspaper loyalists, the dadajis and dadijis who still had the newspaper crosswords as a part of their afternoon routine.

The businessman had just taken a stroll and adapted himself to the change he saw in his surroundings. The Darwinian theory based on which he had moulded himself was reflected very well in several soon-to-be-sold books in his book stalls.


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