Dean Nelson is an award-winning investigative journalist and foreign correspondent. He spent ten years in Delhi covering India and the South Asia region from Afghanistan to Myanmar and beyond, first for the Sunday Times and later for the Daily Telegraph. He lives in Edinburgh with his wife and three children and continues to travel in Asia on assignment. Below you can read an excerpt from his book, Jugaad Yatra. Courtesy: Aleph.
Excerpt from Jugaad Yatra by Dean Nelson
As a young newlywed, Dharamveer fled his father’s tiny smallholding in Haryana’s Damla village in fear of local moneylenders. He had borrowed to pay his late mother’s hospital bills but he couldn’t make the payments. He left his young wife and baby daughter and, with just a few rupees and a wedding gift watch, headed for Delhi. He sold the watch to a local wine shop owner for `70, spent `35 on a bus ticket, and a few hours later he was one of the thousands of young migrants who arrive in the capital every day searching for work. Within days he was a human beast of burden, a cycle rickshaw puller heaving overfed traders and tourists through the Walled City’s baked streets by day, and sleeping contorted and exhausted on his trike by night.
It was while taking fruit traders to the Khari Baoli spice market that he first saw the seeds of an idea which would transform him from laughing stock and marked man to the wealthiest and most respected in his village and beyond.
He had overheard traders complaining about the problems they faced in processing amla. He tucked it away and mulled it over when he finally returned to his village eight months later with the cash to repay his creditors.
He had been an indifferent student at school, skipping classes when the going got tough, but he had always been resourceful on the farm. When he was eleven, he had rescued his family from a financial crisis by rebuilding their sugar cane crusher which had been declared irreparable by the mechanic just as they were about to juice a bumper crop.
At thirteen, when electricity became more widely accessible in the village, he created a cheap hotplate with clay plates, discarded oil drums and electric coils. He sold them for `12 each to every housewife in his village who preferred them to the 50-rupee factory-made ovens on sale in the market. It is still known in his village as the ‘Jugaad Heater’.
‘We used a tin box, clay plate and element to make our hotplate and first used it in our homes. Soon, there was huge demand for it in the village. Our hotplate was priced `12 and the villagers, particularly women, liked it. Until then they’d had to use firewood to cook but our hotplate made it easy for them to cook instantly,’ he said.
When he was seventeen, he made battery-powered emergency lights for his local hospital, which kicked in during power cuts. Unfortunately none of his inventions made the kind of money his family needed to pay their medical bills or keep the moneylenders at bay. He had hoped his skills would help him land a good job in the capital but after two weeks his money was running out fast and he spent his last few rupees on renting a cycle rickshaw.
The life of a cycle rickshawwala in Old Delhi is harsh and punishing. They are too many of them, competition is fierce and fares are low. Often they pedal families of four uphill in 40 °C heat on boiling roads. It is back-breaking work and then there are stick-wielding policemen who slash their tyres and demand bribes. ‘The income was meagre and I often lined up outside temples for food brought by devotees. I carried my 10th grade certificate with me all the time, thinking I might meet someone who could give me a job,’ he said.
The certificate didn’t help, but his knowledge of traditional herbs and spices, which he’d learned from his mother as a child, did. Many of his passengers were fruit processors and dried fruit buyers searching for supplies in the spice market and Dharamveer became a sought-after guide. He sent money home to his family and saved to clear his debt.
A fractured leg from a road accident eventually forced him to return to his village where he was bedridden for four months with plenty of time to think about his future. When he finally emerged he started growing aloe vera in his fields and met government agriculture officials to research processing methods. He joined a government scheme which gave grants of `25,000 for farmers to start their own processing plants, but it was only a fraction of the `100,000 he needed to buy the processing equipment. He decided to make his own. ‘I had examined the machines in Ajmer and Pushkar and decided to use a copper vessel, thinking that if the venture fails I can rent it to villagers for wedding ceremonies,’ he said.
He found a roadside steel fabricator and started working on his design. He fitted grinders, juicers and mixers to the top of the vessel but struggled to build the condenser he needed to process the fruit. After eleven months, the fabricator told him it wasn’t working and he couldn’t help him any longer. ‘I gave him `40,000 and took the unfinished machine to my home. For another three months, I worked on it. I was so engaged with it that I often used to skip my meals,’ he said.
As the amount of time and money he spent on his machine increased, the patience of his father and wife began to wear thin. In 2005, he was forced to sell his house and a portion of his land to repay bank loans he had taken. ‘I was devoting too much time to my creative work. My financial condition was such that I was unable to pay school fees of my children and they were almost shunted out of the school. Many people in my village as well as my relatives thought I was crazy and that I would ruin my life. My family was traumatized by the taunts. It was difficult for them to ignore the jibes and at times they would get angry with me,’ he said.
Despite their misgivings Dharamveer refused to give up. ‘I had always had this urge to do something different and believed nothing is impossible. I knew I had some special talent. I didn’t let it die but worked to find alternate mediums to achieve my goals. Perseverance is important, all great men had been bullied and put down by people around them but they believed in themselves and had their eyes on the goal rather than people who would criticize them,’ he explained.
Sixteen months and many tweaks later, his perseverance paid off and he finally unveiled his creation. ‘The machine was able to grind, condense, chop, peel, process and mix herbs, vegetables, fruits and it was portable. It saved time and money for small farmers in our village and became an instant hit,’ he said.
It had cost him years of toil, ridicule and money he didn’t have—`1,40,000 and eight years—but he started selling it under his own brand name ‘Homemade by Kissan Dharambir Damla’ and also established his own processing business extracting rose water, grinding aloe vera into gel and peeling garlic. The machine makes jams, purees and ketchup which he sells under the brand name ‘Prince’ after his son, an IT graduate who now works in the family business.