Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Hawker

Whenever I am in Kanpur, I am woken up, every morning, by the call of the vegetable hawker. He pushes his cart, or the thela, street to street, calling out the names of the vegetables sitting in small heaps on the cart. It can be very irritating to be woken up by a shrill voice drilling into your ears, but each morning, the moment I go up to the terrace and light my first cigarette of the day, I forgive the hawker. He is, after all, doing his job.

It is not easy being a hawker. You are the managing director-cum-salesman of your one-man company whose fortunes vary day to day. The company's policy is clear: keep starvation at bay. So each hawker comes up with a signature tune to get housewives out of their homes and wave him down. I don't know if hawkers try out various ways of calling out before settling for one particular style that catches their fancy, or whether they naturally evolve a style during their initial days on the job. Either way, they know how to be effective.

Why don't you ever miss the call, Chai! chai!, which usually modulates into a throaty Chaayeh! chaayey!, at railway stations? Not only that: the way he calls out actually makes you want to have tea!

Ditto for the vegetable hawker. There are usually about half a dozen varieties of vegetables adorning his cart. So which vegetable should figure first and which the last in his self-made, crude, orchestra-less jingle? And what should be the order of the vegetables that find mention in between? Obviously, there is a method to it -- a secret the hawker alone knows. All I know is that he is bloody effective: the modulation in his voice tickles your gastric juices and makes you buy his stuff. He spares you a trip to the vegetable shop or the supermarket, while you spare him of poverty -- at least for that day. In other words, his target for the day has been achieved.

Now look at the number of CEOs who, in spite of sporting medals of education and experience on their chests, keep getting fired every other day for failing to achieve targets. And this guy, the hawker, is not even educated. He is not even a poet or a lyricist or a copywriter. Yet he is able to compose a one-liner and set it to a tune that is catchy enough to draw housewives out of their houses and flock to his cart.

The way I look at it, the CEO merely seeks to implement what he has learnt in the classroom, whereas the hawker, who has never seen a classroom, has his finger on the pulse of his target audience. You will notice one thing about them: no hawker ever apes the other. Each one tries to be distinctly different while calling out.

Also, classroom-educated CEOs are usually scared to deviate from what they've read in the textbooks. They are scared to take risks. The hawker, on the other hand, has no textbooks to fall back on. Hardship is his textbook, and he does not hesitate taking risks because he has nothing to lose. It is, therefore, not surprising at all that many of the business magnates who get written about in the papers today were once upon a time hawkers or petty shopkeepers.

Of what use, then, is qualification? Qualification, at best, can earn you bread and butter and maybe a decent life. That's about it. It won't take you up there, where you want to be. Dhirubhai Ambani never went to a business school, Amitabh Bachchan never went to the film institute, Hemingway did not take a course in creative writing, Mahendra Singh Dhoni did not enrol in an expensive cricket academy, Capt. Gopinath was only a pilot and not a businessman -- the list is endless. The finest sub-editor I've ever come across, Peter Mosley, the former and highly respected news editor of Reuters, never went to a journalism school. I spent two weeks with him in London, learning the nuances of news writing and editing, and the humble man never shied away from mentioning that he started off his career in Reuters as the boy who served tea.

Why are these people what they are? Because, in some way or the other, they are like the hawker who wakes me every morning when I am in Kanpur.


Anonymous said...

very, very well written. You just made me homesick for my vegetable guy back home in Chennai :)

Anonymous said...

Ten on ten!

janani sampath said...

The same applies to initial nondescript dhabbawallahs for their organisation skills and coordination.

They went on to become fine examples of entrepreneurship.

And, I love this post...:)

Anonymous said...

Bang on! Found myself nodding in agreement all through... well argued, well said, well put, and , yes, well done!

sreelatha said...

creatively connected..really thought provoking..guess u can connect a hawker to a CEO with so much ease..:)

Kasturi said...

...pretty informative Ghosh. Never knew Peter Mosley served tea!

margee said...

BINGO ! WELL SAID...hawkers here or there are same...their wrk is their classroom and yes,only who considers life as their teacher and wrk as their classroom , gonna reach d doubt...! but BG..u express it so well !

Anonymous said...

:-) Good one..

Frustrations Amalgamated said...

The most important thing is that they have work ethics. Effective brand communication and brand management at its best. Nice post

Anoop Ravindran said...

fine piece