Caring for the uncared
Service his style leaves little space for anything else. He doesn't read the newspapers or watch television, this is how PAVITHRA KRISHNAN, describes Mr. Krishnan, a friend of the `disabled' poor.
Serving those with a thought for food
THREE YEARS ago a young man on vacation was cycling through the streets of Madurai when he came across a person sitting under a bridge eating his own waste. The stark desperation of the sight shook him profoundly and drastically altered the course of his life.
Today, 23-year-old Krishnan cooks and distributes food to at least a hundred people on the streets of Madurai. Each day he starts at 5.30 a.m. and ends at 10.30 p.m. offering breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Service his style leaves little space for anything else. He doesn't read the newspapers or watch television. He doesn't go out with friends or take vacations. But he can cut a kilo of onions in four minutes flat and make 100 different varieties of pickle. His fragrant, homemade `garam masala' has 30 separate ingredients in it. He regrets nothing.
A week after the encounter under the bridge, Krishnan, known to family and friends as Kishore, resigned from a high-salaried position with a leading luxury hotel in Bangalore. A position he had spent years training for and dreaming of.
"I felt I had unfinished work in Madurai," he says simply.
He returned home and told his anxious family that he intended to feed people on the street, who couldn't feed themselves. He began that very same day, starting with the man under the bridge.
By the end of the week he was buying food packets from roadside stalls and feeding a dozen different people on a daily basis. Krishnan was 20 then, a gold medallist with a B.Sc. (Hons) in Catering Technology. He chose to walk away from the start of a dream career. He chose to wander the streets in search of the hungry.
His mother says they should have seen it coming. As a child, whenever Krishnan received a bar of chocolate he would split it with everyone around. Later, when his father met with an accident and was hospitalised, he made a habit of sharing the eatables brought by well-wishers with other patients in the hospital's HIV and cancer wards.
Now, Krishnan is obsessed with taking that inherent gift of giving to new extremes.
Krishnan opted to remain unemployed but continue feeding a steadily increasing number of people on the streets. With diminishing savings, he stopped buying food packets and began cooking each meal himself. This was a familiar territory.
During his short stint with the hotel, Krishnan was assigned to the main kitchen and his job was to assess and monitor measurements for orders in hundreds, often thousands. Now he drew on that experience to cater to the growing number of people he was serving on the streets.
A year into this unique service, a family friend donated a Maruti van for transport and distribution. The next year a young man, Mani, left his job in a local hotel to join the cause. Financial support started trickling gradually from people who began hearing about Krishnan's service.
With donations pouring in, Krishnan realized the need for a proper system that ensured accountability.
In June 2003, he founded a non-profit trust called `Akshaya', after that wondrously inexhaustible vessel in Hindu mythology. His parents built a separate kitchen for him in their home and gave him their blessings. His father, an insurance agent is one of Akshaya's stand-in driver and often pitches in to chop vegetables and package supplies. Though it is still sometimes hard for both parents to deal with their son's decision and their own disappointed dreams they are proud of his dedication.
Route of distribution
Today, Krishnan and Mani's distribution route covers 110 kilometres daily. They start from Krishnan,s home -- and Akshaya's headquarters -- in Doak Nagar and cover ground that includes Arasaradi, North Veli Street, Tamukkam, Goripalayam, East and South Veli Streets, Palanganatham and more. They cover this route thrice a day.
Krishnan drives while Mani ladles the still-steaming meals onto homemade plates of newsprint and butter paper.
Their van stops wherever they see someone in need. They stop on top of bridges and at the middle of traffic junctions, in busy markets, at bus stops and the railway station. They pull up next to billboards and into side streets, often for the sake of just one person who they know will go hungry, or worse if their food is not delivered.
Pointing to one man, Krishnan says, "Yesterday we were running a little late and when we got here we found him eating from the garbage."
Akshaya has a firm policy of not feeding able-bodied people who beg for a living. It focuses on people who are mentally unwell, have other forms of disability or have been abused and abandoned. Some of them know their names, and where they are from. Many do not.
One man Krishnan regularly feeds believes that he is a Pandya King. Some of them are native Tamilians. Others have been brought here and abandoned by relatives from places as far away as Pune, Bhopal, Gujarat, and even Kashmir.
Maaji, Bhaiya, Aiyyaâ --even the nameless he addresses with the respect, often slipping out of his sandals before serving them food. Because of their condition many are incapable even of demonstrating gratitude. They eat what is given to them. They do not ask for more or less and they do not say thank you. But Krishnan is not looking for any of this. "Serving them is a privilege. These are not ordinary people but special souls," he believes.
Preparing the food himself gives Krishnan the added advantage of being able to maintain quality standards. "Just because they are on the streets is not an excuse to give them poor quality food," he says firmly. "I serve what I myself eat."
Krishnan's menu is cyclic and takes into consideration not just the nutritional value of the food but also seasonal variations. `Idli', `Venn Pongal' and `Bissibelabath', are some of his standard meals. Twice a week he serves Biriyani with raita, and once a week a sweet dish is distributed as a special treat.
Along with food, Krishnan also gets clothing and water. When he finds someone unwell he helps them access medical care.
A few of his "regulars" have been rehabilitated to the extent that they sometimes follow him home and try and help in his kitchen. So far he has admitted 30-odd women from the streets to Mother Teresa's Home. But he is aware of the city's insufficient centres for the needy. It is his dream to expand Akshaya's services and have a shelter where people can be housed and clothed, fed and treated.
Though he has introduced several cost-effective measures in his work, Krishnan is determined not to compromise on the quality of his food and service. Right from petrol and cooking gas to the smallest sprig of mint, Akshaya's expenses are all accounted for and Krishnan maintains meticulous record.
To serve 100 people three fresh meals, it costs Akshaya Rs.2000 a day. So far 20 individuals have sponsored a day's cost every month.
The remaining days get covered by unexpected donations from people wanting to make a special gesture of service on their birthdays or in memory of a relative.
Krishnan admits if they have 10 more regular donors in place it would free them up considerably to start thinking in terms of enhancing their services.
It bothers him that at present they do not have the resources to cover nearby areas like Paravai, Nagamalai Puddukottai and Melur.
As he distributes one of the last meals of the day to a man crouched on the pavement, a rickshawallah standing close by recognises him and says with a smile and folded hands, "Neenga nallarukanumaiya."
Krishnan laughs and says softly, "Ellarum Nallarukanum" and zips off in search of the next person in need.
The members of Akshaya can be contacted on: 9843319933 or 5353439.
Send this article to Friends by