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Food for Thought

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By Savitri Narayanan

The summer sun grew hot and shone bright on the streets of Muzaffarnagar as Arun came out of the school auditorium. The event continued on the stage as Arun quietly walked out. He had listened to the Chief Guest’s speech, met the local dignitaries and clicked enough photographs.

‘More than enough for a two-column report,’ he told himself as he kick-started his scooter and drove off.

The next assignment was to interview a local politician. Their party office was in Suman Nagar, just a kilometre away. ‘That gives me an hour’s break,’ he thought, ‘if only I could find a place to relax and have a cool drink I could even quickly put down the report!’

As Arun drove around looking for a spot, he saw the municipal garden. It was a large circular area around which were a few residential colonies. There were plenty of trees and cement benches. It seemed like a common meeting point for people of all ages.The kind of place where, in the evenings, children of the neighbourhood came over with their bats, rackets and balls, found their own spaces to play. Arun felt good as he sat down on a cement bench, pulled out the water bottle from his backpack and took a large sip.

It was then that he noticed something interesting. Across the cobbled pathway was an elderly couple with a row of people lined up in front of them. The couple looked relaxed and cheerful as they served food. People of all ages lined up and, once they received their food, sat around to eat. There was an air of familiarity and warmth. They sat in small groups, exchanged smiles and chatted with each other as they ate.

‘What’s happening here!’ thought Arun with the journalist’s instinct to smell out interesting news. ‘Who were these people?  Did the couple come here every day?’

The gentleman’s face looked familiar but Arun could not place him.

Soon, two people came and quietly took away the containers. The couple too got up. Arun walked up to them with a greeting.

“I’ve been watching you distribute food to all these people and you look familiar.”

“So?” smiled the gentleman.

“If you can spare time, let’s chat for a while,” said Arun, moving towards the park bench, “I’m curious!”

“Meet my wife Lakshmi,” said the gentleman, “We’re here daily from 12 to 1”.

“You mean you come here every day and distribute food to the poor people?”

“Yes, we do and if we can’t make it, our staff does it,” smiled the gentleman, “but nobody around goes hungry!”

‘You look familiar but can’t really place…!’, thought Arun scanning his memory and then it struck him,

“You’re the owner of Mealtime café, right?”

“Yes, God has been kind!” he smiled. “I own the hotel, have many regular customers and make lots of money!”

“Then why do you come here to distribute food?”

It was Lakshmi who answered.

“We’ve seen tough times,” she said. “We know how it is to be hungry and have nothing to eat!”

“There were days when we drank lots and lots of water to get that feeling of fullness in the stomach!” added the gentleman, his thoughts far away.

As the conversation went on, Arun got carried into a different world…

Like umpteen young men of those days, Shivakumar too had migrated from a village in Rajasthan to make it big in Delhi. They had rented a small room in one of the small lanes. Life was very different from the village. Soon Lakshmi got used to sharing the washrooms and the water taps with the other families in the lane. They would get up very early in the morning. Lakshmi was good at making aloo paranthas which she made plenty and quickly, too. By the time the sun was up, Shivakumar would already be seated with them under the neem tree on Agra Road. He owned a foldable table, and a few stools which at night he stored in the neighbouring shop.

Soon Shivakumar had regular customers, mainly college students and office-goers who stopped by for a quick bite. He was earning well and life was picking up when disaster struck.

There was an announcement that nobody was allowed to sell things on the pavement. One day a police van came announcing something on the loudspeaker.

Two days later came the van again. They drove very slowly, followed by uniformed policemen with long sticks in their hands. As they approached, the street-vendors quickly packed up their things and ran away. Shivakumar too managed to escape with his things. Days moved from bad to worse. To save the rent, he vacated the room and Lakshmi boarded a train back to their village. Shivakumar slept on the park-bench holding on to his bags. Every morning he would roam around looking for work. When hunger gnawed the insides, he would head for the water tap and soon return to  the spot under the tree.

The eatery across was a busy place. They were there for a few years now and had regular customers. Its owner was the first person Shivakumar approached for help.

Uncleji, give me some work, I will do anything, anywhere!”

“Wish I could help you, betey”, he was kind but clear, “We don’t have enough work for another person!”

Unable to find a job, as usual, Shivakumar would return to his spot under the neem tree. He noticed, in the eatery across, something was not right. The blue tub of used dishes was full, and customers were waiting.

Shivakumar crossed the road. “Uncleji, let me help you!” he said and carried the tub of used dishes to the backyard. Soon he was back with the clean plates which he placed on the counter.

“Aren’t you the one who came here the other day looking for work?” asked the owner. “You can definitely help around today as Vijay is finding it difficult to do the cooking and wash the dishes!”

Soon Shivakumar fell into the rhythm. By the time the tub of clean dishes was on the counter, the other tub was full, waiting to be washed.

There was a respite soon. There were no more customers waiting. Uncleji sat down on his stool and pulled out his lunchbox which he always carried from home.

“You too must be hungry, eat something,” he said, signaling to Vijay, who passed on a plate of paranthas.

Shivakumar took one look and burst into tears. The last meal he had was the day before! A lady was sharing Prasad outside the temple. In fact, he had taken a second helping too!

Uncleji sensed his distress and said, “Food is God, betey, no tears here; eat happily!”

Tears flowed down his cheeks as his thoughts went back. Arun too could sense a sob in his throat.

“Even today, the taste of that halwa and those paranthas stay with me!” said the gentleman.

Soon things looked up for Shivakumar.Uncleji saw how honest and devoted the boy was and got work for him in his friend’s hotel. In a year, when that friend opened a hotel in Dubai, Shivakumar too went there as the kitchen in charge. In a few years he was back home with enough funds to own his own hotels.

“It’s been so inspiring to know you, sir,” said Arun, “I happen to be a journalist; please may I take your photographs and do a feature on you for our newspaper?”

“Of course not!” said the gentleman, “We do this not for publicity; this is our way of paying back to the community, a way of remembering all those people who helped us to reach here!”

“Find another story, young man”, he smiled at Arun and got up, “Let’s go home, Lakshmi!”

Arun looked at his watch and headed to interview the politician.

(The writer is a retired educationist presently settled in
Bengaluru. A mother, a grandmother, she loves reading, writing and travellinng).