If you are an Indian with a sense of history, you would probably know that Cuttack is the birthplace of that revered Indian patriot, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.
If you are an Indian with an added interest in cricket, you would probably also know that Cuttack has a cricket stadium where international one-day matches are staged… sometimes.
And if you are an Indian with a yen for neither, there is a likelihood that you would still be aware of Cuttack’s existence – as Orissa’s, or Odisha’s if you prefer, second largest city.
But I would not be surprised if you have more than a passing interest in all three departments – Indian history, Indian cricket and Indian geography – and yet scratch your head if asked to say a few words on Cuttack.
I would not be surprised, as Cuttack indeed is insignificant in the larger scheme of things.
Midst of a Rao
In fact, being a Bengali, the insignificance of the place was fairly driven into my head quite early in life, a popular Bengali saying associating Cuttack with any fanciful plan or deed.
“Let’s go to Cuttack, just on a whim,” the saying goes, and I always found it amusing. I mean, seriously, who finds Cuttack interesting?
I did not, and I think there are many others too who saw Cuttack the way I did. Or why else should there be a quiz or general knowledge question: “In which city is the Barabati Stadium located?”
However, of late, I have begun to take more than a passing interest in Cuttack, thanks to a man I was introduced recently to, a man who sells tea in this city so he can run a free school for slum kids.
My friend Devasis Jena mailed me a few photos of the man at his tea stall, gave me his name and phone number, and gently goaded me, “Why don’t you talk to him?”
I did and suddenly, Cuttack seemed much less distant, much less out of a quiz book and more of a place where people live, make a living, and have a life.
Tea seller, samaritan
The Good Samaritan is D Prakash Rao and he has a visiting card with an email ID. The cell phone is passé these days, so I am not harping on that.
You may well ask, and with good reason too, why should a tea stall owner not have an email account? I agree whole-heartedly, yes, why not? But the thing is, in India, it is not common.
Rao needs the email account and his visiting cards not for show or his tea business, but in the social initiatives he is involved in – a charitable healthcare centre and a free school for slum children.
He is Secretary of Radhanath Health Aid Centre, a non-profit located in the local medical college, and he helps organize health camps and blood donation drives.
Rao shares the dais at various charity events with the district magistrate – the highest administrative post in an Indian district – judges and other notable citizens, who talk to him as equals.
Newspaper reports call him a “social worker”, and a national English news channel once deemed it fit to film a feature on him.
In India, a tea stall owner maybe a popular person among his clientele, but he’s not feted socially.
Learning over tea
Rao’s mother tongue is Telugu, the local language of neighboring Andhra Pradesh state. But being born, raised and domiciled in Cuttack, he speaks Oriya too as fluently as he does Telugu, my friend told me.
That worried me some; I knew neither. “Converse in Hindi,” Devasis advised. “He speaks that as well.”
So there I was, a Bengali calling up an Oriya-speaking Telugu man to converse in Hindi – summing up once again that in India, diversity is actually a unifier.
Rao also spoke a few words in Bengali when he sensed my Hindi is weak. “I speak 11 languages,” he tells me; English he learnt at school, the Indian languages he picked up from his customers.
“When you run a tea stall, you meet so many people every day,” Rao says. “There are the regulars, and over the years I met people speaking in so many languages.”
It was his innate love for knowledge that drove him to learn as many languages as he could from customers. It was also his love for knowledge that propelled him to start a free school.
Rao says the sight of slum children roaming the streets or playing cricket when they ought to be studying disturbed him. So he started a free school with a few children at his residence in 2000.
In the beginning, he bought the books, but then began picking up them for his students under the Sarva Shikhsa Abhiyan – a state-sponsored free education scheme.
One room of his two-room house was given up for the school, the other room accommodated his family of four, including his own two daughters – one of them now in college, the other in Australia a work-study scheme.
Word spread, and a few years later a local club offered its premises provided the school was named after it: Aswasana, meaning assurance. Rao was too happy to accept; he needed space.
This year, he says proudly, all students who sat for the secondary exams passed including eight girls.
Parents of girl students complain sometimes, they can work as maids and bring home much-needed money instead of going to school, and it is an issue that Rao has to grapple with at all times.
Struggling to teach
Eight months ago, another problem arose: the one- day-a-week midday meal scheme that he availed of under Akshay Patra– a government-aided public-private partnership scheme – was stopped.
The scheme is applicable for government schools, something Rao’s is not. “We did not qualify. Now I feed them tea and biscuits from my shop,” he says. His means are limited, and that is all he can afford for the 70 or so students at his school.
Rao’s wife is a government nurse, it is her salary that the family lives on. He earns about Rs 700 a day, all of which goes into his school.
I wonder how long he reckons he can carry on, and Rao says as long as he can run his tea shop. “I will continue selling tea,” he says. “My daughters are grown up, my only worry is my school.”
And for that to run, as he says, his tea stall must run.