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Akshaya Rautaray and Satabdi Mishra in Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Akshaya Rautaray and Satabdi Mishra in Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Make your passion work

Take inspiration from four individuals who overcame obstacles to follow their dreams

Often, our little dreams or goals get brushed aside in the flurry of 8- to 12-hour workday shifts, deadlines or, simply, procrastination.

But there are those who overcome every challenge to do the kind of work they love, and live the life they want. Take, for instance, Laxman Rao, a Hindi author and publisher who runs a tea stall to sustain himself; or booksellers Akshaya Rautaray and Satabdi Mishra, who drove across the country in a mini truck to promote the habit of reading; or Mahalaxmi, a former sex worker who is now a paralegal volunteer.

“Whatever we dream of in our sleep, or think of when consciously awake, can be made possible if we work hard. Hurdles teach us lessons.... Regardless of the magnitude of the problems, if you are on the right path, with the right belief, a solution is bound to emerge," says Sumit Chowdhury, author of Rules Of The Game. The 46-year-old quit Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd, the telecom business of the Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries Ltd, last year to start GAIA Smart Cities, a start-up that manages projects for local governments and municipalities.

Aparna Jain, author of Own It—Leadership Lessons From Women Who Do, concurs: “Doing what you want to do might mean going off the beaten track, it might mean fighting issues you never even dreamt of, but all that is nothing compared to the happiness you get once you achieve what you want to."

Akshaya Rautaray and Satabdi Mishra

Booksellers, Bhubaneswar

It was during a December 2013 trip to a tribal village in Odisha’s Koratput district that the two bibliophiles realized that the reach of books was limited to a few urban pockets. “We were carrying some books in our hands. As soon as the kids there saw them, they came rushing to us. They had never seen a book," recalls 30-something Rautaray, who runs a “book shack" in Bhubaneswar with Mishra.

The two business partners decided to do something to change that. In January 2014, Mishra, who was taking a break from work, and Rautaray, who had quit his job as a store manager, filled their backpacks with books, and walked, trekked and travelled by bus and auto to Koratput. “We bought autobiographies, fiction and non-fiction books in Odiya from wholesalers, and displayed them on footpaths, under trees and at bus stops so that the common man could come and look at them, browse through them, hold them and even buy them (at a discount) if they wanted to. The idea was to take books to people," says Mishra. “Generally, even if you do find books in remote areas, they are mostly text or guide books. People remain oblivious to their actual world," says Rautaray, adding: “We could have easily started out by opening a book store in Koratput, but people in remote areas feel too intimidated by such fancy structures. So it was important to reach out to them personally."

The response was overwhelming. The duo bought a second-hand Maruti Omni with the help of friends, and travelled across all of Odisha’s 30 districts, encouraging people to read. “It’s ironical that with each passing year, the number of literary festivals organized all over the country is increasing, but there are very few bookshops in cities, and almost no bookshops in smaller towns or villages," says Rautaray.

Determined to spread the joy of reading, they opened a “book shack" in Bhubaneswar, called Walking BookFairs, where books of all kinds—fiction, non-fiction, autobiographies—are sold at a 20% discount. Unlike many commercial book stores, the book shack, which is their only source of income, has a couple of chairs, a garden where visitors can sit and read (the shack also functions as a library) and some basic lighting. “We believe in minimal living. There are no fans, no air conditioners and no fancy lights at our shack," says Mishra.

On 15 December, they hit the road again, carrying 4,000 books in English and Hindi in a customized mini truck, on a mission to cover 10,000km across 20 states in 90 days. The book tour, called “Read More India", included all kinds of books—fiction, non-fiction, classics, autobiographies, Nobel Prize winners, illustrations—in English and Hindi. It ended on 8 March. “We didn’t stock best-sellers like city book stores do. We wanted people to read diverse writings, and that’s exactly what we offered," says Mishra.

Talking about the financial returns, she says: “We bought books at a 40% discount from wholesalers and offered 20% discount on our books. So we kept the remaining 20%." The response to the tour was great, says Rautaray. “We sold around 40 books a day. More importantly, hundreds of people browsed through books and felt the ‘need’ to read them. This is our biggest achievement."

Staying inspired: When asked if they would ever consider doing something else, both responded with a firm “no". “Promoting book reading is something we believe in. Yes, the money is not much, but we think what we do can help make the world a better place. They (books) carry stories about us, they teach us about us. There’s no bigger joy in life than doing what you want to do," says Rautaray.

Laxman Rao. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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Laxman Rao. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Laxman Rao

Tea seller, author and publisher, Delhi

At first glance, he may pass off as just another chaiwallah (tea seller) on a Delhi pavement, with his tin kettle, tea glasses, namkeen and biscuits. But right next to Laxman Rao’s makeshift stall on Vishnu Digambar Marg, in central Delhi, you will come across a dozen Hindi books displayed neatly on the ground, with an “On Sale" banner on the wall behind. The 63-year-old has authored these books; he has, so far, penned 24 novels in Hindi, publishing 13 of these through his very own publishing house, Bhartiya Sahitya Kala Prakashan.

