Kallu Miya was dying from tuberculosis. His tanga was my classroom—as we peddled tea and coffee, Misraji and I used to discuss everything under the sun.

Kallu Miya was dark, looked older than he was, and his face usually wore a large toothy grin. He was convinced that Misraji would employ him forever, paying him the going rate of Rs17 a day.

I remember the salesmen pooling in money, speaking to the accounts officer whose brother was a doctor in the government hospital, and getting Kallu treated—India’s own social security number was at work.

It was my first winter in Allahabad, and my first job. The weather was crisp and cold, the puri bhaji was delicious, and I was learning to enjoy the pleasure of warm milk and hot jalebis. But most of all, I was beginning to appreciate the bazaars in town.

Everyday, after dinner, I would write reports for by branch manager to read. Once a week, I would be administered a test. I think the sales team, warehouse keepers, drivers and clerks had a book going on the chances of me being made an officer.

But I was learning.

I learnt that Allahabad was not New Delhi, that you could not sell everything to everyone. I learnt about frugality. I learnt about how people in towns like Allahabad thought.

In Civil Lines, we sold some Taj Mahal tea and in the chowk, we sold Super and A1 Dust. Long before sachets were to emerge as a life-changing innovation for consumer goods companies, Brooke Bond paper bags, called paise packets (10p, 25p and 50p), were popular. Then, there were roadside tea stalls that bought large packs that we renamed jumbo packs. I remember that the brand manager who came up with the idea for these packs got promoted.

I learnt the complexity of distribution. Listing outlets, mapping their needs, organizing route plans, and appointing intermediaries or dealers is a process that requires a great level of detailing. Companies like ITC, Hindustan Unilever Ltd (then Hindustan Lever Ltd; and Brooke Bond was a separate company till it merged with HLL in the 1990s) have mapped markets large and small over the past 80 years. Misraji and his tribe knew every little village, every haat and mela, the local defence canteen (which was a big customer); they knew the families that owned the outlets and helped them build businesses.

While Allahabad was my base camp, I had to round off my sales training as a management trainee in Varanasi and Ballia. All I knew about the latter was that a young turk called Chandrasekhar was the local member of parliament and that the place had a reputation for being dangerous.

Varanasi was where I first went solo—managing a sales route for six weeks. Shiv Poojan was my head loader near the Benaras Hindu University; after lunch, we would head back down the ghats. Our route would pass little temples, houses built one on top of another in a seemingly haphazard way, shops run by chatty keepers, and tea stalls filled with patrons who would debate issues as if they were deciding the fate of the country.

I learnt to sell seven brands of tea in different grades, prices, sizes and packs. I learnt to shelve them, put up posters, streamers, and make a local adhesive called lai with maida. I learnt to be impatient with product managers I had never seen because they never listened to sales people on products, pricing, merchandising and media plans.

Shiv Poojan knew what sold in each outlet, who the consumers were, what they bought and in what quantity. He also knew when they would buy more or less. He knew how tea consumption changed with seasons.

From him, I learnt to sell and to collect cash. I learnt that dumping products on outlets meant eating into the working capital of the shopkeeper, and eventually ruining the freshness of the tea and creating customer dissatisfaction.

But there were other things I learnt in eastern Uttar Pradesh. It dawned on me that India was a large country—larger than my imagination.

And many months later, when I was posted in Jalgaon and received a message on Kallu Miya’s death, I learnt that much of India lived like Kallu Miya, dependent on small parts and last mile activities of large companies.

The ghats of Varanasi are where many Hindus come to immerse the ashes of their dead, partly as an attempt to relieve themselves of the trauma of life and death. Kallu Miya’s poverty, lack of opportunity and death made me realize what drives many Indians.

Subroto Chattopadhyay incubates new businesses as chairman of The Peninsula Foundation, and also advises companies and development agencies.

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