People of Bharat: Probir Sarkar
Updated: Oct 30, 2022
Amidst a weekday buzz on a busy street in Kolkata, I step into the sweet shop Maa Bhabatarini Mistanna Bhander. You can never have enough dessert they say. Shades of white, beige and brown greet me from behind the display counter. Dimly lit, the shop feels like a stark contrast after the bright afternoon walk. I find an unassuming, 30 something, Probir standing behind the counter.
I introduce myself and before I realise we are in a deep conversation. He begins to talk about his life and how he came to spend most of his time attending to the Mistanna Bhander (dessert store). Born to a Bangla family living in Howrah city, Probir Sarkar did his initial schooling on the other side of Hooghly. He enrolled for an undergraduate course but had to drop out in his second year to find a job and sustain his family. Growing up with his two brothers, Probir spent most of his adolescent years aware of his lean family finances. He frowns as he speaks about the limited economic activity in the state during his growing up years and how that constrained his family’s income. The frown disappears quickly and he quips how times have changed for the family.
Maa Bhabatarini Mistanna Bhander is the Sarkar’s family shop. Probir’s father set up the shop and even during the phases of political unrest, his father ensured that Maa Bhabatarini Mistanna Bhander kept sustaining. The income from the Bhander was limited and sometimes inadequate for the household. In a family of five, Probir is the middle child between two brothers. Following his father’s footsteps, Probir took over the sweet shop while his brothers opted for jobs elsewhere; all three brothers worked in the shop while they were growing up. The brothers believe that their dedication to the Bhander is hereditary; shadowing their parents who were always committed to whatever they chose to work for.
Probir goes on narrating his first job experience, from a time around 2004, ‘poribar er obostha khub ee kharap chilo’ (the family wasn’t earning well) –he stepped up to the responsibility by taking up a job to add to the household’s income. Probir found himself gradually inclining towards the Bhander. A few years ago, he joined his father while still continuing with his first job. Casually sprinkling english words in the conversation he clarifies, ‘amar ei kaajer proti ekta interest chilo.’ (I found myself getting more interested in the business). Been at it for over three years now, Probir thinks that he has grown tremendously.
Few minutes into the conversation and I knew I was speaking to a man with an ambitious mind, determined to build a quality life for him and his family. Shaking me off my reverie, Probir declares how the sweet shop doesn’t bring him much of a ‘personal’ profit. The profit belongs to the family as a whole and his expenses are taken care of by the family. What satisfies him more is the number of households the business indirectly sustains. He is talking about the four employees he hired and how the Bhander now supports their families. At the end of the day, the monthly profits do not go beyond INR 7000–8000, yet he derives more satisfaction by empowering his workers to fetch for their own families from the shop.
Probir owns a savings account but relies significantly on a day-to-day working model, where the daily earnings are invested back into the business. A typical day for Probir is spent catering to his daily customers — the locals from the neighbourhood. ‘The occasionals visit on special days’ he says. Special days mainly include the pooja (the annual festival of worshipping the Goddess) or victory of the Indian cricket team. He is still delighted when he serves unknown faces visiting his shop.
On being questioned about his future plans, he expresses his desire to open new stores and expand the business. He is currently negotiating with a few plot owners to rent spaces with the aim of widening scope of operation in the next six months. Probir remembers how the Bhander began with limited capital and required them to invest money from his father’s savings to make it sustain. It was only in due course that the business gathered pace.
Now the business records an average monthly sales worth INR 150,000. The expenses totals to around INR 140,000 and the remaining is taken home by Probir as the family’s profit. Probir makes the sales projections based on his experience; he knows the products are perishable and better projections help reduce wastage and cost of operations. Most of the production is tracked manually, which can sometimes be a cumbersome task and difficult to track. Festivities and ‘special days’ bring in significant fluctuation in sales.
His products are sold between INR 6–10 per piece. He sources the most critical raw material — milk — from the local dairy everyday with an average billing of about INR 1700 per day. As Probir is planning for expansion, he aims to operate like a ‘factory’, where products are ‘manufactured’ in a single location and supplied to all outlets. As of now, he gets new customers mainly through referrals of those who buy from him regularly. Live example of what a b-school graduates would call ‘word-of-mouth’ publicity.
As conversation carries on, Probir mentions he is married with two children, a daughter and a son. He and his brothers live together in a three-room house which is equipped with a refrigerator, gas connection and two TVs. As he extends his arm to show how close he stays to the shop and rides to work everyday on his motorbike, we are interrupted by a customer looking to buy rosogullas, so Probir busies himself tending to her. I see a smartphone at the billing counter and Probir proudly shows off his Samsung S7 while narrating its many features and the INR 1,250 EMI he pays monthly. In addition to calls, he also uses it to watch films, sports and goes on to joke about reducing his time on social media including WhatsApp and Facebook, they take too much time, he says. He finds the smartphone a more affordable substitute for a laptop; his phone helps his daughter access articles on the internet, which he feels helps in her learning and homework. He refrains from doing any financial transactions on the phone and our conversation is briefly paused due to a few customers enquiring about price of sweets.
Seeing him go about his work, my eyes catch the face tattooed on his arm. Following my gaze, he tells me that it’s his son.
I enquire about his personal aspirations. I hear resolution in his tone exactly like the one when he spoke about how the shop came about. Probir doesn’t have any desire for material assets as they seem unrealistic to achieve at this point in time. He feels he isn’t hankering to buy a car nor does an expensive watch excite him. His top priority is supporting his daughter in her education and growth; sending her to a reputed private school is his achievement. He emphasises on living a stress-free life and asserts, ‘Monetary pressure ta ke ami tension hisheb e dhorina’ (financial conditions do not bother me anymore). He reflects that his story matches those of countless lives around him. He has big plans for Bhander, emphasising, business e nijei nejer boss’ (one is one’s own boss in a business). Probir is a man of action and he is aiming for a ‘famous’ future of Maa Bhabatarini Mistanna Bhander.
As I walk away from the Bhander, I am left wondering about the power of simplicity, retold through Probir’s story.