People of Bharat: Manas
On a regular Delhi afternoon, I step inside the stifling post office of Malka Ganj branch; post and parcels, the maniacal typing, and stacks of stamped envelopes transport me back in time. Manas Tiwari is easy to spot; he is busy shuffling through a stack of papers on his desk. Greeting him, I sit on one of the flimsy metal chairs, and wait for the clock to strike one. As soon as the afternoon break begins, the workers start pacing about with tea; Manas walks up to me and I place my ask before him. He smiles and suggests that we sit at the chai stall outside. Seated on the low, plastic stools, we order two cups of tea as he lays open his steel tiffin for lunch. He is wearing a plain collared shirt over navy pants — their faded edges speak of so much.
Tall and lanky, his pale skin makes him look like someone from the mountains. Putting my doubts to rest, the 42-year-old begins speaking of his childhood in Ranikhet, a ‘cantonment town’ in Uttarakhand. He speaks of his childhood and recalls that his family was able to afford a decent standard of living while his father served in the army. As he graduated from a local college, he opted to prepare for examinations for government jobs. One thing led to another and Manas was able to secure a job at Ranikhet Post Office at a salary of about Rs. 10,000. This is where he worked for the next 13 years. Turning 27, he married his wife, a teacher by profession. They enjoyed a peaceful life in the sleepy town with their daughter until 2014 when the job transfer brought the couple and their little one to Delhi. It was a journey from quiet, scenic paths, to loud, hasty metro rides.
In Delhi, Manas rented an apartment in Kamla Nagar so that he could walk to work. The surge in rent (as compared to Ranikhet) made the Tiwaris realise that they could purchase an apartment and pay an EMI for the same amount. In 2016, the aspiring home-owners registered themselves for a lottery for the allotment of apartments by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) in Dwarka. Luck struck with the Tiwaris and they were allotted a 4 BHK apartment in the very first round!
Unlike many around him, Manas is now a proud owner of a home, well equipped with a refrigerator, air-conditioner and other comforts. ‘Post Office waise Dwarka seh door padhta hai, par kaam kay liye door takh janey mein koi dikat nahi. (Dwarka is far away from my workplace, but I don’t mind the daily commute to work.)’ Their home is closer to the government school where his wife is a teacher and his daughter is enrolled as a student.
Two years back Manas had to take a home loan of Rs. 15 lakhs at an interest rate of 8.6% to pay for the allotted DDA apartment. In the last two years, he has managed to pay Rs 5 lakh including interest. As I am beginning to be amazed by his financial management, he shares that his family is not insured, while he has been meaning to buy a ‘policy’ for a little while now. He had considered equity investments until he came to know of ‘a friend who ended up losing Rs. 2 lakhs in the stock market’. The Tiwaris hasn’t purchased much gold; their wedding gold is worth around Rs. 80,000.
As he polishes off the curry with the last morsel of the chapati, Manas looks at me and recalls the darker days, ‘My parents have not been keeping well. My father had to go through a complicated heart surgery, which drained a lot of our resources.’ To pay for the treatment, he had to take a loan of Rs. 5 lakhs from a friend, which he still needs to repay. Moreover, he adds how Delhi has been an expensive city to live in, especially for a lower middle class family like his.
Manas takes home a salary of Rs. 30,000, while his wife, a teacher in a government school, draws Rs. 20,000 each month. Their combined income pays for their daughter’s education of about Rs. 5,000 per month in fees and other miscellaneous expenses for books, stationary and tuitions totalling to another Rs. 3,000. ‘Abhi toh beti 7th mein padhti hai. Aage jaa ke kharche aur badh jayenge. (She is in 7th grade right now. These expenses will only increase as she grows up.)’ The Tiwaris spend about Rs. 4,000 on food rations and another 3,000 on household utilities. They had bought a car a few years ago. I am stunned when Manas shares that he paid for it from his savings! Unlike the laptop, Manas says, the car is now just a liability. Driving in the Delhi traffic is a nightmare and the servicing alone drains a lion’s share of their monthly budget. Manas spends around Rs. 2,000 on his commute through metro each month, another 1,500 goes towards petrol and vehicle maintenance. The EMI on his house is about Rs. 18,000. On an average, Manas and his wife are able to save Rs. 5,000 each month, which goes either into their bank account or towards his account in the post office savings. I can see a little pride at the edge of his smile, as Manas shares how they like to spend on entertainment and occasionally indulge in shopping. I am tempted to think about the weekend culture of large cities. Before I go too far, I quickly bring myself back to the chai stall opposite Malka Ganj post office.
I want to know about his aspirations and dreams. Manas takes a deep breath. He has often pondered about moving back to Ranikhet. The hills continue to beckon him and spending the rest of his life in the foothills of Uttarakhand is tempting. Yet, he knows moving isn’t an option. ‘Delhi ke schools ki jo quality hai aur yahaan jitna exposure milta hai, itna gaon mein toh nahi milega. Isse meri beti ko kaafi fayeda milega.’ (The quality of education and the competitive atmosphere of Delhi cannot be replicated in my small town. My daughter will benefit a lot from the exposure that she gains in this city.)’ After spending 5 years in the city, his frustration echoes that of many ‘Everything is expensive in the city. Fruits, vegetables, clothes, etc. I could have purchased an entire bungalow in Ranikhet for the price of my apartment’. Delhi is unforgiving, in its weather and life; its harsh summers and unruly pollution, seems to have particularly taken a toll on Manas’ health.
I notice the red tinged cheeks and a beaded forehead. The afternoon sun affected him much more than it ever affected me. After all, his pahari* skin is sensitive to Delhi’s blazing heat. Speaking of the hills again, Manas shares that his brother has a small apple orchard in Uttarakhand. ‘He doesn’t earn well but my father’s pension pays for the basic expenses’. Manas dreams for a better future. He wishes to earn enough to see his daughter graduate; he wants her to be financially independent even after her marriage. He also longs to renovate the fast-dilapidating family home. Though all his plans need money, another loan isn’t an option for Manas. He doesn’t want to borrow any more money until he pays off all his previous debts. As we speak of finances, Manas bellows with pride, ‘My wife is entrepreneurial. She had the idea of taking tutions in our home. It pays a lot more than working in a school. But it got too hectic for her and she didn’t want to lose out on the pension benefits that come with the government job.’
We are still seated in the blistering heat, now with empty cups and the break time nearing its end. As he packs his empty tiffin, Manas offers me the rasgulla (dessert) that his wife had packed for him. Though tempted, I politely decline thanking him for sharing his story. It was time for him to head back to the job that was helping him meet his goals and encouraging him to dream some more. As for me, the Post Office wasn’t a thing of the past anymore — it was now alive as a vessel of dreams and aspirations.
*pahari — belonging to hills