“I was inspired by (novelist) Gulshan Nanda during my school days," says Rao. The subjects of his stories range from personal experiences to Indian society and politics.

Born into a family of farmers in Maharashtra’s Amravati district, Rao came to Delhi in 1975 at the age of 22, with 40 in his pocket. “I had to quit school after class X because of financial problems. I first worked in a local spinning mill and later started helping my father in the field. But I was never at peace with myself. One day, I left everything and came to Delhi to become a writer."

He opened a tea stall to sustain himself and, four years later, completed his first novel, Nayi Duniya Ki Nayi Kahani—it narrated the hardships he had faced in becoming a writer. “No publisher was ready to give me a break," he says. But a determined Rao got the novel printed himself, and marketed it too. He gained more popularity with Ramdas (1992), his second novel about a wayward boy who mends his ways, only to drown suddenly in a village river. He received an Indraprastha Sahitya Bharti Award from the Akhil Bhartiya Sahitya Parishad for this work.

Rao made no money in the first two decades of his writing career. Whatever he did make went into getting his books published.

Things started changing after 2010-11. Thanks to media exposure and an active social media presence on Facebook and Twitter, Rao became better known. “People came just to meet me," says Rao. Just last month, he completed his master’s degree in Hindi from Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Open University.

He now sells his books on Amazon and Flipkart. An English version of his third novel, Narmada, about a girl in rural Madhya Pradesh, is available on Kindle. He writes in the mornings, before cycling from his east Delhi home to the stall that he opens at 2pm. “The money from the book sales is still not enough to support my career and my family," says the chaiwallah lekhakji (tea-seller author), as people call him.

Staying inspired: People used to call Rao crazy “for even thinking of becoming a writer. But that never stopped me from following my dream", he says. “There are still many who call me crazy, but the number has definitely gone down," he laughs.

“If I just wanted to run a tea stall, I would have done that in Amravati. I wanted to be like Gulshan Nanda. For 20 years, I faced ‘Get Outs’ (by publishers), did not sell copies of my books, but I kept on trying. Junoon hona bahut zaruri hai, aur thoda sa pagalpan bhi (Passion is important, so is a bit of craziness)."

Mahalaxmi addressing a group of sex workers. Photo courtesy Cfar
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Mahalaxmi addressing a group of sex workers. Photo courtesy Cfar


Paralegal volunteer, Salem

“The favourite part about my work is the smile I get to see on their faces when they learn about their rights as citizens of India," says Mahalaxmi, who uses only one name. She is referring to the sex workers of Salem, Tamil Nadu, where she works as a paralegal volunteer. “Sex workers routinely face harassment and intimidation from authorities over matters not even related to them," she says. “I know what it feels like to be wrongfully accused and charged," adds Mahalaxmi, who was once a sex worker herself.

The 30-year-old mother of two became a paralegal volunteer, along with 23 others, in 2014, under the Paralegal Volunteers Scheme of the National Legal Services Authority. The scheme, started by the Centre in 2009, aims to empower people from the marginalized and poor communities by training them in the basics of law and the procedures to be followed if there is a legal issue; they act as a bridge between the legal system and those who need help.

An advocate assigned by the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA) trains people interested in offering legal services. Once they have been trained, volunteers get identity cards that are valid for a year, and are extended by the DLSA based on their performance. “Besides imparting awareness on the legal system, we are also trained to counsel and amicably settle disputes between the parties. We work with various stakeholders, including the police, rights-based activists and officials from the social welfare department," explains Mahalaxmi. For each counselling session, she’s paid 250.

Mahalaxmi heard about the scheme in 2010-11, when the Delhi-based Centre for Advocacy and Research (Cfar) reached out to the Tamil Nadu AIDS Initiative, a project supported by Avahan in Salem that works to spread awareness—it is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s India AIDS Initiative. “After the death of my first husband (in an accident) and a failed second marriage, I resorted to sex work to support my family. But once I was diagnosed as HIV positive, I decided to change the trajectory of my life," she says.

“I have been actively involved in helping HIV patients and sex workers. Even as a paralegal volunteer, my focus is on them since they are among the most discriminated communities," says Mahalaxmi, who also works as a volunteer for Cfar in Salem and helps sex workers understand basic laws. For this, Cfar pays her 7,500 a month.

Since late 2014, she has handled over 50 cases, ranging from land disputes to wrongful detention, as a paralegal volunteer.

Staying inspired: “Earlier, I never had a chance to think about myself, let alone dream. But when I came to know about paralegal volunteering, it gave me a reason to not just live, but live a better, more respectful life. And what makes this dream worth the effort is that I get to help people," she says.

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