“I owe my life to this loving city. It has given me a dignified life, millions of smiling customers and an unforgettable memory of 26/11. I never imagined leaving this city on a bitter note. But the situation has forced me to think about ending this beautiful journey,” says Chottu Chaiwala aka Toufiq Shaikh, a tea vendor from Mumbai.
39-year-old Toufiq, who was once hailed as a 26/11 hero, is one of the millions of people who are at the receiving end of this global pandemic.
Mumbai, in particular, has witnessed a major spike in coronavirus cases due to which the city’s lifeline, local trains have completely stopped working and hence there are no customers. Plus, thanks to ‘work from home’, customers have drastically reduced.
Just a month before the lockdown, Toufiq opened a new stall and spent nearly Rs 1,00,000 to stock up: wafers, water bottles, biscuits, etc. Since the stall was placed right next to the tea shop near the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station, a prime location, the business was picking up before it all went downhill.
“Before the lockdown, I used to use 60 litres of milk daily and made 100 cups of tea. But now I barely use 10 litres. When the lockdown was imposed in March, I was hopeful things would get better, so I did not even lay off my staff. I ended up taking loans to meet expenses. And now I have no option but to sell everything and go back home,” Toufiq, who is presently earning a bare minimum by selling tea in a flask, tells The Better India.
Toufiq has employed 11people for this tea stall, of whom he helped eight return to their native towns when the lockdown norms were relaxed.
He has three school-going daughters and a wife, who works as domestic help. However, the lockdown has affected her monthly income as some of her employers have fired her.
In the last six months, Toufiq has borrowed nearly Rs 3,00,000 to pay salaries to support his family and employees.
Pradeep Deorao Kothalkar, his long-time friend and a railway official, lent Rs 20,000 to Toufiq.
“We became friends in 2002 when I was posted in CST’s ticket counter department as an accountant. Over the years, we bonded over his tea and after some years I was transferred to another city but we kept in touch. Knowing the lockdown woes, I came to know about his problems. He did not even have the money to buy sweets for his kids during Eid. We all need to help each other and I did my bit,” Pradeep, who is currently posted as an assistant account in Nashik’s Manmad Railway Account Department, tells The Better India.
While Pradeep gave the money without expecting anything in return, Toufiq hopes to return it as soon as possible.
“I do not want to reel under anyone’s debt, even if it is a dear friend as I know the importance of having money at such times. I have already run out of the savings that I collected over years of hard work. So, the only way to pay back is to sell my two tea stalls and the house in order to survive this pandemic. I will take up farming in my village and not sure if I will ever return,” he says.
A 26/11 Hero
With Rs 300 in his pocket, a 12-year-old Toufiq migrated to the bustling streets of Mumbai from Bihar’s Dumri village in 1995 to earn a decent livelihood. He started his journey as a helper (who everyone fondly called ‘Chotu Chaiwala’) in a tea stall in South Mumbai, and, over the years worked his way up to start his own stall.
Life took a 360-degree turn on the night of 26/11 when a series of terrorist attacks took place in 2008. Toufiq was inside the station master’s cabin when he heard a huge explosion. In that very next minute, he saw Mohammed Ajmal Kasab firing in his direction.
The next couple of minutes were a blur before he gained control of the situation and started helping the police carry the injured and dead to St George’s Hospital.
Recalling the night, he says, “I was collecting money for all the tea delivered throughout the day to railway officials when I heard gunshots. I thought they were fireworks and ignored it. But the explosions and gunshots refused to die down and suddenly I saw two men armed with huge guns mercilessly killing people. I called my wife and told her I may not make it home and before she could argue, I cut the call and started helping people.”
After spending almost eight hours helping people reach the hospital, giving the injured water and serving tea into the early hours of the morning to police officers, Toufiq finally went home.
The next day, when he opened the stall, several people, who he had helped, came to him and thanked him for saving their lives, “They even donated clothes and some gave money,” he adds.
His heroic efforts were acknowledged by the government; he was even promised a job at the railways. He received 27 awards and Rs 70,000 in cash from various citizens groups. With this money, he opened his first tea stall in 2009.
Even though Toufiq hasn’t yet got a job with the railways, he is happy serving piping hot tea to the Mumbaikars even during this lockdown.
If you want to help Toufiq, here are the details:
Name of Account Holder: TOUFIQ KALAM SHAIKH
Account no: 60023647841
IFSC code: MAHB0000310
Name of Bank: Bank of Maharashtra
Branch: BoriBunder Mumbai
Edited by Vinayak Hegde