Just a face in the crowd...but not for long

City Life DELHI
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The Independent Online
DREAMS OF being unexpectedly showered with wealth, perhaps even achieving fame, are not peculiar to Indians. But in a land where the population is within a whisker of a billion people, a sizeable minority of them toiling anonymously way below the poverty line, the desire for both is particularly intense.

The tale of how Sham Lal attained both has resonance for India's army of poor far beyond his neighbours in the tangle of teeming lanes of Delhi's old city.

Sham Lal is as far as you could imagine from the younger, brasher breed of get-rich-quick Indians. The nouveau rich, though, who manifest themselves at their least appealing as fat yuppie Punjabi businessmen ("puppies" as they're called), merely heighten the appetite for wealth.

In contrast, the octogenarian dhobi-wallah of this story is a model from an earlier, simpler era. In the traditional Hindu way he had accepted the hand that fate had dealt him, while perhaps secretly hoping that the virtues of hard work and prayer would pay off in the next life. His reward came sooner than expected.

For Sham Lal, about 80 (though no one, least of all himself, knows his exact age) his craggy old face proved to be his fortune. Several years ago, as he stood outside his make-shift shop in the narrow lanes of Delhi's Spice Market, where he spreads clothes on the ground for ironing, he was photographed sipping a chai (sweet, milky tea) by an American tourist.

Topless in the stifling heat, with only a traditional dhoti loin-cloth to preserve his modesty, old Lal made quite a startling impression. He never gave it another thought. But the tourist had in fact been the president of a American-based tea company on his honey moon in India.

Long after his return to the US, the Tazo Tea executive was scratching around for an image to front an advertising campaign. He hit on the idea that Lal's holiday snap portrait fitted the bill. Unknown to the dhobi, he found himself spearheading an American ad campaign. He had become famous.

That might have been the end of the saga, but for the Tazo Tea president's American sense of fair play. A few weeks ago he decided that Lal ought to be be paid for his trouble, and worked out a modelling fee on the basis of what he would have earned from a two-hour shoot in the US.

The difficult part was handing over the cheque. Finding Lal among the warren of the old city would have been difficult at the best of times, but with no name and no address to go on, it was a daunting task.

Yet Tazo Tea's agent in Delhi went about it with admirable gusto. Every day for more than two weeks they scoured the crumbling slums.Finally, after getting nowhere, they plastered the whole area with blown-up versions of the original picture and copies of the advertising poster, together with appeals to contact the agents if anyone knew of his whereabouts.

It paid off. One of Lal's two sons spotted his father's face smiling down at him from a poster. The agents handed over a cheque for 20,000 rupees (pounds 350). The next problem, of course, was that the old man did not even have a bank account where he could cash his newly-acquired small fortune, though this was quickly resolved by his son.

Like many who have come by windfalls, Sham Lal has not allowed it to change his life - much. He still collects his customers' laundry and takes it to the banks of the city's filthy Yamuna River. Just as he has done for decades, the clothes are washed overnight in a huge boiler, before being laid out to dry ready for ironing. Only now he has lessened his work-load a little.

The modelling fee enabled him to pay off a sizeable slice of his debts which he had run up marrying off each of his six daughters, perhaps a burden anywhere, but a particular financial liability in India. As is the custom he had paid for an elaborate wedding for each, and also had to stump up a dowry for the grooms and their families.

He had raised the money by borrowing from his customers, and repaying the loans in kind, or from the meagre earnings of his dhobi business. It was an mill-stone that would have ensured he worked till he dropped. Literally. Until he smiled. And fortune smiled back.